In our COVID-era efforts to malign conservatives for not vaccinating, and liberals for disrespecting liberty, we miss the mark. We ignore how our own communities reinforce normative values and encourage something that is uniquely American, namely the freedom to associate.
Social capital—as Alexis d’Toqueville, Glenn Loury, James Coleman, Robert Putnam, and others have argued—refers to the bonds of trust and networks that people develop with other people in and out of their communities. It often encourages people to be trusting, to lend at lower interest rates, and to form firms. Social capital also has a dark side as criminals and mafiosi use it to pursue illicit activities.
Social capital can encourage people to be healthier too. Higher levels of social capital can encourage people to eat more salads or refrain from eating too much. Higher levels of social capital might also encourage vaccinations and mask wearing. Scholars have studied how this relationship works during the time of COVID-19. For example, Bartscher et al. (2021) suggest that areas with a one-standard-deviation increase in social capital have 14-34 percent fewer COVID-19 cases per capita and 6-35 percent fewer deaths per capita.
Few scholars recognize, however, that the dark side of social capital might not always positively influence health. People in groups with higher levels of social capital might not like salads or eating healthy. If people and groups value behaviors that have little to do with health, or if those values deteriorate their own health or the health of others, higher levels of social capital can be pernicious.
These ideas suggest that the level of social capital plays a nuanced role in how people and their communities vaccinate. If we are in groups and communities that value personal and public health and preventing the spread of disease—and we have higher levels of social capital—we might be more likely to vaccinate. However, if we are in groups and communities that value other goals—just as legitimate—like being religious or developing personal freedom, etc., and we have higher levels of social capital, we might be less likely to vaccinate.
In new work with Justin Isaacs and Tony Carilli, we find just that. Social capital mediates and reinforces the normative values people have regarding public health and personal freedom. Social capital encourages vaccinations in places where people value public health, and it discourages vaccinations where people value personal freedom.
The figure below shows how social capital influences vaccine uptake in an interesting way. Each circle represents a county in the United States, and its size refers to the magnitude of vaccination on Nov. 30, 2021. As the level of social capital rises (a leftward movement) and as people place a higher value on public health (an upward movement), their counties tend to experience a higher rate of vaccination. As the level of social capital falls (a rightward movement) and as people place a higher value on personal freedom (a downward movement), their counties tend to experience a lower rate of vaccination.
These results point to something uniquely American. When people are free to associate with each other, they pursue their normative values, and they tend to reap the benefits according to their values. We shouldn’t bemoan such outcomes. People who value public health are able to pursue such things, and people who value personal freedom are able to act in kind.
In Tocqueville’s visit to America, he is struck by an “equality of conditions”—his approach to social capital. To Tocqueville, social capital “…creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce.” Perhaps we should pay more attention to the equality of values people hold dear. Public health is important, but so is personal freedom.