How good can she be? She doesn’t have any money. She never earned any money. She just stayed home and took care of her kids all her life. She’s worthless.
Is it really just your ability to earn money that determines your value? There are good people who earn little or no money, and bad people who earn vast sums of it. The reverse is equally true. So, why are we obsessed with it? By itself, it has no value. You can’t eat it. You can’t make a shelter out of it. You can’t grow food in it. You can’t wear it. You can’t use it to make you well when you are sick.
It’s because money allows us to be more free than a lack of money does. Freedom isn’t just absence of coercion. It’s not enough that you’re not in jail, or that no one is ordering you to do this or that and forcing you to comply. That’s undoubtedly a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of freedom. But, it’s also the ability to choose for yourself. If I have billions of dollars, I can choose to visit the Pyramids of Egypt at any time. If I don’t, I may be lucky to visit Wal Mart for groceries. There are more choices available to some of us than others. I think that is clear.
Now, is it right and fair that some people have more choices than others? Frankly, it feels unjust to me. We are, all of us, human beings on this planet for a very short time, and, it seems to me, we should all be able to enjoy our time here to the greatest extent possible. There are always restrictions to our doing this. That’s a part of Nature. Some of us will never see the top of Mt. Everest. Some of us will never utter a complete sentence. This is unavoidable, and those are restrictions with which, whether we like them or not, we must live. And, working together, we could probably find ways to lift some of those restrictions.
But, what about the restrictions we impose on other humans? We have decided to grant nearly unlimited choices to some of us, and almost no choices at all to others, and we have agreed to do this, and to measure how many choices one can make, based on how many little pieces of green paper they have.
I’m reminded of this moment from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy:
“Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich. […]Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Why is money any different from leaves? It’s the peanut that has value, not the leaves.
It is certainly true that one of the things human beings do in order to survive is to work together to accomplish some shared goals. We built all of our civilizations by working together. We would then trade one task, or service, or item for another. Essentially, it was barter. There has been trade since we developed enough intelligence that we were capable of thinking of it. It has occurred in every civilization and every culture on Earth. It is a useful part of our shared humanity. It has allowed us to grow to the point we have now reached.
But, we have lost touch with what the point of all this working together was in the first place. The idea was that we could create a better world in which we could all live. Someone invented the wheel, or discovered it, as the case may be (I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m not sure how we ended up having one), but suddenly life became exponentially easier for us. Heavy things could be moved more easily. We could travel more effectively. In time, the distances we could traverse in our lives was expanded. We had many more choices than we had before. This was an increase in Freedom. And we have had many more since then.
We learned to build houses because someone built some primitive version of one. We found that helping each other to build shelters was better for everyone. We all needed shelter.
Now, of course, we don’t do that very often anymore. We pay someone to do it for us. There are people who are experts in this field. They know how to draw plans, how to implement the plans, how to get the pieces, how to put them together properly, and how to ensure it’s safe to live in this shelter. And it’s almost always a large group of people who have expertise in each of these and many other fields who work together to create the house.
I can’t build a house, myself. First, I can’t cut down a tree. I also don’t know how to make the tree into usable lumber with which to build the house. I can’t work out how to put the pieces together, and I couldn’t pound a nail straight, even if I could do all of the other things. I have to have people do it for me. And, today, that means I have to have many little green pieces of paper. Those are sign of my value, of my right to have something. If I have enough of them, I can get someone to do all this work for me. If I don’t, I can’t.
How did we go from working together to becoming paper obsessed?
Again, there is a value in trade, but the point of trade is to make life better for everyone. We have worked 200,000 years to get to the point that we can now grant everyone the basics they need for survival. We have the materials and the skills to build more than enough houses for all human beings to live in one. We can grow enough food to ensure that every human being has enough to eat. We can fight diseases sufficiently to keep people alive much longer than we once could. We can provide enough clothing to keep everyone warm and safer from some of the elements than we were without clothing.
Why can’t everyone have those things, then? Well, they don’t have enough pieces of green paper. That means they don’t deserve them. Wait… what?
I see a value in trade even now. Obviously we can’t all live in 10,000 square foot mansions, or have wheels that are attached to the best vehicles, or the most artistic clothing, or the most tasty food. We should trade for those. That makes sense to me.
But, should we really have to trade for what our 200,000 years of growth have made possible? Shouldn’t everyone have a place to live? Shouldn’t everyone have enough to eat? Shouldn’t everyone have medical care, and clothing and some ability to make some choices in their lives? In short, why should we limit some people’s freedom so much while granting so much freedom to others?
Is there a way we can make sure everyone has enough freedom to live? Is that an unreasonable goal? How can we get there? I welcome your thoughts.