Over the weekend, The Washington Post Magazine ran a feature called “Fix This Democracy — Now: 38 Ideas for Repairing Our Badly Broken Civic Life.” Each of the 38 ideas came from a different commentator, thus representing many different political stripes. In a response, James Bovard at the Foundation for Economic Education correctly points out the absurdity of some of the ideas from the left, such as “Outlaw private education” and “Let government co-own new technologies.” On the right, commentators seem to have mainly used their space to complain about progressive culture: “Stop obsessing about white privilege,” “Ignore the cultural elite” and “Prevent left-wing media bias.”
Setting those pieces aside, a strain that runs through at least five of the pieces is one I take very seriously: interacting with more people who are different from or disagree with oneself. These include “Befriend a libertarian,” “Tackle tough subjects at dinner,” “Allow garage unit rentals,” “Establish national unity week” and “End the blame game.” While some of the specific ideas don’t sound promising to me, I agree that the best way to close political, cultural or economic rifts between people is to know one another.
What all the authors seem to miss though is the crucially important benefit of knowing more people, no matter what they do or don’t have in common — that is, expanding one’s network of relationships. Think about all the opportunities in your life that have come from a friend or colleague, usually because that person had another friend or colleague who could present the opportunity. All but one of the jobs I’ve had in my adult life have come from leads provided by friends. When one knows more people, the benefits multiply.
This idea is far from new. Social scientist Robert Putnam calls it social capital, and it’s an area where poorer Americans lag far behind. Had The Washington Post asked me how to fix our democracy (and surely I was number 39 on the list), I would have suggested building and donating to non-profits that facilitate the bottom-up formation of various groups at the local level. These organizations or informal meetings revolve around shared interests, goals or life challenges. The topic matters less than the goal of greasing the wheels of society in matching people with opportunities.
For an example, look no further than The Bastiat Society, a program of AIER. The Bastiat Society has a relatively small central organization that helps people start their own largely autonomous local chapters, composed of businesspeople interested in classical liberal principles.
At first pass this idea might seem quaint: reduce society’s problems by enabling the growth of more clubs. But my guess is that if it were widely adopted, it would have significant and exponentially growing benefits. None of the growth would be government-sponsored, and it would be entirely voluntary. Its impact might be greatest for poorer Americans, who often know fewer people with connections to job opportunities or helpful skills and knowledge. AIER founder E.C. Harwood hit the nail on the head when he emphasized the need for voluntary cooperation in our competitive economy. Let’s see what would happen if we multiplied our opportunities to cooperate.