Little Platoons

January 05, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- As conservatives begin, with brassy confidence, their crusade to regenerate the Republic's virtue, here is a concise summation of the current crisis: Too many bowlers are not members of bowling leagues.

If you are blase about that, you don't operate a bowling alley. Such places make profits not only by renting shoes and lanes but also by selling pizza and beer, and league bowlers consume three times more of such stuff than do solo bowlers. Furthermore, the rise of solo bowling is worrisome for reasons explained by Robert Putnam in his essay ''Bowling Alone'' in the January issue of The Journal of Democracy.

Mr. Putnam, a Harvard professor of international affairs, says solo bowling is a sign of ''the erosion of social capital.'' More Americans than ever are bowling; almost 80 million bowled at least once in 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections.

But although the number of bowlers is up 10 percent since 1980, participation in leagues is down 40 percent. Mr. Putnam calls ''whimsical'' this evidence of ''social decapitalization,'' but there is nothing trivial about the cumulative weight of his evidence, drawn from surveys, of declining civic engagement and social connectedness.

Since 1973 the number of Americans who report having attended ''in the past year'' a public meeting on town or school affairs has declined more than one-third (from 22 percent to 13 percent). Union membership has fallen from 32.5 percent of the non-agricultural workforce in 1953 to about 15 percent today. Participation in parent-teacher associations has declined from 12 million in 1964 to 7 million today. Since 1970 the numbers of volunteers for the Boy Scouts and Red Cross are off 26 percent and 61 percent respectively.

Now, economic changes may largely govern trends in union membership, and changes in women's possibilities may explain the 59 percent decline in membership in the Federation of Women's Clubs since 1964 and the 42 percent decline in the League of Women Voters since 1969.

Also, there has been growth, sometimes spectacular, in membership in groups like the American Association of Retired Persons (from 400,000 in 1960 to 33 million in 1993) and the Sierra Club. But members of such groups have ties to a common agenda, not to one another. Such groups do not substitute for bowling leagues.

The technological transformation of leisure -- the movement, as it were, from vaudeville to the VCR -- has had an atomizing, isolating effect. So have some demographic changes -- more divorces, fewer children. But these factors do notfully explain the swift, substantial and broad decline in organizational memberships in recent decades. This has happened, Mr. Putnam notes, at a time when the personal attributes that used to correlate with group involvements -- higher education, middle age -- have increased.

The ''re-potting hypothesis'' blames American mobility: Frequent re-potting of plants damages roots, and frequent changes of residence -- blame economic dynamism, the automobile, suburbanization, the lure of the Sun Belt -- produce a deracinated population.However, residential stability and home ownership are higher today than in the 1950s, when civic engagement, measured by voting as well as by membership in voluntary associations, was higher than today.

Has individualism become excessive? America has been well-served by the individualism of its political philosophy and economic practice. Liberty and prosperity are individualism's fruits. And American individualism has traditionally been compatible with the ''joining'' impulse that produced a rich broth of private intermediary institutions that mediate between the individual and government.

Such networks of attachments breed habits of trust that are part of the ''social capital'' that makes possible cooperation for mutual benefits. Such cooperation sustains a free society. Social trust and civic engagement are strongly correlated. Therefore, given the decline of engagement, the following is not surprising: The percentage of Americans saying that most people are trustworthy fell by more than a third (from 58 percent to 37 percent) between 1960 and 1993.

We refine our ethical capabilities in a social context. Mr. Putnam's data depict an impoverishment of that context. Conservatives who worry about the ''sociology of virtue'' and the ''ecology of liberty'' believe that swollen government, which displaces other institutions, saps democracy's strength. There is, in this view, a zero-sum transaction in society: As the state waxes, other institutions wane.

Society's ''little platoons'' -- primarily the family, but also neighborhood and community organizations -- are vital to character formation. That is not urgent under tyranny, where choices are few, but it is crucial to the success of democracy.

Here is the theme of what began here this week -- rescuing the little platoons from the federal government's big battalions. So if you are seeking a small leading indicator of the success of conservatism, look for increased participation in, among other things, bowling leagues.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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