Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

Summary of: Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

Studying comparative levels of citizens' satisfaction with civic institutions when Italy instituted regional government made possible a multi-decade study that revealed how centuries-old norms of trust, reciprocity, and social networks among the inhabitants of regions led to high levels of civic and economic success, while the absence of rich lateral ties predicted lower levels of success and satisfaction in other regions.

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Princeton University Press


  • Social capital – the use of social networks, trust, and reciprocity to enable cooperation among citizens beyond that required by law or employment – can lead to higher levels of economic and civic success.
  • Informal associations such as choral societies or soccer clubs can increase levels of cooperation among citizens and enhance the ability of opposing factions to compromise.
  • Dense networks of social and cultural civic association lower transaction costs in economic and political spheres.
  • Fabrics of trust enable civic communities to solve social dilemmas by raising the potential cost of defection and risking loss of future benefits by defectors, enhance the flow of information about who can be trusted, foster norms of reciprocity that are reinforced by the flow of reputational information, capture strategies and institutions that worked in the past and keep them available as templates for future collaboration.
  • Trust tends to be an emergent property of the social system – individuals are able to trust because of the social norms and networks in which their actions play out.
  • Stocks of social capital such as trust, norms and networks, tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative and are public goods owned by the group rather than individuals.

When the Italian government created regional governments in 1970, a multi-decade study of levels of citizen satisfaction with these new institutions revealed that regions with norms of trust and reciprocity derived from centuries of horizontal voluntary association were both economically and politically more successful than regions that lacked dense networks of civic association and relied on patron-client relationships rather than horizontal citizen associations: "Some regions of Italy, we discover, are blessed with vibrant networks and norms of civic engagement, while others are cursed with vertically structured politics, a social life of fragmentation and isolation, and a culture of distrust. These differences in civic life turn out to play a key role in explaining institutional success."

Machiavelli, writing in 16th century Florence, concluded that the success of free institutions depends on the "civic virtue" of citizens. This republican school of civic humanists was countered successfully by the liberal emphasis of Hobbes and Locke on individualism and individual rights. The U.S. constitution was designed to make democracy work with a factionalized, unvirtuous citizenry. More recently, American political philosophy has rediscovered civic humanism, harking back to John Winthrop's "city set upon a hill" sermon.

Civic communities are bound by horizontal relationships of reciprocity among citizens, not vertical relations of authority and dependency. "Fabrics of trust enable the civic community more easily to surmount what economists call 'opportunism,' in which shared interests are unrealized because each individual, acting in wary isolation, has an incentive to defect from collective action." Participation in civic organizations trains people in cooperation skills and strengthens a sense of shared responsibility. Citizens who belong to many different groups tend to moderate their attitudes as a result of their exposure to group interactions. These groups don't have to be political: choral societies and soccer clubs knit people together socially and culturally, but the bonds of trust and social networks serve as effective vectors for economic and political activity.

In regions that lack networks of civic engagement and widespread norms of trust and reciprocity, citizens have to resort to hierarchy and force to resolve conflict, but even hierarchical law enforcement organizations prove less effective with a mistrustful citizenry. "Light-touch" government in more civic regions works better because it is aided by willing cooperation and self-enforcement among citizens.

The Northern Italian cities – Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and later Florence – took off in the 11th and 12th centrues in part because the contract and extension of credit were new legal strategies for creating partnerships and raising capital: "In the new practices and organization of business activity, risks were minimized, whereas opportunities for cooperation and profit were enhanced."

As Europe emerged from feudalism, the bonds of personal dependence (lord-vassal) grew weaker in the northern regions, but in the south of Italy they became stronger. Northern populations learned to be citizens, southern populations remained subjects. "In the cities, a horizontal arrangement emerged, characterized by cooperation among equals." The guild, confraternity, university, and the commune – a guild of guilds – reflected the new ideals in new institutions.

Mutual aid societies flourished in pre-unification Italy (circa 1850),-- pragmatic institutions in which cooperation conveyed benefits upon contributing individuals in a changing society. Italian cooperatives grew out of the mutual aid societies.

"Networks facilitate flows of information about technological developments, about the creditworthiness of would-be entrepreneurs…. Innovation depends on 'continual informal interaction in cafes and bars and on the street.'"

Social networks allow trust to spread transitively. Trust increases through use and becomes depleted if not used. Social capital, unlike conventional capital, is a public good, not the property of any of the individuals who benefit from it, and must often be produced as a by-product of other social activities.

"Norms are inculcated by modeling and socialization (including civic education) and by sanctions." Norms that support social trust evolve because they lower transaction costs and facilitate cooperation, conferring benefits upon cooperators. Reciprocity is the most important norm, and can be balanced (or specific – the quid-pro-quo) or generalized (diffuse). Communities in which the norm of diffuse reciprocity is high can more efficiently restrain free-riding and more easily resolve collective action problems. Networks of civic engagement increase the potential cost to defectors who risk benefits from future transaction. The same networks foster norms of reciprocity that are reinforced by the networks of relationships in which reputation is both valued and discussed. The same social networks facilitate the flow of reputational information.

"The civic traditions of Northern Italy provide a historical repertoire of forms of collaboration that, having proved their worth in the past, are available to citizens for addressing new problems of collective acdtion. Mutual aid societies were built on the razed foundations of the old guilds, and cooperatives and mass political parties then drew on the experience of the mutual aid societies."

"Stocks of social capital (trust, norms, networks), tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative. Virtuous circles result in social equilibria with high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement, and collective well being. These traits define the civic community. Conversely, the absence of these traits in the uncivic community is also self-reinforcing. Defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder, and stagnation intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles. This argument suggests that there may be at least two broad equilibria toward which all societies that face problems of collective action (that is, all societies) tend to evolve and which, once attained, tend to be self-reinforcing."