Monday, May 22, 2006

Good News from Iraq

Democracies require more than individual freedom in order to thrive. They require social capital as well. Social capital--the complex network of interactions (particularly those that build trust) existing within a society--is the subject of Robert Putnam's well-known book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Social capital, Putnam suggests, is closely connected to expectations of reciprocity. A society thrives, and trust is built, if people come to expect that their contributions to the general welfare will be matched by those contributions made by others. I'll volunteer to coach a Little League team and feel good about doing it in part because I know that there are others who are volunteering to coach youth soccer teams and still others who are heading up the PTA or volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club and so on. There is, as an aspect of social capital, a norm of generalized reciprocity, not the form of reciprocity that requires a specific response to the initial contribution.

Churches, non-profit organizations, volunteer associations, and other manifestations of what we sometimes call "civil society" are important contributors to the social capital that is so important in a democracy. For this reason, the report that "now, more than three years after the American invasion, the outlines of a nascent civil society are taking shape" in Iraq comes as very welcome news.

According to the New York Times,

Since 2003 the [Iraqi] government has registered 5,000 private organizations, including charities, human rights groups, medical assistance agencies and literacy projects. Officials estimate that an additional 7,000 groups are working unofficially. The efforts show that even as violence and sectarian hatred tear Iraq's mixed cities apart, a growing number of Iraqis are trying to bring them together.

These private organizations are creating what Putnam calls "bridging social capital." While this is by no means the only thing necessary to create a democracy, it is significant. Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that a robust civil society is something that the United States cannot impose on Iraq. It has to come from within, and apparently it is.

Of course, now we need to get those who are not interested in building Iraq's social capital to stop killing those who are.