Earlier this month Beverly Hills police found nearly two hundred rolls of toilet paper in a stolen SUV. The suspect was arrested and charged with multiple crimes—none of which had to do with the toilet paper, which, so far as police knew, wasn’t stolen.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s not difficult to imagine a car theft might also be hocking commodities with ever-growing resale value on the side. With a record-breaking number of Americans filing for unemployment, it’s no small wonder that those struggling to get by might resort to stealing hot toiletries such as TP. But when times are tough and one is depleted of the economic capital to acquire things like toilet paper and isn’t cool with stealing, there is another resource we might draw upon: social capital.
What is Social Capital?
Social capital is a complex idea and no universal definition exists. But for our purposes here, let’s think of social capital as the web of networks and relationships we possess that can provide us with certain benefits, resources, knowledge, or even emergency rolls of toilet paper when called upon. As Jonah Goldberg is fond of saying on his podcast The Remnant, if he were to lose his house and all the money he had that wouldn’t make him homeless because he would still have a massive number of family and friends to turn to who would be willing to have him sleep on their couch. While our first line of defense against the cares of life are often met by our economic capital, social capital is an excellent “safety net” should things go wrong.
What’s more, sometimes a little bit of social capital can go much further than a lot of economic capital. The college I attended and the profession I entered were due in large part to a lot of moxie, cleverness, and hard work on my part. But none of it would have even been possible had it not been for the social network of friends and family carefully developed over the years. The amount of cash it would have taken to try to make a way for myself with no assistance from anyone else would have simply been unattainable for me.
I would hope the implications of depleted stockpiles of social capital in this unprecedented era of national quarantines, social distancing, and record unemployment are staggeringly obvious. There are, of course, far greater concerns than an adequate supply of toilet paper on hand. For most of us, relying on our economic capital alone to get through however long this season lasts would be devastating. We need one another. Now more than ever.
How I Procured Toilet Paper with Social Capital
I don’t often talk about my personal life on Saving Elephants, but a brief glimpse into the past several years might make the point I’m trying to get across a little clearer. My girlfriend and I had already adopted many of the practices now common to so many households years ago due to her chronic condition. Her medical needs are, at times, severe and unpredictable. As such, we had to learn to adapt by slowly—sometimes painfully—building a strong network of family and friends we could rely upon who understood the situation and were able to help in a moment’s notice with all the flexibility, care, and know-how our unique situation demanded in the moment.
It wouldn’t be right to say that the events over the past month haven’t been an adjustment for us. But—compared to many—we had far less “adjusting” to do. As it became evident the COVID-19 pandemic was more than just a hoax concocted by the liberal media to bring down Donald Trump, we received calls and texts from friends and relatives who were aware of our situation and wanted to know if we were in need of anything.
I happened to mention to someone that we were somewhat low on toilet paper and, not knowing when stores would be able to restock their shelves, I asked that if they just happened to see any while shopping to pick some up for us. In truth, I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. The toiletry giant Kimberly-Clark has one of its largest manufacturing plants just South of Tulsa where I live—no joke!—so it seemed like the greater Tulsa area was in an excellent position to weather the Great TP Drought of 2020 better than most of the country.
Nevertheless, a few days later a nine-pack of the coveted rolls of TP arrived on my doorstep. Evidently the person I was talking to just happened to mention it to someone else who took it upon themselves to drop off some of their personal stash. The following day a relative called and asked if I was in need of some extra rolls they had on hand. They were not aware I had already been gifted a nine-pack based on some offhanded comment I made the day before.
I do not know if the SUV theft we were introduced to above also had to steal that toilet paper. But I was able to procure the scarce resource without resorting to thievery, burning through economic capital, or spending hours shopping at every retailer in Tulsa. And it was all because of my stockpile of social capital.
How Social Capital Works with the Government
Last week I wrote a piece contemplating what conservatism might tell us about the wisdom of Congress spending $2.2 trillion on COVID-19 relief efforts. Regardless of whether you believe it was the right thing to do, there is no doubt millions of Americans are hurting financially and could use the monetary relief. But while the government is doling out $1,200 to each of us, some could be waiting for months to receive the relief, even as late as August. If it were up to the government to ensure we all had adequate supplies of toilet paper, many of us would be cutting up our bedsheets by now.
The easiest boogeyman to direct our ire towards in most situations is “the government” and I don’t want to just reach for that low-hanging fruit. The point is not that the government is unduly incompetent, inept, wasteful, incapable, or untimely. There certainly is room for improvement, but let’s get real and ask—in all seriousness—should we actually expect the government to be capable of acting with the nimbleness required in a situation like this? The government might excel at single-purpose endeavors like fighting a war or locking down a country facing a deadly pandemic. But is it reasonable to think they’d ever be equipped to know exactly how many rolls of toilet paper Josh Lewis needed on any given Tuesday to meet the demands of his rather unique circumstances?
What might have taken an army of bureaucrats much of the year and enough money to buy every American their own bidet most of us can accomplish by working together, being neighborly, sacrificing some conveniences, building close connections, and turning to one another in times of crisis like these. The great American observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this peculiar tendency that was once far more prevalent among Americans:
“When a private individual meditates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the co-operation of the Government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done.”
There are many things we cannot do by pulling together on the individual and communal levels; things like fighting a war, addressing climate change, stopping a pandemic. But, as Tocqueville noted centuries ago, the sum total of all those individuals willing to lean into the problem and work with one another—cultivating a growing reserve of social capital—often far exceeded what the government alone was able to accomplish.
Governments fight wars, but they depend upon their citizens to pull together on the home front, holding up morale and sacrificing resources needed for the war effort. In the same manner, while the government is busily researching treatments for COVID-19, coordinating the distribution of needed masks, tests, and other medical supplies, and providing directives and information to the public, all of those efforts would come to naught if not for the cooperation, sacrifice, innovation, and determination of all of us.
What Conservatives Tell Us About Social Capital
Over the past several decades, and in recent years in particular, conservative writers, thinkers, bloggers, and policy advocates have been relentlessly warning of the potential devastating effects of our increasingly depleted stockpile of social capital. From Robert Nisbet’s 1953 Quest for Community to Robert Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone to Yuval Levin’s recently published A Time to Build, conservatism has been producing a rich exploration into what ails the contemporary soul. (As a brief aside, the YouTuber Political Juice has done a fantastic job cataloguing and sharing many of the most prominent works on the topic in his series the importance of civil society.)
Sometimes it’s hard to realize that something’s missing until you reach for it and it isn’t there. After we’ve dealt with the immediate threat of COVID-19 and the financial hardships afflicting millions of Americans, there will be much time for reflecting, rebuilding, and restoring what was lost. In the aftermath, perhaps some will make efforts to build lasting social capital that could have otherwise buoyed them in this time. Perhaps some will realize how important the social capital that currently have truly is.
It’s hard to predict that any “good” will come of all this, but hardships can yield much good if they’re not wasted. While conservatives are staunch defenders of the individual, they are also cognizant that no man is an island and that we need one another to survive and thrive—even if it’s not so obvious when things are going well. And when life gets crazy and you reach for that last roll of toilet paper, it’s nice to know there’s someone out there who’s got your back.