What is Social Capital?

Collective Action

You are probably familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma.

prisoner's dillemma

For those who don’t know, here’s a quick summation. The prisoner’s dilemma is the archetypical game theory situation. See the above example. If both players confess, both loose 6 points of utility. If neither confess, both loose one point of utility. But if one confesses, and the other doesn’t, the player that doesn’t confess looses 10 points of utility, and the other sees no change.

What would be best for the two of them, together, would be to neither confess. But that won’t happen, because what’s best for any one player is to confess. The maximum total utility is in the bottom-right quadrant. However, no matter what player 2 does, the best choice for player 1 is always to confess, and similar with player 2.

The prisoner’s dilemma is generalizable to the situation it represents: where the best choice for an individual player is not the best for the set of players.

I have left off an important variable. In real life, games do not have just two players, but many. It is difficult to represent a 3-player game in the above format, because it would require an additional dimension. The best we can do is a decision tree:


decision tree.gif
The game trees are typically used for sequential-move games, while the matrix is used for simultaneous-move games. However, the tree also makes it easier to portray games with many players, because the matrix only has two dimensions.

At this point, the term collective action problem is more appropriate.

Don’t worry about the tree chart. it’s not important to understand it. Just understand the general principle that game theory situations described above can have any number of players.

But there is another important variable I have left off. Is the “game” played just once, or continuously? If continuously, tit-for-tat may be in the best interest of both. It facilitates cooperation.

Below Dunbar’s number, it is possible to answer collective action problems with trust. Beyond that point, institutions are necessary.

True communism can only work in populations below Dunbar’s number (the maximum number of people you can know well). In communities of that size, everyone is able to trust everyone else, which is alone enough for social cohesion. Beyond that point, the absence of institutions (government, religion, etc.) only creates a power vacuum. Communism’s (at least rhetorical) degradation of social institutions like democracy or the family has disastrous effects on “social capital”.

Social Capital

There are a large set of collective action problems in society. There are things we have laws against, like murder and stealing. But then there are subtle things, like how people behave as a crowd. Whether people take leadership roles in their communities. Whether people take care of the needy. Or whether people recognize each other on the street.

I put it to you that how a population responds to this set of problems forms the backbone of social capital.

This brings me to the question in this post’s title. I will introduce the answer with the notorious social scientist Charles murray (8:35-9:30):

Put aside your view of Murray and/or the political views he wishes to promote; the fact is that when it comes to social capital he knows what he’s talking about.

In essence, social capital is the strength of institutions, networks, and communities. A sense civic or community duty, and shame in not exercising it. (1) Connections and support networks within communities, and (2) the question: do people do good for society even when no one is looking, and do they feel a sense of shame for not doing so?

As mentioned above, institutions play an important role in bringing about social capital. This includes: religion, government, the family unit, various community groups, academia, and even businesses. Institutions have systems in place to influence our decisions towards the best interest of society. In doing so, together move the needle on the set of collective action problems in society. Before you claim oppression, institutions don’t need to be coercive (although they can be).

In small towns, people tend to know each other, which allows the institutions to be non-coercive (religion and community groups). In big cities, you come into contact with people you don’t know every day, some of whom have different interests than you, so a coercive institution is called for (government). This is probably a big reason why big cities are more left-leaning than small towns.

As a brief aside, an honor culture is a system that forces people into line, in the absence of coercive institutions present to maintain a formal justice system. I would like to learn more before I elaborate on this.

Assessment Questions

You’ve been introduced to social capital as a concept. Let’s try to ground the metric, and come up with survey questions for determining perceived social capital, broad enough to peek at its various faucets, but also specific enough to allow for concrete assessments.

I am not an academic. This is intended only as a fun thought experiment. Here are the survey questions I came up with:

  1. You need help. Imagine either a serious and immediate need of money, or a recent and serious psychological trauma, or an eviction. What people/families/institutions/groups might offer you help if you asked for it? Be as comprehensive as possible, thinking outside the box, and describing the exact type of help.
  2. How many people in your community do you know well enough that you would greet them if you saw them on the street? How many of these people would you call close friends?
  3. You are eating outdoors, and you produce some trash. There is no trash can nearby. What do you do with the trash? If you throw it away, do you recycle?
  4. If you have kids, state their age ranges, and whether you would allow the kid to play outside unsupervised. If so, how far outside your house?
  5. What is your connect, if any, to charities?
  6. You notice that an communal in your neighborhood is in a serious state of disrepair. do you have confidence that your neighbors would get together to restore it? And would you join in to help? Alternatively, there is a water shortage where you live, and there is a campaign to reduce water waste – would you your water use to help the community? Do you think others will?
  7. How much do you worry about the safety where you live? What type of crime do you worry about, if any? Is there some sort of turmoil or unrest in your region that effects your community? if so, what? And what if anything are you doing to remedy it?
  8. In what ways are you involved with your community? for example, are you part of a school’s parent-teacher council? Do you participate in a therapy group or similar gathering?
  9. Who makes the rules in your government/community/etc, and do you trust each of these people? Do you have confidence that you can influence your government to bring about a desirable result? Your local government? Your national government?
  10. Your mistake inconveniences a commuter and makes that person late for work. How much time are you willing to spend to help that person? how much of your income are you willing to give up to help that person?
  11. Are there any ethnicities, classes, religious groups, etc., that you believe cannot be fully trusted, and if so, state what they are and what about them you are concerned with.
  12. You hear the couple that lives next door shouting at each other. From what you can tell, it seem that they begin to enter into some sort of brawl/altercation. Do you intervene? If not, do you trust that someone else will? A member of the authorities, or a concerned citizen?
  13. Do you think it is valuable to listen to most journalists?
  14. How much do you agree with this statement: I would be happier if only I lived somewhere else?
  15. What do you do for fun? Do you do it by yourself or with others? How much time do you spend on each of these?

Case Study: Japan

I grew up in Japan, so I can attest to the impressive level of social capital present in the country.

  • In Japan, young schoolchildren walk to school every day rather than riding the school but. This is possible because of two facts. First, parents do not worry about child predators, because of the low crime level. Second, the schools are in walking distance of the homes. Both of these facts are symptomatic of high social capital.
  • Crowd control in Japan is almost comedic in its quality. (See here and here). No one forced them to do this; they do this because of social capital.
  • The trains are all very modern and arrive on time. When they are late, formal acknowledgements  are handed out documenting the delay.
  • Even menial workers take their job very seriously, and act professionally. Just search “Japanese train conductor” on youtube, and open any video.
  • Community exercising like this is common in schools and businesses. That is not gym class; that is the type of group morning exercises that a good chuck of Japan’s population takes part in every day.
  • There are a number of cultural idiosyncrasies, the likes of which would be uncommon in other such industrialized countries. Bowing is common. Children say the ceremonial, “itadakimasu” before every single meal. Who is watching, and forcing the itadakimasu? Nobody, people do it because it is tradition. And don’t get me started on office culture. You always hand someone a business card with two hands. When the boss enters the room, everyone stands.
  • Foreigners have remarked on an apparent lack of trash cans in Japan. Japanese will travel as far as they need to to find a trash cans.
  • This is subjective, but Japanese are exceptionally organized.
  • People in Japan are taught from a young age to behave well for the sake of society, and to place it above themselves.

The reasons for Japan’s high social capital are not hard to see. Japan’s is among one of the most homogenous, intelligent, and educated population on Earth. It’s culture, despite what its media would have you believe, is quite modest and conservative. It’s culture goes back centuries, unbroken by upheaval despite word war.

Don’t let anime fool you. It is a reaction to the conformist culture. Japanese spend so much of their day on status pursuit (school, work), that you can’t blame them for using media as a release.

Case Study: China

This post has a lot of Japan-praising and China-bashing. If this frustrates you, just know that I will do the opposite in my future post about late-culture change-aversion.

I lived in China for three years. If there is one single proper description for China’s culture, it is poor social capital. A few examples:

  • People drive with no consideration for others on the road.
  • China lacks good Samaritan laws. As per Chinese law, if you hit someone with your car, it hurts you to help them, as opposed to deliberately killing them. Search “Chinese hit and run” into YouTube. NSFL. I personally knew someone who got drunk and was run over by multiple cars in China – no one stopped to help.
  • In China, the atomic unit of society is the family. That is the base institution, the only thing that people trust. By family, I mean blood relatives; your mother takes precedence over your wife. Chinese citizens will not burn any bridges, but if they have to choose between you and their family, they will not care about you. This is a negative only because it is taken to the extreme, sometimes at the expense of society’s interest. Friendships can be put at the cutting block.
  • China is the most atheist country on the planet. Religion is banned. In fact, all organized practice that even approaches religion is banned. Put your own thoughts on religion aside; we’re talking about social capital here.
  • The government is a powerful institution. However, the government is rife with corruption, and cannot be trusted. Government officials care about retaining their own power, not the benefit of people.
  • Aside from family, the only true motivator is money.
  • The traditional Chinese Hutongs are being bulldozed and replaced by concrete skyscraper apartments. I have been in these apartments. They are extremely depressing and lack culture. They are not conducive to social capital, especially compared to the old Hutongs. They represent superficial increase in prosperity and modernity, at the expense of culture and community.
  • China crowd-control is the opposite of Japan’s. Lining up is uncommon. Swarming is common. People will not respect lines.
  • There is a “first-come-first-serve” mentality in China.
  • China’s one-child policy, and the cultural practice of treating children as an insurance policy, has its consequences. Namely, a huge number of abandoned children.
  • Chinese government policies have created nation-wide cultural problems, like ghost cities, and the shortage of females.

China’s social capital was destroyed mostly as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, arguably the most horrific event in human history. As mentioned above, Communism destroys social capital in practice. All of the countries with terrible social capital were once communist.

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