“Money’s only paper, only ink”, sang Tracy Chapman. She’s one of a long line of people who view money as something that has no true value and no true meaning, which we fool ourselves into thinking means everything. These people have a valuable point to make about the importance of keeping money in proper perspective, and the enrichment one can find by seeking detachment from the pursuit of money… but the idea that money is inherently without meaning or value is one I can’t agree with. Money means something very important.
Economists call it a store of value. What is “value”? We can’t just define it as that which makes people willing to pay money for something. Where does it come from?
One possible answer is scarcity. But when a rare natural resource is found in the wild, it doesn’t yet have any value; only when someone fetches it back to civilization and sells it does it become valuable. And most sources of value don’t come from scarcity. There is certainly nothing scarce about potatoes or vegetable oil, yet people pay an awful lot over the course of a year to keep themselves supplied with french fries, with little of that payment going to the farmers who produce the ingredients. More tellingly, people are perfectly capable of making their own french fries at home, yet most would rather pay someone else to make them.
We can now see that most of what people pay for, when they buy something, is not any kind of scarce material, but for the work it takes to make something ready to use from that material. Rough gemstones might be rare and expensive, but they’re not nearly as expensive as the jewelry made from them is.
If you want a one word answer to what “value” is… it’s labor. That ephemeral abstract quantity which is stored and made fungible by money is actually something very concrete: it’s the work that people do every day — the sweat and skill that we put into our jobs. When you pay money for something, what you’re doing is claiming the fruits of someone else’s work. The magic of money is that, by storing “value” over an indefinite period, it lets the work be accomplished without needing to find out first who it is that wants the work done. The labor and the benefit from it are uncoupled in time.
What does it really mean to be wealthy? If you’re rich, it means that a disproportionate number of people spend their time and effort working for you instead of for themselves or each other. They labor to satisfy your whims, and you have no need to perform any further labor of your own to benefit them.
This gives us a new way to look at people’s dreams of easy money and get-rick-quick schemes. It may seem like a harmless fantasy to dream of winning the lottery or finding buried treasure — after all, you’re not taking anything from anyone else — but what the dream really amounts to is a desire that people labor on your behalf while you do no labor for them. It’s not so harmless when you think about it that way. What people are craving in these dreams is, in a word, privilege.
It’s also a different way to think about the social issue of concentration of wealth. Sure, it may seem only right and proper that some who perform their labor wisely and adroitly should accumulate greater rewards than those who don’t… but does that justify the creation of a class of people with permanent wealth? Think of it in the extremes: if everyone had only a tiny amount of money and we all had to work and trade for everything we got, it can’t be denied that we would all have great freedom. But if, at the opposite extreme, you imagine that all the money was owned by one little group and everyone else had nothing, and depended on the rulers who own everything to dole out the means for sustenance, then the effect in practice would be slavery.
I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that concentration of wealth implies a general loss of freedom, and the degree of concentration makes a pretty good metric for how unfree most people are in practice. This is ironic in that those who defend such concentration often do so in the name of liberty. Their argument may be coherent on paper, but in practice, the more concentrated wealth becomes, the more difficult it is for someone not already privileged to find any path for bettering their own circumstances; when the problem becomes severe, most forms of labor end up enriching only the already rich, rather than the person who performs the work. If this were not the case, the concentration would already be correcting itself.
So money certainly isn’t meaningless. The balance of how much you can get against how much you need determines the degree to which you are personally free to choose how you spend your time. And that’s why we admire those who speak of detachment from chasing money: because they are speaking of reclaiming freedom.
But we can be free without money only to the extent that we are able to be self-sufficient. If we have land to grow food on, natural resources around us, and a capacity to work hard to make things for ourselves instead of buying them, it’s possible to live quite well without money. But if suddenly you can no longer do that — if you have, say, a disabling injury or a chronic medical condition, or your land and property are lost in a catastrophe — the ability to be free without money can vanish in an instant. It doesn’t even have to be you that falls ill — it could be a family member. Even without such losses, for millions of people there are insuperable obstacles to overcome before it’s even possible to reach a bit of ground from which one can obtain food or water by one’s own efforts. If you’re stuck in the middle of a refugee camp or a shantytown or an urban ghetto, with no way out that doesn’t cost money, the freedoms that can come from renouncing pursuit of financial rewards are nothing but a myth.