In a famous study half a century ago, the political scientist Edward Banfield coined the term “amoral familism” to describe how family solidarities in a southern Italian village decreased engagement in and trust of the political community as a whole. Rather than see their futures wrapped up in the success of their country and civic community, the villagers sought to maximize their family’s situation by any means necessary, no matter what the cost to the larger community.
Over the past few years, economists studying social capital around the world have been studying the question anew, and have generally found that Banfield was on to something. In an important paper, Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano looked at 80 countries and found that those where the family ties were weakest tended to have the strongest levels of civic and political engagement and generalized social trust. And vice versa. The top performers in terms of civic engagement were northern European countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Germany. At the bottom were the Philippines, Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. (the greatest democracy in the history of the universe) came in 50th.
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