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In my last post, I talked about the tragic misapplication of quantitative constructs, how our quantitative ideas become idols that break their promises and enslave us. Here, I would like to focus particular attention on what is perhaps the most universal and potentially destructive quantitative construct known to man: money.

Unlike most of our modern quantitative idols, money has been around pretty much forever, though we tend to relate to it somewhat uniquely today. What is dangerous about money? Well, I believe money is dangerous because it has no intrinsic value, but is nevertheless inextricably woven into the fabric of our society in such a way as to make it both highly desirable and essential to the very functioning of that society. The exchange of money is basic to the practical functioning of our society. Consequently, this valueless abstraction can take on ultimate value. This is the paradox of money: though it is worth everything to some people sometimes, there is no way to really say what it is worth. It actually has no worth–if we tried to describe what it actually is, we couldn’t. It is nothing. And yet, it can do for us practically anything that we want it to do. And it gives us power precisely because it is collectively recognized as being something that everyone wants. But the only fundamental reason people want it, initially at least, is because of the power it may give, because of what it can do.

This is not to say that people only pursue money for selfish gain, for an increase of individual power and freedom. Some people pursue money, at first, only to survive, because without it they will not have food or shelter or some other basic need. I only mean that the main reason people have ever wanted money at all, initially at least, is because it can purchase them something else, something else that they either want or need. And this is because money is a universally recognized mediator of transactions. This is not a deep observation, but it is still quite incredible, when you think about it. I can do nothing more than hand someone this little slip of paper, or swipe a card, and they will do something for me, or give me something. Because of this, we build an unconscious sense that the money itself has some sort of power.

Along with having this collectively acknowledged power, money compresses a massive amount of information–billions of human decisions and interactions taking place every day–into a single, linearly ordered concept. It mushes together a complicated and dynamic web of interactions into a single, measurable quantity which is then itself reused in the process of social interaction. Thus when we spend money, make decisions about money, and base decisions on money, we are engaging ourselves in a causal web–a dynamic web of interactions, with practical and moral dimensions–that we have very little information about.

Incidentally, one of the things that has always appealed to me about conservative economic philosophy is that it seems aware of this “dynamic web” in a way that liberal thinking (or at least, liberal rhetoric) usually seems to ignore. It is a wise thing to recognize that tinkering with something we don’t understand rarely results in the effect we intend, and that it is perhaps better to let money be what it naturally is than to try to force an “equal distribution of wealth.” In spite of this insight, the conservative approach to economics–with its adoration of the free market as being able to sort everything out in the best possible way–ultimately leaves me cold.

It is true that free markets preserve essential information about the economy in a way that a controlled market never could, and that this is most likely the essential flaw in all centrally administered “redistribution of wealth” ideas. But we still have, in a capitalist system, the problems of hording, of lack, and of poverty. We still have to deal with the fact that businesses fail, and that this has consequences for real people–we have to face the fact that in a “competitive economy,” some people will always lose things that are important to have. Liberal solutions to these issues usually do not work, but conservatives usually don’t have a solution at all.  They do, I suppose, have the “trickle down” idea. This is the idea that, when enough overall wealth is created, everyone will have enough of a share of it to cover their basic needs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be what happens! If we just leave money to do its job, society doesn’t magically organize itself in an optimal way (despite what Milton Friedman might have you believe!).

Ultimately, I think that the root of social lack, of poverty, is clearly NOT the way we choose to organize our wealth. Poverty is not really a matter of whether we are capitalists or socialist or communists–these overarching organizing principles are scapegoats. Why does anyone starve, why does anyone go without? The fundamental answer to this cannot really have to do with how we organize our money. Really, I think that any organization of wealth structure can succeed if people are fundamentally honest and generous within it. So the lack of wealth for some people is only a symptom of a more basic flaw. It is fundamentally a lack of love, a lack of consideration for our fellow man, that drives poverty–how we think of money is tied up in this, though it is not the only factor, of course. But as long as our conscious minds assign to personal wealth a value that it does not have, poverty will exist.

The idea that there is a tangible and meaningful measurement of what is “mine,” that I can hang on to this and control it and rest in it, is one of the major things that causes me to neglect my neighbor. As long as I hold tight to such a concept, I will pursue my own good at the expense of others, and some people will go without. In line with this more basic problem, we have allowed an abstraction to become so deeply ingrained in our concept of what is valuable that we would turn our backs on our neighbor because of considerations related to money. Every day, thoughts of money cause me to make selfish decisions, to not consider my fellow man. This lack of consideration is tied up in the abstraction of money itself, in me assigning to it a value that is out of proportion to what it is, which causes me to think about it too much and in the wrong way.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Robert
    March 2, 2010 at 11:51 am

    “Every day, thoughts of money cause me to make selfish decisions, to not consider my fellow man.”

    Like when my neighbors angrily told me they would not purchase a rug to dampen some of the sound in their apartment, because it was “too expensive.”

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