The Economics of Lonliness

CAMBRIDGE: In most advanced industrialized countries over the last 25 years, voters have steadily pulled away from politics. Nowhere is this more visible than in the United States. According to polls taken in the 1950s and 1960s, 75% of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing, most of the time. Today, only 20% believe this to be true. Add low voter-turnout and poorly attended political rallies to the mix and you get a worrying problem for politicians and political scientists.

Wide scale disengagement from politics, however, is symptomatic of a deeper social estrangement. Put bluntly, many citizens have disengaged not only from politics, but from the other, non-political spheres of community life. Organizations that 25 to 30 years ago were a community’s focal point -- churches, say, or the American Red Cross, or labor unions -- lost as much as 60% of their active members and volunteers over the years. More ominously, time budget studies find that Americans nowadays have fewer conversations with other people, and the number of people who never participate in a social gathering with their neighbors has doubled. Two thirds of Americans say they do not trust people, compared to just one third a generation ago.

This general decline of "connectedness" in the United States is more pernicious than just the loss of that warm and cuddly sense of community that many people feel nowadays. With this atrophy of society comes decline in the performance of institutions and diminished prospects for economic prosperity. Why? The aspects of community life associated with "connectedness" are similar in their effect to physical capital (a modern plant) or human capital (up-to-date skills): they allow people to be more productive.

These attributes of social "connectedness," including high levels of trust, civic engagement, and a widespread commitment to help one another, comprise what political scientists call "social capital." In all societies it is social capital that lubricates economic and social life; it is social capital that creates a climate of cooperation in which problems -- social, political or economic -- can be tackled and solved.