“At the risk of appearing immediately ungrateful to the organizers of this wonderful and much-needed event, I want to begin by suggesting that ‘social capital’ is perhaps the wrong frame for what it is that Tim, Michael, and I are here to discuss. To be sure, I deeply respect the work of Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist who popularized the term, and as a college student actually cut my teeth on the communitarian movement of the mid 1990s of which he was a key part. But appropriating this neo-liberal frame to describe the real public good of social trust and civic friendship would seem to grant that sociality is not quite natural to us as human beings. That our economics and politics will reap the ‘dividends’ of ‘investing’ in social ‘capital’ gives the impression that human sociality is merely instrumental to econometric or democratic ends. Or that sociality is something that we, putatively self-sufficient modern individuals, choose to enter into or voluntarily ‘join,’ to name the recent documentary dedicated to Putnam’s work.
But that framing doesn’t get human nature quite right, it seems to me. And the question of nature is an essential starting place for conservatives; for though we certainly aren’t looking, as progressives are, to create out of whole cloth the ideal regime, we do want to orient our politics and economics toward the real goods of human flourishing. If each individual must simply be cajoled to “join” in, then the chronic loneliness of our time would seem to be primarily the individual’s failing; but if we are naturally made for each other, for sociality, for friendship, then epidemic loneliness is a wretched failure of our civic, religious, political, and economic institutions.”