Title: Long-term Persistence
Author: Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales
Publication Type: paper (62 pages); ISBN 978-2-213-65560-4
Year of Publication: 2013
Publisher: EIEF (Einuadi Institute for Economics and Finance) Working Paper 23/13 LINK
Abstract: This paper provides an empirical investigation on the long-term cultural persistence of “civic capital” (i.e. trust and cooperation) as a fundamental asset of social capital (defined as “those persistent and shared beliefs and values that help a group (…) in the pursuit of socially valuable activities”). Three main variables were used to measure civic capital: tendency to voluntarily build associations, through the number of non-profit organisations existing in 2001; participation in activities not influenced by economic reasons, through the number of organ and blood donation organisations in 2005; positive attributional style (i.e. how optimistically persons explain life events to themselves), through answers of students to a questionnaire administered during a national test in math concerning the academic year 2009-2010. Positive attributional style (based on concepts from cognitive behavioural theories) played an important role in the analysis made in the paper. It was associated with the ethos of amoral familism (namely the inability of persons “to act together for their common goods or, indeed, for any end transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family”) developed last century by Edward Banfield (The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, 1958) to explain the historical persistence of backwardness in the South. People with an optimistic view tend to assume that everything is under their control and to ascribe their successes to internal causes (e.g. effort). A negative (i.e. pessimistic) attitude consists in ascribing good events to external causes (e.g. luck) and seeing everything as uncontrollable. This pessimistic attitude translates in helplessness and, once socially transmitted among people and across generations, converges on a continuous vicious cycle of backwardness. In order to detect an intergenerational transmission of values and behaviours, the results regarding recent conditions were correlated to civic capital presumably existing 800 years earlier (i.e. during the Middle Ages). Following the assumptions of Robert Putnam et al. (Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, 1993), civic capital and positive attributional styles were ascribed to the independent city-states that emerged in the North because of the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire. These factors did not emerge in the South because of a strongly autocratic and efficient Norman Kingdom. The paper specifically considered the free cities that formed the Lombard League (in the North) and the defeated Emperor Frederick I (in 1176). The paper indicates that civic capital of the free cities was comparatively higher than that of other cities during the medieval period and that this has continued to the present, in relation to a more negative attributional style of pupils recently detected in cities that have not had historical experience as free city-states. The paper conclusion is that the “interpretation of social capital as society-level helplessness offers a gleam of hope for overcoming the cultural legacy of backwardness. As positive psychology can help individuals to overcome their negative attributional style personally, its application at community level might possibly succeed in reversing the negative historical legacy of a people”.
Review and comments: By linking the Banfield’s earlier thesis (high feeling of helplessness) with the Putnam’s interpretative model (low social capital), this paper describes a statistical analysis intended to demonstrate that a cultural legacy of backwardness explains part of the North-South divide in Italy. It should be noted that there is extensive criticism regarding the work of Putnam and Banfield. Importantly, their assumptions have been used in misleading ways for ideological and political ends. This includes the romanticised image of cohesive communities (in the North) opposed to the ethos of amoral familism (in the South). These latter have been associated to a path of dependency, for which past contingencies have influenced present conditions in a deterministic manner. Determinism also influenced the conclusions of the paper, by implying that poverty is a consequence of the low capability of persons to tackle difficult problems, to seize opportunities and to develop their potential. The approach taken, predominately reductionist, is limited by knowledge on measurable and quantifiable phenomena while transforming what is complex in a simple set of hypotheses, a common problem with statistical analysis. The concept of “social capital” was over-simplified to a definition of “civic capital” thereby breaking the connection between civicness (i.e. respect for the rules of collective life within a more global public interest) and stateness (i.e. unity of legal rights, inclusive citizenship, organisational coherence of institutional and societal structures) within governance processes (i.e. interwoven relations between institutional capital, human capital and social capital). These concepts are characterised by complexity and multidimensionality. They reveal shared patterns (between history, culture, institutions and individuals), interplay (between diversity and cohesion) and richness of different situations (within and between local, regional, national and transnational levels) beyond the assumed North-South divide. The fundamental institutional transformations that occurred both in the North and the South (e.g. during the Enlightenment, unification, fascism and republican democracy) were not examined and the analysis was linked to a leap of 800 years in Italian history (i.e. from the Middle Ages to recent times). Asymmetrical relations were ignored (e.g. the use of resources from the South to increase economic development and political power of the North) along with social alterations (e.g. migration flows, especially from the South). Empowerment processes and developments in democracy (such as social and class conflicts, political activism and trade-unionism, vibrantly occurred also in the South) were not mentioned. A casual chain between limited statistical data (organ donation organisations, voluntary associations and pupils’ opinions on their successes and failures in education) was used to explain why the North was more equipped than the South to overcome “the cultural legacy of backwardness”. Key questions were not approached: what real opportunities are available for people to lead a dignified life? Interestingly, the risk of a dense “civic capital” as a source for localism, narrow-mindedness and resistance to change was not taken into consideration. The cultural inheritance of the league of city-states (i.e. civic capital) “is so strong that today there is even a political party that choose to call itself League”. The Northern League (Lega Nord) is well known for its manifestations of racial hate, racial stereotypes, discriminatory behaviour and xenophobia. On the contrary, local active inclusion initiatives in the “deep South” are examples of an open-minded attitude towards immigrant persons and their communities. Apparently, many key assumptions made by the authors (e.g. a long-term cultural persistence of civic capital) do not appear to work perfectly well.