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The Social Fabric Frays. The Patches Aren't Obvious.

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(Bloomberg View) -- “In Washington,” says Utah senator Mike Lee, “we measure GDP, we measure government outlays and revenues -- all kind of things that are quantifiable and monitored like vital signs, blood pressure and heart rate. But we don’t always take the time to measure other things that are just as important to our life as a country.” One of those things is the state of America’s “associational life,” which is the topic of a new report from the senator’s staff on the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

The report sets the scene by invoking the titles of some high-profile books by Robert Putnam, Charles Murray and Yuval Levin: “There is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly ‘bowling alone,’ ‘coming apart,’ and inhabiting a ‘fractured republic.’ At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.”

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier -- especially thanks to the Internet -- and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

Future reports from the project will explore how social capital relates to economic mobility and to deaths of despair (including opioid-related deaths). Those reports may well include policy recommendations. Lee has been an active proponent of criminal-justice reform, and the connection between that issue and the health of communities deserves its own report.

But Lee is not proposing a 10-point legislative plan to make civil society great again. The report cites, as an example of the importance of social capital, Megan McArdle’s recent article for Bloomberg View about the indispensable role the Mormon church has played in solving problems in his state. But Lee recognizes the limits of government power in this area. He tells me: “I certainly don’t want any government program that has as its object either encouraging or discouraging people from being religious. I do think people should be aware of the trends.”

Last year’s elections showed, he said, how dissatisfied many Americans are with our national life. He suggests that the decline of associational life has contributed to that dissatisfaction. “This is an effort to have a bigger picture of what’s happening to our culture, our economy, and where we go from here.” Another way of describing what he is after is a rediscovery of Tocqueville: “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another. . . .  In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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