The ways that too-weak family ties can harm society are frequently noted. But what about the other extreme — can overly strong family ties also harm society? Mark Silk at Religious News Service writes:
It has, of course, been an article of Republican faith for the past generation that strong families are the backbone of America, that strong commitment to family guarantees the health of the nation. But when it comes to the building up of social capital, it is anything but clear that strengthening our commitment to our families is a good thing.
In a famous study half a century ago, the political scientist Edward Banfield coined the term “amoral familism” to describe how family solidarities in a southern Italian village decreased engagement in and trust of the political community as a whole. Rather than see their futures wrapped up in the success of their country and civic community, the villagers sought to maximize their family’s situation by any means necessary, no matter what the cost to the larger community.
Over the past few years, economists studying social capital around the world have been studying the question anew, and have generally found that Banfield was on to something. In an important paper, Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano looked at 80 countries and found that those where the family ties were weakest tended to have the strongest levels of civic and political engagement and generalized social trust. And vice versa. The top performers in terms of civic engagement were northern European countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Germany. At the bottom were the Philippines, Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe.
(Via Daily Dish.)
I’ve heard this, too. In some societies, nepotism by public officials is considered corruption, while in others it’s an obligation.
Not to be a pedant (HE IS ABOUT TO BE HUGELY, IF RELEVANTLY, PEDANTIC) but “civic and political engagement” and “social trust” are not “good for society”. They are values that you, as well as other people, assign a premium too and desire to see more of; your preference is not an objective norm. But the fact that we desire something does not make it the good; a case can certainly be made that high levels of governmental engagement can have deleterious as well as beneficial effects on the polity. The Germans were pretty fuckin’ engaged.
Strong families may or may not affect societal engagement, but they can have a pretty negative effect on the freedom of action of individual family members, e.g. to marry or date whom they want, to have children if and when they choose to, to choose the career they prefer, etc etc.
Misspell re: ‘too-week’, should be ‘too-weak’, first sentence, first paragraph.
Eva, thanks for the correction!
I’ve been curious about this issue for some time. How often is “family” an excuse for looking out for one’s own and screw everybody else?
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the comment, “Everything I do is for the children” when they really mean “everything I do is for MY children… yours can go die in a fire.” How is that any less selfish than “everything I do is for me”? It’s just pure egotism extended one tiny step, from the self to little copies of the self.
Robert @2: “The Germans”, if by that you mean WWII-era Germans, were pretty fuckin’ all about family, too. Your pedantic argument could apply equally to the arbitrary value of “family” or “strong families” or “stability”.
Yeah. Kinder, Kirche, Kuche, or whatever that slogan was.
The more that people distinguish between “us” and “them,” the worse that society is w/r/t things that depends on collective action to function properly. That isn’t just about family; it also covers religion, race, sex, etc.
And it’s unsurprising. Almost all systems that are considered fair/just/equal/reasonable have one underlying similarity: some folks benefit more than others, because of how the process works. Whether it’s “the poor get more free food” or “the smart kids get better computers” or “the guilty party gets the jail time,” those systems have winners and losers.
You can set up a fair/just/reasonable/equal system to take some account of individual greed: the U.S. system generally assumes a lot of self interest. But it’s exponentially more difficult to take account of more widespread line-crossing. It’s very hard to prevent a general bias for/against a certain race, class, religion, or membership in a political party. Or–as happens–towards members of an enormous and well-tracked extended family.
As relationships are formally less relevant they also become more difficult to formally monitor. And that makes fighting corruption harder.
A fair point – although I think I would have cited the example of Communist China encouraging children to denounce their parents as insufficiently enthusiastic adherents to the faith. The problem arises when loyalty to family is replaced by loyalty to some other (presumptively unworthy) group.
Alternatively, we might identify the problem of anomie, in which loyalty to family is replaced with nihilism.
But if we want to organize society to optimize something, what would that something be?
I use the metaphor of climbing Everest. Climbers tend to climb in teams, with each member tied to the other team members. They don’t climb alone. But neither do they tie themselves to ALL other climbers from all other teams. There’s a balance.
Good topic! This needed to be said. Thanks.
I wonder about the direction of causality here. A society with high civic trust seems like it would encourage people to drift away from their families, since they don’t need to rely on them so much.
Fukuyama’s Trust is about how trust works in different cultures, but I haven’t read the book and don’t have an opinion about it.
Not sure if this reflects “trust” or a social safety net. I’ve heard the theory that religious participation is stronger in the US than in Europe in part because religious participation is the means by which people in the parts of the US build a social network which provide a social safety net. Religious organizations become mutual aid societies, the people who will come to the spaghetti dinners you use to raise money for little Brittney’s eye surgery. If you have a social safety net that does not rely on this type of social network – private insurance or government programs – then you can dispense with the burden of maintaining the network.
This leads to some disputes among libertarians – which strategy leads to greater freedom? Being compelled to pay taxes for a social safety net, but then having the right to rely on the net without kowtowing to anyone’s social mores? Or being freed of paying taxes for a social safety net – but then having to secure those benefits by joining tribes and kowtowing to the norms of those tribes?
That’s an interesting theory. It reminds me of when I was in kindergarten and my mom was in the hospital having surgery — our synagogue set up a list of people to bring us dinner each night. My dad worked full-time, and so my sister and I would go over to friends’ houses after school, and then he’d visit my mom in the hospital on the way home from work and then pick us up, and so he didn’t have much time to cook dinner after that, and so, three times a week, someone from the synagogue would stop by with a lasagna or some roasted chicken and rice or something, something that we could eat for a few meals. One synagogue that I was a member of as an adult not only had a committee specifically to do this (when someone was sick or having a baby or various other issues), they had it all set up on a Google spreadsheet for people to work out who was making dinner when. It was a relatively small thing for each person who cooked, but a huge thing for us, and I can’t remember ever seeing a non-religious organization do something like that. People do it for friends, sure, but that’s different than doing it for anybody who’s a member of your group.