The dark side of social capital

In 2001, Robert Putman published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which described how social capital had been decreasing over time in the US.  In a great play on words, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, Hans-Joachim Voth have a NBER working paper called Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33.

I had never considered the possibility that social capital could have a dark side, but it makes perfect sense. The paper is fascinating and I think I’ll add it to my development syllabus under the social capital and trust section.

Social capital – a dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, as demonstrated by a large literature following Putnam. A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.

h/t @m_clem

Update: Tyler took a break from communing with the puffins in Iceland to send along this related paper with Dan Sutter:  “The Costs of Cooperation.”

One thought on “The dark side of social capital

  1. This calls to mind something I read to the effect that dense social networks among gun enthusiasts and hunters may help explain the lobbying power of the NRA.

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