The Benefits of Social Capital? Bowling for Hitler.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our discussion of David Laitin’s explanation for why Basque nationalism became violent but Catalan did not, we pointed out that this is partially explained by the Basque country having the type of “horizontal” or “bonding” social capital that Robert Putnam and his collaborators argued in their famous work, Making Democracy Work, to have been crucial for promoting democracy and good governance.

In our research on the politics of the paramount chieftaincy in Sierra Leone with Tristan Reed, which we discussed last year, we found a great deal of evidence to be skeptical about this. In Sierra Leone, the evidence suggests that no matter how you measure social capital, it is negatively correlated with both less accountable local political institutions and economic development.

Another powerful example of the drawbacks of social capital is provided in the recent paper “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33” by Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joakim Voth. The authors collected data on the extent of social capital in Germany in the 1920s as measured by the “density of associational life” in effect the presence of different social groups such as sports clubs, choirs, animal breeding associations, or gymnastics club. Their measure of social capital in a city is the total number of such associations per 1,000 people. They show that where social capital was higher, the Nazi party rose faster in terms of membership and it also recorded higher vote totals.

Historical evidence suggests that like ETA in the Basque country, the Nazi party were very adept at exploiting the possibilities provided by social capital to recruit new members.

One conclusion to draw from all of this work is not that Putnam was wrong. Indeed, his arguments are plausible in the Italian case and have received empirical support there (for instance, as shown in the paper “Long-Term Persistence” by Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales).

Rather, the correct conclusion would be that the impact of social capital is highly heterogeneous and crucially depends on how it interacts with other aspects of a society’s institutions and politics.

Satyanath, Voightländer and Voth capture a bit of this idea since they show that in Prussia, which had stronger institutions, the relationship between social capital and the rise of the Nazi party is much weaker. They conclude

Our results therefore suggest that strong, inclusive institutions can keep the “dark side” of social capital in check.

Music to our ears, though obviously it’s not just inclusive institutions that keep the dark side of social capital in check, since the Prussian state of the 1920s that did control this type of social capital was far from inclusive. Clearly, there is more to the mystery of social capital.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
See website for complete article licensing information.