The Key to Making It

November 21, 1993|By BILL BISHOP

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY — Lexington, Kentucky.-- Some regions have more effective governments than others. Their schools are better, their economies stronger. Some groups of people succeed. Others fail.

The most important book I've read or read about this year helps explain why. Robert Putnam, a government professor at Harvard University, is the author. The title seems almost designed to escape notice: ''Making Democracy Work -- Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.''

The skeleton of the book is Mr. Putnam's comparative study of the 20 regional governments created by Italy in 1970. The meat, however, is a discovery revealed in a journey that cuts across several centuries of Italian history and culture. What Mr. Putnam found speaks to every important public issue facing this country.

Civics matters. How citizens relate -- how well they cooperate and how seriously they take the duties of citizenship -- determines the effectiveness of their government, the vibrancy of their economy and their happiness as a people.

Taking the 20 regional governments as a ground zero in 1970, Mr. Putnam followed their progress for two decades. Not surprisingly, some succeeded while others failed. What was surprising were the reasons for these results. Mr. Putnam looked at all the usual indicators of prosperity and found that none of them determined a region's fate. Successful regions did not begin with great wealth or a highly educated populace.

What successful regions had were particularly strong civic traditions. People read newspapers. They voted. They belonged organizations (sports clubs, volunteer groups, mutual aid societies). They argued about important decisions, then cooperated to make them work.

Regions that were unsuccessful may have begun with the same economic and educational conditions, but they had social relations that were exactly the opposite. Newspaper readership was low. Voting turnout was low. There were few civic organizations. There was no cooperative tradition among people nor trust in government.

Mr. Putnam found that every measure of success -- effective governments, vibrant economies, personal happiness -- flowed from strong civic involvement: ''Generally speaking, regions today that are civic are also healthy, wealthy and industrial.'' This correlation is so strong, he found, that the success of districts in the 1990s could be foretold by the civic traditions displayed centuries ago.

The author describes his findings as ''mesmerizing.'' And they are, because the implications of his conclusions are so enormous.

Mr. Putnam's conclusions easily apply themselves to this country's poor regions. The Mississippi Delta, Central Appalachia and the inner cities all have feudal forms of social relations. (The plantation, coal camp, ghetto and barrio all have at least that much in common.) In these regions, civic organizations were discouraged or outlawed. Politics was strictly hierarchical and almost universally corrupt.

And in both poor Italy and America, these traditions have maintained themselves. In fact, Mr. Putnam finds, they are self-reinforcing. There is simply no way to cooperate when cooperation is not rewarded. Cooperation expands when it is reciprocated. As a result, both civic and non-civic societies tend to reinforce themselves over time.

If Mr. Putnam is right, then it isn't the seed of public policy that is important, it's the condition of the soil. Most developers working in the Third World have learned that it is easier to build a road than to build an organization to take care of the road once it is built. What Mr. Putnam shows is that any government program will fail until the ground is first fertilized with a civic structure of cooperation and trust.

The analysis isn't a slick new way to blame the victims of poverty for their problems. It is a call for long-term change. A program here, a grant or industry there are not what poor regions need, because these physical things alone won't fix the real problem. And as corruption in state and local governments continues, as the violence in schools and on city streets grows, as the alienation between rich and poor increases, it is clear that the entire country's prosperity is at risk as the nation's civic capital is spent.

Mr. Putnam tells us that the way people relate has consequences. There is a reason why some places are happy and prosperous while others are mired in corruption, strife and poverty. In the end, he is saying, we are the economy and we are the government. We determine our future. And, in a happy twist of politics and economics, it is the best of human behavior that will be rewarded with wealth and happiness.

Cooperation, trust, civic involvement, equality, inclusion are not just Sunday school fluff. It turns out that they are the traits that will make us prosperous and free.

Bill Bishop is a columnist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader.

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