Can Civil War soldiers help economists put a value on friendship?

The search for better economic policy.
Jan. 23 2009 7:03 AM

You Can't Put a Price on Friendship

Or can you?

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The military service records of every Union soldier—including birthplace, occupation, age; whether he deserted, got captured, won a Medal of Honor—were sent to the National Archives after the war. To test their theory, Costa and Kahn analyzed the records of soldiers in 354 Union companies, a total of 41,000 men. They found that on average, nine out of 100 men deserted. However, in companies populated by a relatively homogeneous group of men—of similar ages, born in the same place, who worked similar jobs before the war—the desertion rate was closer to two in 100. Belief in the cause mattered—enlistees from pro-Lincoln counties were less likely to desert. And the likelihood of catching a bullet by staying and fighting naturally figured into soldiers' decisions to go AWOL as well—desertion rates went down when the war tilted in the Union's favor. But neither belief in the war nor hopes for survival mattered nearly as much as the strength of social bonds in predicting who would stay and fight.

This wasn't because soldiers felt safer surrounded by friends whom they could count on for life-saving favors—a soldier's best chance at survival was to desert, regardless of the strength of his fighting unit. Rather, it was the shame and embarrassment of abandoning one's comrades. A community quickly got word of cowardice as well as heroics through soldiers' letters home, and deserters were nearly 50 percent more likely to pick up and move to a different state after the fighting ended.

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If your goal was to survive the war, the bonds of friendship, then, actually worked against your interests—your best shot at staying alive was to run for the hills. But for the unfortunate thousands who were captured, herded onto cattle cars, and shipped to Confederate POW camps, easy escape was no longer an option. Circumstances in many of the camps were more perilous than the war's front lines. More than 40 percent of inmates at the infamous Andersonville Camp in southwest Georgia perished, mostly from scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and other diseases of malnutrition and overcrowding. Yet for men who were lucky enough to get captured with a ready-made social network, chances of survival were far greater. An Irishman who was captured with enough other Irish company-mates, for example, had a better than 90 percent chance of making it to the war's end. Why was friendship such a crucial resource in surviving as a prisoner of war? The camps were overcrowded, rations in short supply, sanitary facilities nonexistent. Survival required the care of friends if one fell sick, the sharing of food, shelter, other resources, and protection from looting by other prisoners.

For Civil War soldiers, friendship was thus a double-edged sword—on the front lines, the obligations of friendship cost more than the benefits; in the camps, the situation was reversed. In these difficult economic times, many Americans are finding themselves in need of friends to lean on for financial and emotional support. But friendship is once again proving to have its costs and benefits. Trust among friends is a source of vulnerability well-recognized by hustlers and conmen. It proved to be the undoing of the Jewish and Palm Beach communities that were victimized in the $50 billion pyramid scheme concocted by Bernie Madoff, one of their own. With friends like these, maybe Blanche was onto something after all.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.