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The Cheap Side of Social Capital


Earned, inherited, and covenant commonalities enable persons and groups of people to develop sympathy and empathy for each other. The sympathy and empathy that one person or group has for another person or group is defined here as social capital. The absence of commonalities often results in relationships of apathy and antipathy that one person or group has for another person or group, defined here as negative social capital. People and groups that share negative social capital for the same person or group can form cheap social capital relationships characterized by the couplet—the enemy of my enemy is my strange bedfellow. Belonging to a social capital network has several advantages, including the capacity to produce relational and attachment value goods, support collective actions, and facilitate specialization and commodity exchanges. Being excluded from social capital-rich networks is the dark side of social capital and may lead to the formation of negative social capital. The advantages of belonging to a network may lead those who share negative social capital for the same object to develop cheap social capital networks. Cheap social capital networks are cheap because they are inexpensive to create, and the products they produce from defensive and destructive acts are inferior (cheap) substitutes for goods produced in social capital networks. Cheap social capital networks appear to be ubiquitous, being present in business, entertainment, sports, religion, education, science, politics, and other social activities. Future research should find ways to limit the formation of cheap social capital networks and mitigate their costly social, economic, and political consequences.

*Lindon J. Robison is emeritus Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics (AFRE), at Michigan State University, East Lansing Michigan. He thanks Tristan Claridge for reviewing and commenting on this paper; Meghan Rollins Wilson for editorial assistance; Julie Taylor and Lana Bailey for contributing to the ideas contained in and the organization of this paper; and Peter J. Barry for distinguishing between negative and cheap social capital. 


Despite lacking an agreed-on definition, social capital has become an increasingly popular concept. One reason for its popularity may be that its fuzzy definitions have facilitated its applications to research in diverse settings and disciplines[1]. Another possible explanation for its popularity is that it provides an alternative to traditional economic theory that ignores relationships, emphasizes selfishness, and fails to explain many predictably irrational choices[2][3]. Finally, social capital may be popular because, like love and risk, it may be difficult to define but is easily and frequently recognized.

Social capital is the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for another person or group.

This article supports the definition of social capital as the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for another person or group[4]. To defend this definition, this article describes the relationship focus of many important social capital definitions and its emphasis in the writings of Adam Smith. Continuing, this article points out that relationships depend on commonalities (what people share), the most important of which are emotions. This article claims that sympathy and empathy make it possible for one person or group to internalize the conditions of another person or group so that emotions become a type of commonality.

Negative social capital is the apathy and antipathy one person or group has for another person or group.

To support the definition of social capital as sympathy and empathy (as well as closely related emotions such as trust and regard), this article distinguishes it, social capital, from what it is not, negative social capital. Negative social capital is the apathy and antipathy one person or group has for another person or group. Negative social capital has limited value because, by itself, it fails to facilitate network formation or to produce the benefits associated with social capital networks. Instead, persons or groups connected by mutual negative social capital repel rather than attract each other. However, when persons share negative social capital for the same person, group, or object, it becomes a commonality that can be the basis of cheap social capital relationships and networks of cheap social capital. Cheap social capital relationships and networks are sometimes characterized as networks of “strange bedfellows” or as “marriages of convenience.”[5]

People and groups that share negative social capital for the same person or group can form cheap social capital relationships characterized by the couplet—the enemy of my enemy is my strange bedfellow.

Finally, this article cautions against and illustrates people’s almost universal reliance on cheap social capital as a substitute for the advantages of belonging to social capital networks. This article also points out that cheap social capital networks produce only cheap imitations of the benefits available to members of social capital networks. Finally, this paper concludes by proposing that future research find ways to limit the formation of cheap social capital networks and to mitigate their costly social, economic, and political consequences.

This article is qualitative and multidisciplinary. It seeks to explain, using nonnumerical data, why cheap social capital networks form and why they often employ destructive and defensive actions against other persons or groups to achieve their aims. To this end, this article reviews insights of other researchers, cites relevant literature, observes, makes logical deductions and inductions, and asks questions that it hopes others may address. Finally, this paper draws on concepts from several disciplines, including the theory of exchange, utility maximization, networks, commonalities, needs and motives, and attachment value for institutions and things.

Social Capital

Social capital and relationships. Despite social capital’s lack of a commonly accepted definition, there is a general acknowledgement that it has to do with human relationships: for example, the Oxford dictionary defines social capital as “networks of relationships among people.”[6] Lin viewed social capital as an investment in social relations[7]. Hanifan, one of the first to use the term social capital, connected it to relationships characterized by goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy, and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit[8]. Putnam, one of the most influential contributors to the social capital literature, argued that social capital facilitates cooperation and mutually supportive relations in communities and nations and that we would suffer from its neglect[9]. Coleman associated social capital with networks of relationships that facilitate individual or collective action, including the development of human capital[10]. Finally, the World Bank defined social capital as “the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.”[11] Moreover, many other social capital definitions are related to those just described[12]. As this sampling of influential social capital definitions demonstrates, there is support for the view that social capital has to do with relationships.

As human beings we can only experience life emotionally.
Eduardo Bericat

Relationships, connections, and empathy. Relationships, the focus of important social capital definitions, are defined as a condition in which two or more persons are connected[13]. Emotions can connect people and groups. Brené Brown quoted Eduardo Bericat, who declared: “As human beings we can only experience life emotionally.”[14][15]Brown then described eighty-seven feelings or emotions that could be directed toward an object.

Sympathy and empathy are important emotional connections between people and groups because they enable us to internalize the emotions and well-being of others. Sympathy is a feeling of pity or a sense of the condition of another person or group. When the object of our sympathy is another person facing hard times, we may feel pity or disappointment for that person. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It is the capacity to “walk in another person’s shoes.” Feeling sympathy means you feel sorry for someone’s situation, even if you’ve never been there yourself. Feeling empathy is when you truly understand and can feel what another person is feeling. Sympathy and empathy may be our most important emotions because they have the capacity to connect us and enable us to create relationships. Sympathy and empathy may be characterized by a song made popular by Barry Manilow that includes the lyrics, “I feel sad when you’re sad / I feel glad when you’re glad.”[16]One other reason why sympathy and empathy are important relationship connectors is because they enable persons or groups to act in behalf of others’ well-being as well as their own.

Adam Smith: sympathy and empathy. Adam Smith is generally recognized as the father of modern-day neoclassical economics. His famous description of the selfish butcher in his book on the causes of the wealth of nations has provided cover for the selfishness claim that dominates modern economics, which claims that selfishness is required for efficient resource allocation[17]. However, Smith recognized the importance of sympathy—what we would call empathy today—for connecting persons unselfishly. He opened his famous work on moral sentiments by calling attention to empathy:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Adam Smith[18]

For Smith, moral ideas and actions are products of our very nature that interest us in the conditions of others[19]. Later, Smith described the important balance between concern for one’s own well-being and the conditions of others: “Every man feels his own pleasures and his own pains more sensibly than those of other people. . .. After himself, the members of his own family, those who usually live in the same house with him, his parents, his children, his brothers and sisters, are naturally the objects of his warmest affection.”[20] Smith then described how our empathy connects us to others depending on our commonalities.

Defining social capital. Because social capital scholars generally agree that social capital has to do with relationships, because relationships have to do with two or more persons being connected, and because sympathy and empathy are important relationship connectors, this paper supports the definition of social capital as the sympathy and empathy that one person or group has for another person or group who become the object of their social capital. Furthermore, if we define social capital as the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for others, then Adam Smith can rightly claim to be an early contributor to the idea, if not the originator, of the social capital definition supported here[4].

The test for the usefulness of social capital theory is determining whether it allows us to explain and understand exchanges beyond that which is provided by other theories, including neoclassical economics

Social capital theory.[21] A theory is a system of ideas that enables us to explain something. Social capital theory explains that social capital, like other forms of capital, can produce goods without itself being used up[22]. What social capital produces are goods (and sometimes “bads”) that satisfy physical and socio-emotional needs and wants[23]. Goods that satisfy physical needs, such as food, shelter, and safety, are called commodities. Goods and services that satisfy socio-emotional needs are called relational goods. Relational goods are intangible signals exchanged between persons and groups that satisfy the socio-emotional needs for belonging; internal and external validation; transcendence; and connections to the world and people outside of personalized networks[24]. Social capital theory also includes attachment value goods, things whose value and meaning are changed by embedding them with relational goods[25][26]. Things embedded with relational goods include institutions that have standing because they are embedded with socio-emotional goods. Being the object of another’s social capital provides exchange advantages that enable actions not possible without one’s social capital. What social capital theory is supposed to explain are the terms and levels of exchanges of commodities and relational goods and the selection of exchange partners. Therefore, the test for the usefulness of social capital theory is determining whether it allows us to explain and understand exchanges beyond that which is provided by other theories, including neoclassical economics[27].

Investing in Social Capital

We invest in social capital by developing and improving social relationships. An important social capital question is this: How do we invest in it? The answer is: we invest in social capital by exchanging relational goods, attachment value goods (things embedded with relational goods), and commodities on favorable terms of trade because relational goods are included with the commodities being exchanged. Furthermore, exchanging relational goods may produce investments in the social capital others have for us, the social capital we have for others, and the social capital our ideal self (our conscience) has for our actual self.

Exchanging relational goods. Exchanging relational goods is like consuming food—there is an immediate increase in one’s well-being as the food is consumed; then there is a long-term effect as the consumed food is retained by the body and becomes a supply of potential energy. Exchanging relational goods provides an immediate increase in the consumer’s well-being, though the increase depends on the socio-emotional and physical needs that the goods supply. In addition, there is an investment effect as the exchange of relational goods changes the social capital and its potential to supply the relational goods provided by others, one’s ideal self, and what we provide others.

Dale Carnegie wrote his self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. Since its publication, it has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. From the perspective of social capital theory, we might refer to his book as a manual for how to produce relational goods that enable us to invest in social capital (i.e., winning friends) and altering the terms and level of commodity exchanges by including relational goods with commodity exchanges (i.e., influencing people). His suggestions for exchanging relational goods include: become genuinely interested in other people, smile, remember other people’s names, talk about things that interest them, be a good listener, and find things about another person to admire and commend[28].

Personal examples of exchanging relational goods. Relational goods are goods because they satisfy the socio-emotional needs for internal and external validation, belonging, and transcendence[29]. Including relational goods with commodity exchanges produces exchanges on favorable terms of exchange measured by commodity market prices. Below, I provide personal examples of exchanging relational goods and the needs that they satisfy.

  1. I once attended a banquet. When I arrived, most of the seats were filled. As a result, I felt somewhat awkward and excluded. Then, one of my friends saw me and waved for me to join him at his table. I appreciated my friend offering me a place to sit, and his gesture strengthened our friendship. My friend’s relational good, inviting me to sit at his table, satisfied my need for belonging and increased the social capital I provided my friend.
  2. I once attempted to replace a standard light switch with a dimmer switch in my house. Unsure how to proceed, I called my electrician friend, Kevin. I described my problem, and he told me how to install the switch. He also kindly reminded me that I could have answered my own question by reading the instructions that were included with the dimmer switch. Kevin’s free advice saved me the money that would have been required to hire an electrician. I also had an increased desire to help my friend in the future. The opportunity to compensate my friend presented itself sometime later when I hired him to run some electrical wires. When he presented his bill, I paid him a very generous tip. In sum, Kevin had provided me with a commodity when he had told me how to wire my switch, and then he received a commodity gain later when I gave him a generous tip.
  3. Last winter, my wife and I spent a month learning how to paint landscape scenes using acrylics. We were both pleased with our efforts and showed off our paintings whenever we had the opportunity. I think my success at painting made me feel somewhat better about myself. As a result of my painting success, I experienced internal validation and increased social capital from my ideal self.
  4. I once was invited to discuss a topic I had previously studied to a class of young single adults. After my presentation, some of those attending the class approached me and told me that they enjoyed the class and that they believed they had learned some useful information. Since they had no obligation to commend my efforts, I believed their feedback was sincere, and it provided me with external validation.
  5. During one holiday season, my family and I volunteered to help serve meals at a local homeless shelter. I’m not sure whether those we served appreciated our efforts since they were mostly interested in the food we served. However, after spending some time in this service, I felt differently about the homeless people in our community. I think I gained more empathy for them, experiencing what is called here transcendence.


Exchanging relational goods. Opportunities to exchange relational goods that satisfy (or frustrate) our socio-emotional needs and enhance investments in social capital are enabled by commonalities between exchange partners. Commonalities are traits, attributes, ideas, feelings, and characteristics we share. Commonalities include what we can identify in others because we find them within ourselves; what we agree to do for and with each other; what we regard in others and strive to acquire for ourselves; and our compatible views that contribute to our cooperation. Commonalities help enable the exchange of relational goods because similar objects and persons are attracted to each other. Commonalities help divide us into groups of persons who are like us versus persons who are different from us. The importance of commonalities depreciates over time depending on whether they were inherited or earned. And the commonalities that connect us often are often distinguished by the strength of our ties versus the direction of our ties (horizontal versus vertical).

Commonalities and attraction. Commonalities hold the key to connecting us to each other and enabling exchanges of relational goods between us because we find comfort with those who are like us and who do not require that we defend what we value. As a result, we are attracted to those with whom we share commonalities, an attraction described by an English proverb: “birds of a feather flock together.” For example, scientists have recognized the attraction of similar objects in nature and have found that similar plants, shrubs, and trees are attracted to the same climate and soils. In fluid mechanics, the principle of attraction is referred to as the “Cheerios’s effect,” a reference to the phenomenon of floating objects appearing to either attract or repel one another (i.e., how Cheerios floating on the surface of a bowl will tend to clump together or stick to the side of the bowl).

Another application of the principle of attraction is the inheritability of some professions. For example, in a study of 27,788 physicians, where the educational background for both parents was known, 14 percent had a parent who was also a physician, and 2 percent had two parents who were physicians. The proportion of physicians with at least one physician parent increased significantly over time, from 6 percent for physicians born between 1950 and 1959 to 20 percent for physicians born between 1980 and 1990 (P<0.001)[30]. The same pattern of increasing occupational inheritability was not seen for individuals with law degrees[30]. These results leave this unanswered question: What are the commonalities of parents and children that lead to inheritability of some professions and not others? Or, is it the case that some professions have characteristics that make inherited commonalities within families more important?

Us versus them. Commonalities also help explain why we identify with some groups and not others. Henri Tajfel and John Turner introduced Social Identity Theory in 1979 to explain the separation of persons into us versus them groups. Social identity theory implies that we join social networks based on our commonalities. The networks to which we belong become important when they contribute to our self-esteem and sense of who we are. Furthermore, we tend to adopt the identity of model network members and highlight their positive qualities. On the other hand, we tend to highlight the negative qualities of those who are not in our network. Thus, the result of highlighting the positive qualities of those in our group and the negative qualities of those not in our group leads to an us versus them view of social relationships[31].

On the other hand, some groups are both us and them. For example, one group may consist of members who share a synergistic commonality, but also within the group, there may exist persons who share competitive commonalities. This phenomenon thus leaves open the possibility for group members to form either apathetic and antipathetic or sympathetic and empathetic relationships. For example, members of the same business may share a synergistic commonality, but within the business, there may exist competitive groups that compete for a share of the businesses’ budget. Such was the case of scientists with similar interests in stem cell research who were thus competing for limited grant funds[32].

Comparing Commonalities

Which commonalities matter? The importance of commonalities depends on their capacity to enable the creation and exchange of commodities and relational goods that satisfy our physical and socio-emotional needs. Important commonalities enable relational goods to be embedded in things, including commodities and institutions, creating what we have called elsewhere attachment value goods[21]. Consider some examples of how commonalities enable the exchange of relational goods and commodities and investments in social capital.

Work companions, while performing their duties, may find opportunities to exchange relational goods when the duties’ success depends on the companions’ cooperation. Band members may create relational goods when they produce music that would be impossible to create alone. Persons facing a shared crisis create and exchange relational goods when they contribute to the resolution of the problem and to each other’s emotional support. Members of the same club or people attending the same political event may find opportunities to confirm each other’s values. Agreeing on causes and solutions to problems, supporting shared objectives and ideals, and encouraging one group’s success (over another) can all lead to the creation and exchange of relational goods.

Unimportant commonalities are those that do little to enable the exchange of commodities and relational goods. For example, as the number of people sharing a commonality increases, including living in the same city, the time and effort available per person to exchange commodities and relational goods decreases. As a result, the commonality is less important. However, context matters.  For example, being an Australian in Australia is an unimportant commonality, but being an Australian in another country can be an important commonality.

In cases where large numbers of people share the same commonality and interpersonal contact is limited, people must create and maintain high attachment value goods to sustain their relationships. Other commonalities that are less important are those that have a limited duration, such as being on the same flight with another person. To summarize, unless a commonality enables and encourages the sustained exchange of relational goods and commodities, it is unlikely to be important for the exchange of relational goods and investment in social capital.

Competitive versus synergistic commonalities. Whether commonalities enable the exchange of relational goods or bads may depend on whether they create a competitive or a synergistic environment. Competitive commonalities are commonalities that create environments in which one person or group can only win relational goods or commodities if another person or group losses relational goods or commodities. Synergistic commonalities are ones that create environments in which one person or group can only win relational goods or commodities if another person or group also wins relational goods or commodities.

Athletic events are examples of competitive commonalities in which the win/lose outcomes have produced well-known examples of apathy and antipathy, often between team fans. For example, after an Indonesian soccer match, police fired tear gas to stop brawls between fans of the competing teams. In response, fans panicked and trampled to death at least 125 persons[33].

In contrast to competitive environments, persons or groups facing a challenge whose solution requires cooperation creates synergistic commonalities, commonalities that have produced well-known examples of sympathetic and empathetic relationships. For example, the movie Bitter Enemies describes how Klu Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis and Black activist Ann Atwater cochaired a charrette in which the resulting majority vote would determine the fate of East Durham’s Black students who’d been displaced by a school fire. At first, Ellis and Atwater were each other’s object of apathy and antipathy, but they eventually became lifelong friends, demonstrated by Ellis delivering the eulogy at Atwater’s funeral[34].

Earned and inherited commonalities. Commonalities may be earned or inherited. Earned commonalities can be acquired with effort and experience. These may include such things as where people live, where and how they play, what they study, and how they worship. In some cases, to be accepted an earned commonality persons claiming the commonality needs credentials.  For example, persons claiming a similar educational experience must be able to share experiences that they did indeed share similar experiences at school and were acquainted with some of the same people at the school.

A special class earned commonalities are covenants, agreements, bonds, commitments, promises, laws, contracts, conventions, vows, treaties, oaths, pledges, and declarations that connect one person or group to another person or group. Commonalities may also be inherited and determined by the conditions of our life, such as the time and place of our birth, our genealogy, our gender, our native language, the world conditions during our lifetime, and the nationality of our parents. And commonalities may enable us to discover and create more commonalities.

Emotional commonalities. If we do live life emotionally, as Eduardo Bericat claimed, and if our relationships depend on what we have in common, then sympathy and empathy have a special place in Brene Brown’s emotional “atlas” because they have the capacity to create and strengthen relationships by turning life’s emotions into commonalities. Sympathy and empathy facilitate the creation of emotional commonalities which are essential to the creation and exchange of commodities and relational goods that satisfy our physical and socio-emotional needs. This is why social capital is defined as the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for another person or group.

Commonalities of degree. Commonalities may be viewed in terms of their density, intensity, grade, rank, or degree. For example, persons may work at the same place of employment, but they may also be paid differently, hold different positions of responsibility, have worked at the company for different lengths of time, and have different comfort levels. One commonality with important differences in quantity is a person’s income. This variable is particularly important because it influences so many other commonalities persons of different incomes and wealth levels are likely to share, including where they live, who will be their friends, where they are likely to worship, what political views they will support, and where their children will go to school, etc.

Commonalities and Kinds of Social Capital

Because of the large number and kinds of commonalities that connect individuals and groups, different intensities and combinations of sympathy and empathy may exist. Nevertheless, some have found it helpful to recognize the different strengths of social capital ties and whether social capital ties exist in horizontal versus vertical relationships. Three kinds of social capital will be discussed below, including linking, bonding, and bridging social capital.

Earned commonalities and linking social capital. Earned commonalities acquired and maintained through exchanges of commodities and relational goods in horizontal relationships between equals are consistent with what Granovetter referred to as weak ties and are what we call here linking social capital[35][21]. Linking social capital is what exists between coworkers, neighbors, members of the same faith, students in the same class who often study together, people traveling on the same conveyance, and people sharing information about a variety of topics, including employment opportunities. And because the commonalties that enable the development of linking social capital are earned, they are depreciable and require continual exchanges of relational goods and commodities to be maintained. Furthermore, once social capital investments through exchanges of commodities and relational goods no longer occurs, social capital diminishes. Emotional connections, in particular, depend on the continual exchanges of relational goods and commodities in order to be maintained, especially since emotional memories are inaccurate and may be short-lived[36][37].

Linking social capital may also develop through commonalities created by agreements, promises, contracts, and covenants that commit parties to coordinated actions in the future. While still based on earned commonalities, strong forms of linking social capital and emotionally strong relational goods may also be enabled by commonalities that commit individuals and groups to coordinated actions in the future.

Inherited commonalities and bonding social capital. Inherited commonalities that are acquired at birth and that enable the exchange of commodities and relational goods that produce durable ties called bonding social capital. Of course, not all durable ties are based on inherited commonalities; some may depend on agreements, covenants, promises, and contracts. However, inherited commonalities that enable the development of bonding social capital are non-depreciable and durable.

Bonding social capital may not only be durable, but it is also strong, as measured by the level of commodities exchanged for relational goods. For example, one exchange associated with bonding social capital is the exchanging of one’s kidney for socio-emotional goods. The commonality enabling such an exchange was, at first, due to inherited familial connections: In the 1950s, the first successful exchange was between identical twins. In the 1960s and 1970s, live donors were also generally genetically related to the recipient. In the 1980s to the 1990s, the donor pool was expanded further to include emotionally related individuals (spouses and friends). More recently, however, the exchange has occurred between acquaintances and sometimes even strangers[38].

Another example of bonding social capital was shown in a five-state land-value exchange study. In that study, colleagues and I found that compared to the market price, farmland sellers discounted the sale price of their land to friendly family relatives by 6.78 percent, compared to the average discount of 5.57 percent to friendly neighbors[39].

Bridging social capital. Some commonalities enable the development of asymmetric or vertical levels of social capital ties. We refer to asymmetric or vertical social capital as bridging social capital. For example, two persons may be members of the military and may have served during similar circumstances. However, their military service commonality may be gradated if they held different ranks that made their relationship to each other asymmetric. Other asymmetric commonalities may include work experiences shared by an employee and a supervisor, educational experiences shared by a teacher and a student, athletic experiences shared by an athlete and a coach, and family experiences shared by parents and children. In each of these relationships, the asymmetry may change the nature of the commodities and relational goods that are exchanged because of resource differences. For example, we expect that a teacher has more authority and knowledge than that of their student; we also expect parents to have more commodities than their children.

Another important bridging social capital example is Gary Becker’s Rotten Kid Theorem[40][41]. In this theorem, the rotten kid’s parent provided high levels of social capital and provided the kid with significant levels of commodities; the rotten kid then pretended to provide social capital to their siblings to maintain their parent’s social capital.

Why is Social Capital Important?

What makes social capital, defined as the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for others, such an important concept? Consider the following several possible explanations: First, it satisfies the requirements for being capital. Second, it facilitates specialization and trade. Third, it facilitates collective action. Fourth, it encourages investments in public goods. Fifth, it explains the production of positive externalities and the reduction of negative externalities. Sixth, it provides solutions for managing common resources. Seventh, it reduces commodity inequality. Eighth, it explains the production of attachment value goods. And ninth, it likely leads to increased happiness.

What is it that makes social capital such an important resource that produces so many individual and societal benefits? It is that by internalizing the well-being of others, it is then possible for us to act simultaneously in our own interest and in the interests of others. While selfishness is heralded in modern economics as the foundation for commodity exchanges and the efficient allocation of resources, selfishness also leads to commodity inequality and the allocation of resources based on dollar votes, which limits collective action, promotes free riders, and encourages the creation of negative externalities. Moreover, selfishness lacks the capacity to promote the rule of law but also provides persons with the same motivation (i.e., gaining material wealth) to rob a bank or build a road.

In sum, if we experience life emotionally and if our well-being depends on our exchanges of relational goods and commodities, then at the heart of our life experiences and our well-being is social capital. Furthermore, social capital also offers us hope for overcoming the narrow benefits of selfishness by allowing us to internalize each other’s well-being.

Social capital and capital. Capital, in its simplest form, represents a supply of potential services with the following properties: First, the service capacity of capital can be increased through maintenance and reinvestments. Second, capital’s service capacity can be depreciated through time and use. Third, service enabled by capital must have the capacity to transform the value of other things. And fourth, we generally consider capital to be location specific, while capital’s services can take on multiple kinds of properties and locations[42].

Specialization, trade, and increased productivity. People are more productive when they specialize in doing what they do best (or at least in not doing what they don’t do well). This is the point Adam Smith made with his famous pin example. He noted that one person working alone could scarcely make one pin per day. However, ten people working together and specializing in a specific pin-making task could produce 28,000 pins a day. Still, being able to specialize in a productive task requires that people can exchange what they produced for what they gave up producing when they specialized.

Perhaps the benefit of belonging to a social capital–rich network, such as a family, explains the importance of family businesses (which are now included in reports as small businesses). For example, there are 5.5 million family businesses in the United States, and “family-owned businesses contribute 57% of the GDP and employ 63% of the workforce.”[43] Family-owned businesses employ over 98 million people! In addition, family businesses are responsible for 78 percent of all new job creation[44].

Collective action. Sometimes, large-scale projects with many contributing persons may produce benefits that are difficult to distribute based on individual efforts. In such cases, it may be difficult to motivate individuals to act collectively when they participate solely based on personal benefits. But when participants internalize the benefits received by members of the larger group and when individuals experience vicarious rewards from helping others (e.g., other religions, countries, families, schools, and teams), individual rewards become less important, and project participation becomes more rewarding.

Increased production of public goods. A public good is one whose benefits are nonexcludable and nondepletable. A public good is nonexcludable if one cannot exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits or impose costs on them when they do. Nondepletable means that the use of a public good does not diminish the services it produces for others. Streetlights may exemplify a public good. It is hard to exclude passersby from benefitting from the light, and its supply is not diminished when some persons enjoy its benefits.

Selfish persons may underinvest in public goods because the individual commodity benefits are less than the investment. But when persons internalize the benefits of public goods as the objects of their social capital by investing in the public good, the additional benefit is often sufficient to make the public-good investment attractive. As a result, social capital increases individual rewards from public goods and makes their being funded more likely.

Increased (and decreased) production of positive (and negative) externalities. An externality is a cost or benefit one person or group imposes on another person or group without their consent. However, social capital that internalizes the consequences of one’s actions, in effect, internalizes externalities, thus increasing the benefits (and costs) of what would otherwise be a positive (or negative) externality.

One example of a positive externality is cleaning the snow off sidewalks. In my neighborhood, homeowners are expected to keep their own sidewalks free from snow. However, one of our neighbors is a single mother, and her neighbor is retired, is in good health, and owns a snow blower. When he cleans the snow from his sidewalk, he also cleans the single mom’s sidewalk as well. He cleans his neighbor’s walk because she is the object of his social capital.

Noise can be a negative externality for those upon whom it is imposed. In college towns located next to large student populations, noise is a frequent problem. But imagine parents of a baby who, after much effort, has drifted off to sleep. Do the parents need a complaint from their neighbor to limit their noise, especially when they already know to be quiet so as to not wake up their baby, whose well-being they have internalized?

Managing common resources. Commons refers to shared resources in which stakeholders lack the ability to control the rate of service extraction by other stakeholders[45]. As a result, there is a tendency for the common property resources to be overused and for its service capacity to be exhausted. Although commons originally referred to common land, we now include information, natural resources (such clean air, clean water, and wildlife), and shared urban spaces as commons. Failure to regulate the use of commons is referred to as the tragedy of the commons. This term describes a condition where individuals are guided by their selfish interests, as opposed to the interests of the group, and thus overuse and often destroy the commons resource[46]. For example, Nobel Prize–winning social scientist Elinor Ostrom described how Switzerland dairy farmers employed their social capital to properly manage their common grazing land[47].

Managing exhaustible resources. Some resources are exhaustible and can be viewed as having a fixed supply; such resources include oil, gas, and even land. For exhaustible resources, the question becomes this: What is the proper trade-off between our current use of resources versus preserving the resource for future users who are not present to vote their preferences? The argument supporting using the resources now is the so-called need for economic growth. Growth is the be-all and end-all of mainstream economic and political thinking. Without a continually rising gross domestic product (GDP), we’re told that we risk social instability, declining standards of living, and pretty much any hope of progress. But what about the counterintuitive possibility that our current pursuit of growth, which causes such great ecological harm, might be incurring more costs than gains? That possibility—that prioritizing growth is ultimately a losing game—is one that Herman Daly, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a former senior economist for the World Bank, has been exploring for more than fifty years. In so doing, he has developed arguments in favor of a steady-state economy, one that forgoes the insatiable and environmentally destructive hunger for growth, recognizes the physical limitations of our planet, and, instead, seeks a sustainable economic and ecological equilibrium.

Encouraging environmentally friendly behavior because it is profitable in the long run simply may not be effective. Instead, there must be other incentives to care for the “nest” we live in. Creating attachment values for public goods such as schools, forests, and public water sources substitutes voluntary care for these resources in place of producing appropriate behavior through profit incentives, threats, or fear of penalties. Instead, we must be willing to accept relational goods as legitimate and effective substitutes for commodity gains that harm the environment and are allowed because nature lacks a voice at the boardroom.

Reduced commodity inequality. Another benefit of belonging to a social capital–rich network is having the ability to exchange relational goods for commodities that reduce commodity inequalities. The principle of comparative advantage teaches that individuals will export to their exchange partner the goods that they have in excess supply. Hence, a commodity-wealthy person relative to a social capital-rich person will likely export commodities on favorable terms while a commodity-poor and social capital–poor person will likely not import commodities on favorable terms of trade. As a result, when those with relatively more social capital than commodities exchange relational goods with those who own relatively more commodities than social capital—their commodity differences will decrease.

To illustrate, we expect parents to exchange commodities for relational goods with their children: a smiling baby is exchanging relational goods for its care and feeding. In fact, exchanging commodities for relational goods outside of their families led Americans to give “a record $471 billion” to charities in 2020, breaking a record for charitable giving despite living in a global pandemic[48]. In sum, income variations decrease and average income increases among members of a social capital–rich network as social capital increases[49].

Particularly visible are the consequences of a lack of social capital resources on household networks. For example, two-parent households have access to more social capital resources and benefits than single-parent households do because a household of two parents connects to and benefits from two different extended family and friend networks. In contrast, a single-parent household, frequently connects to only one social capital network.

Consider some of the consequences of reduced social capital for single-parent households. According to the US Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was only 6.8 percent. Understandably, Robert Rector called marriage one of the greatest weapons against child poverty[50]. Other consequences for children raised in single-parent households include lower educational achievements, higher crime rates, and higher chances of themselves becoming single parents[51].

Attachment value goods. Individuals and groups change the value and meaning of things when they embed them with relational goods produced by persons who are social capital objects. In a 1992 study, Bowlby and Ainsworth identified a concept like attachment value goods that is now referred to as object attachment[52]. Furthermore, abnormal hoarding may be related to strong attachment values. Other less extreme examples of attachment values may be keeping favorite photos of friends and family, keepsakes from loved ones, and religious symbols.

Two personal examples may help to illustrate the importance of attachment value goods. When I married, and before I moved to a different part of the country than where my mother lived, she gave me a ring owned by one of our pioneer relatives. The ring connected me to my mom and to my ancestors. Years later, while I was visiting my mom, she noticed I was wearing her ring. She showed visible signs of happiness knowing that I valued her gift. As this story illustrated, shared attachment values can strengthen social capital ties.

The second example occurred during the 2010 Christmas season in Provo, Utah. At the time, a fire mostly destroyed a historically important community and religious building whose construction had begun in 1883 and had concluded in 1886. The building’s primary use had been a place of religious worship for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS church) in the area. Ten months after the fire and the loss of a community and religious group’s high attachment value good, the then LDS church president, Thomas S. Monson, announced that, at a cost of millions of dollars, the burned-out Provo Tabernacle would be reconstructed as a temple, one of the most sacred buildings in the LDS church[53]. High attachment value goods are often preserved and restored—thereby connecting us to our past—even though such reinvestments cannot be justified economically.

Sustainable institutions. Things that can acquire attachment value include laws, customs, rules, and accepted best practices. An orderly society in which persons respect, obey, and sustain their laws require those governed by the law to acquire attachment values for the laws, otherwise selfish individuals will often find it to their advantage to ignore them.

Jackson et al. (2012) reviewed the reasons people obey the law. The traditional explanation is that people want to avoid sanctions and penalties. However, according to Jackson et al., people comply with the law because they believe it is the right thing to do. Furthermore, when institutions (laws) are fairly administered in the eyes of the people, they acquire attachment value, and society can avoid the cost, danger, and alienation that are associated with policies based on external rules underpinned by deterrents[54]. Indeed, the production of attachment value goods may be one of social capital’s most important contributions.

Increased happiness. All other outcomes of social capital discussed in this section relate to actions—this one does not. Happiness is an intrinsically important outcome of social capital that arises from the existence of the potential for action but does not require the potential to be realized or used to be activated. It relates to social capital’s capacity to produce relational goods that satisfy socio-emotional needs for internal and external validation, belonging, and transcendence. In social capital networks, members produce relational goods that satisfy fundamental socio-emotional needs that produce generally happier people. In a longitudinal study, researchers repeatedly examined the same individuals to detect any changes that might occur over time. Robert Waldinger, the director of the study, and his colleagues concluded that social connections are “good for us and that loneliness kills.” It turns out, according to Waldinger, that people who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier and physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected[55].

Negative and Cheap Social Capital

Negative social capital. To define social capital as the sympathy and empathy a person or group has for another person or group suggests that its opposite exists as well. Its opposite is called negative social capital: a person or a group’s apathy (as opposed to sympathy) and antipathy (as opposed to empathy) for another person or group who is the object of their negative social capital.

Persons who have sympathy and empathy for each other are likely to form social capital networks. However, persons who are the objects of each other’s negative social capital are more likely to avoid each other and to compete rather than cooperate. And instead of investing in public goods that produce benefits for their objects, persons with negative social capital for their objects are more likely to choose destructive and defensive acts that harm or disadvantage their objects.

Cheap social capital. Related to negative social capital is a special kind of relationship that may be neither positive nor negative, but cheap. When people share apathy and antipathy for the same person, group, or thing, they are likely to have a relationship captured by the couplet, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”—or, if not a friend, at least “a strange bedfellow.”

Apathy and antipathy toward the same person, group, or thing can provide an important commonality that can enable the formation of a network. Persons in networks whose connection to each other—their commonality—is their shared apathy and antipathy for the same person or group are in what we call here a cheap social capital network. We call the connection between members of a cheap social capital network, cheap social capital. And we call those they view with apathy and antipathy (as well as their high attachment value goods) as objects of their cheap social capital.

An example of cheap social capital. Consider this example of cheap social capital, cheap social capital networks, and cheap social capital objects. Recently, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, traveled to Iran to solidify an Iranian-Russian alliance that has been emerging as a significant counterweight to American-led efforts to support Ukraine against the Russian war efforts. This alliance has all the trappings of a cheap social capital network with America as its object: “Russia and Iran still don’t trust one another, but now need each other more than ever,” wrote Ali Vaez, the Iranian director for the International Crisis Group. “This is no longer a partnership of choice, but an alliance out of necessity.”[56]

What Makes Cheap Social Capital Cheap?

Recognizing the benefits of belonging to important social capital networks, and lacking membership, nonmembers often look for alternatives. Cheap social capital networks can be an attractive alternative to social capital networks.

But what makes cheap social capital cheap? First, cheap social capital is cheap because of the abundance of potential cheap social capital objects. Second, it is cheap because it is inexpensive to maintain. And third, it is cheap because its products are inferior imitations of goods produced in social capital networks.

Earlier in this article, the benefits of belonging to social capital networks were described. However, such networks are sometimes expensive to build and maintain, and they may not exist in some important transactions where their contributions are needed. Furthermore, they are fragile and subject to destruction when faced with an imagined or real provocation. As a result, we almost universally belong to some cheap social capital networks even when we also belong to social capital networks. In other words, most individuals belong at the same time to both cheap social capital networks and social capital networks.

Kenneth Boulding may have summarized the popularity of cheap social capital versus social capital when he wrote, “And love, with longer pull than hate, is slow indeed to propagate.” In the end, the easy access to and the universal appeal of cheap social capital—despite its limited usefulness—makes it a popular alternative to cheap social capital.

An abundance of potential cheap social capital objects. Cheap social capital networks are cheap (inexpensive) to create because there are so many objects that can be viewed with apathy or antipathy—negative social capital. Persons and groups can view objects with negative social capital for several reasons. These reasons may include one’s differences or lack of obvious commonalities; fear that one will be disadvantaged or harmed in competitive struggles with one’s object; resentment over real or imagined offensives; and being excluded from the advantages enjoyed by an object due to its membership in social capital networks. Sometimes, just being alone is also sufficient to view others with negative social capital.

The differences that can lead to the creation of cheap social capital objects are more easily recognized than the subtle similarities that can produce social capital networks. Persons who are different from us, who have unknown or unacknowledged commonalities, who we can blame for our shortcomings or limitations, whose efforts impede our own, and who disagree with us can all become objects of our apathy and antipathy and can thus lead to the formation of cheap social capital networks.

Pointing out the lack of commonalities between cheap social capital network members and their object(s), however, is rarely enough to produce cheap social capital. Cheap social capital objects must be viewed as having the intent and ability to compete with cheap social capital network members for limited resources and ideological perspectives (attachment value goods).  Or they must be viewed as threats to one’s physical well-being, to the status quo, or to the progress of network members. For instance, high-profile persons are popular candidates for cheap social capital objects because there is some sense of validation in taking down those who, in some measure, are viewed as being higher up in social standing. Also, those who command power and resources can be, and often are, blamed for one’s current unpleasantness, which, in most cases, exaggerates the power and influence of high-profile persons.

Not only is there an abundance of potential cheap social capital objects, but there is also an abundance of lonely persons wanting to belong to any network, including cheap social capital networks. The loneliness could be a result of benefits being denied to and disadvantages being imposed on those who are excluded from social capital networks, or perhaps the loneliness is simply the result of one’s inability to find and form relationships with like-minded others. For whatever reason, loneliness is a national disease that creates the need to belong—to belong somewhere or, sometimes, anywhere[57].

Low (cheap) maintenance costs. Cheap social capital networks are cheap to maintain relative to social capital networks for the following reason: maintaining a social capital network requires the constant exchange of relational goods, which may be difficult. For example, earned commonalities (which can be acquired through the exchange of relational goods) are depreciable, as are inherited commonalities, though these are less depreciable than those of earned commonalities. Furthermore, the exchange of emotional bads can also quickly destroy the social capital that has taken a long time to create.

To maintain social capital, one must exchange genuine relational goods, which is something many people lack the competency to do. Maintaining cheap social capital does not require the social skills of effective communication, emotional intelligence, or empathy that maintaining social capital requires. Instead, maintaining cheap social capital only requires that its object(s) be colored as morally or physically threatening and prevent the formation of commonalities. Nor are there many effective limits on maintaining negative social capital toward the object of cheap social capital. Some methods of maintaining this negative social capital include the following: using misinformation to blame the object for its objectives and actions; using discrimination to limit exchanges with the cheap social capital object to prevent the development of commonalities that might enable the exchange of relational goods; emphasizing commodity gains possible at the expense of the cheap social capital object; creating barriers to joining social capital networks that the objects of cheap social capital cannot meet; and establishing conflicting loyalties that would isolate the cheap social capital object.

Low (cheap) value products. Additionally, cheap social capital is cheap because it is an inferior imitation of social capital relationships. We refer to an imitation or a counterfeit of a genuine thing as cheap—as in a cheap imitation. Synthetic diamonds, knockoff clothing brands, fish parts sold as crab, college degrees acquired from mail-order universities, and copies of art masterpieces might all qualify as cheap imitations. In fact, the sale of cheap and counterfeit products is a major problem for Amazon, whose third-party sales have increased from 3 percent in 2000 to over 50 percent of Amazon sales in 2019[58]. Thus, the real benefit of membership in social capital networks is being privy to their ability to produce relational goods and help members internalize each other’s well-being. Not internalizing each other’s well-being (except as it directly benefits themselves) precludes members of cheap social capital networks of many of the advantages they would enjoy as members of social capital networks.

What Motivates People to Form Cheap Social Capital Networks?

Consider several motivations people have for forming cheap social capital networks by making others the object of one’s negative social capital. The first motivation is holding resentment for being denied the benefits of membership in social capital networks; the second, is having envy for those who denied them the sought-after advantages; the third, is resisting imagined or real threats and protecting one’s resources from being lost to other social capital networks; and the fourth, is lacking the commonalities required to build social capital. Overlaying these motives are the pursuit of power, status, and wealth, wanting to feel special, fearing conspiracies, and wanting other to know one’s ‘truth”.

Resentment. Exchange theory predicts that we expect fairness when exchanging commodities and relational goods. Exchanges that leave one better off than before are likely to motivate future exchanges. Furthermore, exchanges of relational goods may lead to increased social capital. When one is denied the opportunity for participating in synergistic exchanges, the result is a production of relational bads and the development of negative social capital. The deficit, real or perceived, in the exchange motivates one’s efforts to redress the deficit and often leads to the formation of cheap social capital networks and defensive and destructive acts against the objects of one’s negative social capital.

Envy. It is easy to associate cheap social capital networks and their objects with envy, which often results from benefit disparities between members and nonmembers of social capital networks[59]. Defined, envy is a negative attitude toward another person’s superiority and the desire to gain what this person possesses through either reducing the benefits of the person in a superior position or increasing the benefits of the person in an inferior position. According to this view, reducing inequality should reduce envy. However, research finds that reducing envy is much more difficult. It may require support for the view that the inequality is undeserved and that therefore reducing it is morally justified. In any event, I view envy as an important part in the creation of negative social capital and cheap social capital. Other contributors to negative social capital (like envy) include conflicting attitudes toward high attachment values such as political, religious, and other moral values, in which the conflict produces relational bads that devalue one’s own social capital.

Real and imagined threats. An advantage due to belonging to a cheap social capital network is the increased resources one has from the network to respond to threats and perceived dangers from objects of their cheap social capital. In this instance, the desire of network members to preserve themselves leads them to cooperate because doing so increases their own emotional and physical safety.

Sometimes, persons separate themselves into us groups versus them objects because us persons could lose relational goods and other resources from being viewed as belonging to them groups. The examples of persons acting on these motives are legion. One example is when Sir Thomas More refused to compromise his religious views, even when pressured by King Henry VIII. Convicting More of a crime worthy of death required the lies of More’s associates, who ended up abandoning him to maintain their social capital with the crown, including the King’s solicitor, Richard Rich[60].

When social capital networks are dissolved, what was once social capital, sympathy and empathy, is replaced by negative social capital, apathy and antipathy. Evidence of social capital being replaced with its negative often follows, for example, divorce: following the discovery of threats to her household network, Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’s then wife, attacked his car with a golf club and sued for divorce, eventually receiving one hundred million dollars in the settlement[61].

Lack of commonalities. Individuals who are members of different networks may not only hold different commonalities, but these commonalities may conflict with one another. Such may be the case when persons hold opposing views that cannot be reconciled, like whether the persons support the death penalty, abortion, immigration, gun rights, limited government, and so on. When a persons’ views are strongly held and represent one’s social identify, these views can acquire high attachment values that can lead persons to create or join opposing cheap social capital networks.

In other cases, persons may lack commonalities that are inherited. Sometimes, those lacking the inherited commonality that cannot be earned would permit the development of social capital, commodity exchanges, and relational good exchanges. For instance, Washington Booker said the following about being Black and growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 60s: “Some [White] restaurants would let you come in, go up to the counter, and order.” Booker continued, “[But] you had to have a certain kind of posture. You had to just stand there, couldn’t just be looking around. And then, when your sandwich came, you took it and you left.”[62]

Examples of Cheap Social Capital Networks

When I started looking for examples of cheap social capital networks and their objects, I wondered how difficult they would be to find. However, I found that examples were ubiquitous; they were in music, art, theater, literature, science, media, business, politics, athletics, law, and health practices. Some examples are reported below.

Music. A once-popular love song created objects of cheap social capital out of persons who tried to discourage a couple’s romantic relationship by telling them that “you’re too young to really be in love.”[63] The implication was that the young couple’s connection would be strengthened by making persons (who oppose their union) outside of their network objects of the couple’s cheap social capital.

Art. In 1937, at the request of the Spanish nationalist government, Nazi Germany bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, inflicting death and destruction. Pablo Picasso expressed his outrage by painting an enormous mural that depicted the suffering and destruction that resulted from the bombing. The painting was displayed to millions of visitors at the Paris World’s Fair. His painting was intended to make the Nazi government and the Spanish nationalist government that ordered the bombing objects of the world’s cheap social capital. It also appears that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Spain’s leader Francisco Franco were connected by nothing more than cheap social capital. After a frustrating exchange, Hitler, emphasizing the strange nature of their relationship, declared that he “would rather have four of his teeth pulled out than deal with that man [Franco] again.”[64]

Movies. “Mean Girls” (2004) is a movie about a cheap social capital clique called “the Plastics” who create a burn book that unfavorably describes persons not in their network. The movie is about the Plastics’ defensive and destructive acts that alter the composition of their network and disadvantage their objects. At the end of the movie, Cady, the latest queen bee of the Plastics concludes that making fun of other people doesn’t make you any smarter, funnier, or more attractive, etc[65].

Theatre. Shakespeare’s Macbeth tells the story of a brave Scottish general who learns from a trio of witches that he will one day become king of Scotland. To realize the prophecy, Macbeth and his wife form a cheap social capital network with King Duncan, who is their cheap social capital object. After murdering King Duncan, Macbeth is appointed king of Scotland. Macbeth then becomes a tyrannical ruler, committing murder and leading his country to war. At this point, Macbeth’s subjects have now replaced Duncan as the object of Macbeth’s cheap social capital, and, in the end, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are killed and commit suicide, respectively.

Literature. George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 describes the totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and repressive regime of Oceania. The regime is ruled by Big Brother and brainwashes its people by creating a cheap social capital network using an imaginary enemy that functions as the object of the people’s cheap social capital. The imaginary enemy is referred to as Eurasia, which is later changed to Eastasia, with whom it is perpetually at war. Antipathy and fear of its cheap social capital object are taught during hate week. Orwell modeled his book after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany[66].

Science. Senator Ted Cruz told the attorney general that Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should be prosecuted for lying about the pandemic. Dr. Fauci was asked by CBS’s “Face the Nation” anchor, Margaret Brennan, if he believed that Cruz and others were trying to make him a scapegoat for President Trump’s mishandling of the health crisis. Dr. Fauci acknowledged as much and then expressed his frustration that “we had this devastating plague out there that [was] killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and we’re having public health principles being decided on the basis of political ideology.” It appears that Dr. Fauci believed that Cruz and others intended to make him the object of their cheap social capital network for their own political gain by creating a cheap social capital network of Dr. Fauci’s actual and potential supporters[67].

Media. Fake news is false or misleading information that is presented as accurate reporting of events and happenings. The aim of fake news is often to make advertising income by destroying the reputation of a person or entity. Former president Donald Trump has been credited with popularizing the term and using it to describe any negative press coverage of himself[68]. Calling unfavorable news coverage fake news is also a way of making news reporters and news outlets objects of one’s cheap social capital.

Business. Cutthroat businesses treat their employees as though they are important only to the extent that they contribute to the business’s bottom line. Amazon delivery drivers complained that they were not allowed to stop and find a bathroom. As a result, they were forced to pee in cups and defecate in bags. Amazon acknowledged the problem after initially denying that the company had a problem with “pee bottles.”[69] Will Yakowicz of Inc. magazine claims that cutthroat business culture is bad for business. Perhaps cutthroat business culture is bad for business because such businesses make themselves the objects of their employees’ cheap social capital, an outcome that fails to inspire cooperation and even produces negative social capital and cheap social capital[70].

Politics. Gaius Julius Caesar, a Roman general, statesman, and dictator of the Roman Empire, defeated his political rival, Pompey, in a civil war. As a result of his military successes, Caesar became dictator of Rome in 49 BC. His populist and authoritarian reforms angered the elites, who began to conspire against him by making him the object of their cheap social capital. The conspirators, led by a group of rebellious senators (including Brutus and Cassius), stabbed Caesar to death in 44 BC. The evidence that the conspirators were connected by cheap social capital is that they failed to unite the Roman empire after they accomplished the assassination[71].

Sports. Athletic teams often make cheap social capital objects of their rivals to gain fan support. Ten famous rivalries include the following: Green Bay Packers versus Chicago Bears (professional football); Los Angeles Lakers versus Boston Celtics (men’s basketball); Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali (men’s boxing); Boston Red Sox versus New York Yankees (baseball); Ohio State versus Michigan (college football); Duke versus North Carolina (men’s college basketball); Chris Evert versus Martina Navratilova (women’s tennis); and Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus (men’s golf)[72]. Sharing a cheap social capital object unites fans in a cheap social capital network and sometimes leads to defensive and destructive acts between opposing fans, known as football hooliganism[73].

Religion. Religious persecution objectifies an individual or group because of their religious beliefs. The defensive and destructive acts perpetuated against religious objects often include violence. Atheists are popular objects of cheap social capital networks. Today, atheism is punishable by death in thirteen countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen[74]. Threats and actual violence against nonbelievers is often intended to discourage defection from a religious tradition in order to maintain the integrity of a cheap social capital network.

Law. Legal cases are almost always designed to be a contest in which prosecutors attempt to make the defendant into an object of cheap social capital and to make the jury into a cheap social capital network. A well-known example of this effort was the trial of O. J. Simpson. Once a popular sports figure, Simpson was tried in criminal court for the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Simpson was acquitted of the murders but was later found responsible for both deaths in a civil trial. In the criminal case, the prosecutors’ efforts to make Simpson the object of the jury’s cheap social capital failed[75].

Health. Developmental neuropsychiatrist Martin H. Teicher revealed some startling connections between abuse of all kinds and permanent debilitating changes in the brain and psychiatric problems ranging from panic attacks to post-traumatic stress disorder[76]. Abuse usually involves dehumanizing the victims and making them the object of cheap social capital because the abuser believes that the abuse is justified, is acceptable, or is unlikely to be reported. Women and children are the most frequent victims of abuse[77].

Summary and Conclusions

This article pointed out that important social capital definitions focus on relationships. Then, it defined relationships as people connected by commonalities that can either be earned, inherited, or gained by making covenants and commitments.

Eduardo Bericat reminds us that we live life emotionally[15]. As a result, the most important relationship connectors are sympathy and empathy. Their importance is because they enable persons to internalize each other’s emotions—making our emotions into commonalities. Sympathy and empathy are also important because they allow persons and groups to internalize each other’s well-being, the source of many important beneficial economic outcomes described in this paper. Because of the importance of sympathy and empathy, this article supports the definition of social capital as the sympathy and empathy one person or group has for another person or group, the object of their social capital. Other emotions that connect us, such as trust and regard, are closely related to sympathy and empathy and are also sometimes used to define social capital[78]. Because Adam Smith emphasized the importance of sympathy (what we now call empathy), we recognize him as contributing to the social capital definition supported here.

Social capital tells a happy story. Indeed, members of social capital–rich networks who exchange relational goods as well as commodities are more likely to exchange with each other than with those outside of their network, are more likely to cooperate with each other, are more likely to invest in public goods and support institutions, and are more likely to enjoy equal commodities incomes. Perhaps it is because of social capital’s role in encouraging exchanges, specialization, and increased productivity that members of social capital–rich networks, such as families organized around inherited commonalities, are so successful.

On the other hand, social capital’s dark side is that the benefits enjoyed by members of social capital–rich networks are often denied or not available to network nonmember. This is especially true for those who lack inherited commonalities such as age, race, gender, and genealogy used to organize social capital-rich networks. The apathy and antipathy that nonmembers can sometimes develop toward social capital network members, especially when the nonmembers’ own social capital is limited, can sometimes be described as negative social capital—the apathy and antipathy one person or group has for another person or group.

Our dark side of social capital story might end here—with people and groups developing negative social capital toward another person or group because they are denied the benefits of belonging to social capital networks. Our story might end here because negative social capital by itself doesn’t unite people to produce the benefits possible in networks, especially social capital-rich networks. What makes the negative social capital story important is its capacity to be the commonality that produces the ubiquitous cheap social capital networks that described in this paper.

Perhaps cheap social capital networks are ubiquitous because they are so inexpensive to form. They are inexpensive to form because there are so many potential cheap social capital objects. Additionally, such networks are not only inexpensive to form and maintain, but what they produce are cheap imitations of what social capital networks can produce. Indeed, what cheap social capital networks mostly produce are defensive and destructive actions against the objects of their cheap social capital. This is not to say that sometimes defensive and destructive acts are not needed and valued and that perhaps these cooperative acts can lead to the formation of social capital networks; but for the most part, what cheap social capital networks produce is awful and cheap.

It remains for a future work to detail the destructive and defensive acts cheap social capital networks may direct against their objects and the awful consequences of such acts. Future investigations might focus on discovering the conditions that lead to the formation of cheap social capital networks. Is it because of social capital’s dark side—that as social capital networks strengthen, that nonmember persons or groups will form cheap social capital networks and pursue defensive and destructive acts? Future work might also look for other explanations for the formation of negative social capital and examples of cheap social capital networks besides the ones described in this paper—in social, business, entertainment, religious, and scientific activities. However, most importantly, future research might search for measures that will impede the formation of cheap social capital networks and mitigate their defensive and destructive consequences.


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