Money can’t buy you love. But in some places, it can buy the trappings of family. In Japan today, actors for hire can play not only lovers but also family and friends. Companies market freelance surrogates for all manner of situations—a friend for a party, a grandparent for a reunion, and so on. Feeling lonely? There’s an app for that.
The renting of family—the kin economy—has yet to penetrate Western societies at any significant scale. Lord willing it never will. But a mode of considering relationships in economic terms certainly has. We see this in euphemisms such as “dating markets” and “sex work” to describe the selling of human bodies for others’ pleasure. In some ways, this is not a surprise; much economic activity is inherently social and always has been. What distinguishes our current mode of thinking from these realities, however, is that it elevates the importance of the economic to a place of primacy. Perhaps the most notable example is the popular conception of social life in terms of wealth, as its own form of capital.
“Social capital” is, with apologies to Milan, so hot right now. Tocquevillians left and right laud its benefits and lament its depreciation in already vulnerable communities. Journalists use it to explain political divides and the rise of Trump. Leading think tanks dedicate reports to social-capital approaches to domestic policy issues. Even a congressional committee has set up a multi-year research project to study it.