Money is not a given force of nature. It did not come naturally out of the world. Humans invented it. Humans, some many thousands of years ago, decided that they would live and die by how much of it they had, and shackled their children to living and dying by how much they had. And now, thousands of years later, the descendants of those humans don’t have a choice but to continue that process. It’s nearly impossible to ‘opt out’ of money, considering everything costs. Even if you know how how to live entirely off the land, including making your own tools and clothes and shelter, you still need to buy some land lest you be a life-long trespasser (you could do that, but it’s illegal), and don’t forget to pay for the permits for your hunting. Unless you’re going to go vegan on this venture. All power to you with that one, I suppose. I don’t mean to sound anti-vegan, because I’m not, but there’s a reason hunter and gatherer societies tended not to be vegan.
I have sometimes wondered what would happen if we didn’t have money. Both in the context of “what if tomorrow all money was worthless or no longer existed” and in the context of “what if we had never invented it in the first place?”
What would our societies look like. What would happen to us?
This isn’t the first time my mind has wandered down this avenue, though it is the first time I’ve felt brave enough to write about it. In the past, whenever I’ve proposed this idea, I’ve been met with, well, anger. I don’t even have to get to my own opinions on the matter, all I need to do is ask “what if?” and people get flustered and shut the conversation down. Granted, I’ve also seen people panic at the thought of doing away with pennies, even though pennies literally cost more to make than they are worth and are thus wasting a lot of actually valuable money each year.
But can we, for a moment, indulge the what ifs?
I know the simple answers — if we suddenly had no money, it would be total chaos. That’s a given. Between the panic and the chaos, everyone would be scrambling to find a new way to assess worth, because that is the society we have built and society at large tends to err towards keeping things as much the same as they’ve always been as possible. And our society is built around the concept that everything has a price tag that is at least kind of understood, in so far as the person selling the thing can tell you the price and that is the price, regardless of your feelings (though, sometimes, you can negotiate, but 90% of situations you can’t — and shouldn’t try, trust me that the McDonald’s drive through operator has heard it all before and does not find your efforts funny).
The fine details, though, could really go many ways. The currently rich could find a way to entrench a new system that kept them where they are. The currently not-rich could be innovative enough to find an alternative, thus completely changing our class systems.
Of course, it’s most likely that our revered figureheads would be the ones that get to dictate what new popular system gets put into place. Which varies greatly between groups, too. Just look at how deeply divided the American political system is, and how pretty much all of our media mostly only serves to deepen that divide. It’s also unlikely that people who have routinely been put down by society will suddenly have an equal chance to be heard as people who have been media darlings, though I could see a universe where our TV, movie, and YouTube stars get to dictate the outcome, and many of them have proven to be more sympathetic to the downtrodden than most of society. Of course, they’ve never been tested in a situation where they suddenly got to make all the rules of society, so there’s no way to truly know if they would rise to the challenge.
All that is to say, there’s still a minor chance that the shakers and movers that rise to power could bring us a completely new way of transferring goods and services, giving us a new system without money as we currently understand it. We certainly have enough stuff that we don’t need money. There is enough food in the world for everyone to be fed, if we only give them access to the food instead of putting money between their access to it, and there are some pretty well-regarded influencers of modern society who are well aware of that and may be interested in giving that a try.
Which actually slides us nicely to the other side of this experiment —
What if we had never developed money in the first place?
We’d probably have built a society entirely centered around trading and bartering, which would, of course, significantly change the landscape around us. The ‘wealthy’ would be determined by who was able to hoard the most precious stuff, be it salt or silk or whatever we desperately needed, but also in who was able to perform the most lucrative tasks to convince those hoarders to part with their wonderful stuff.
So…it actually might not be too different from current society, at it’s core. Since it didn’t happen, we can’t really tell if trading and bartering would have helped or hindered things like, say, medicine, or education. On one hand, inventing cures for rare diseases is quite a lucrative skill to have that many people who are wealthy, in money or other precious stuff, would covet. Maybe it would be an even more corrupt world in that light, with things like healthcare literally only going to the wealthy because the wealthy are the only ones with anything to trade for it. At least with money you can have debt, horrifying though debt is. Of course, there’s the other possibility: That property could’ve been more evenly distributed and perhaps people were kinder, more willing to help each other.
It could have been a world where the slimy, greedy, destroy-your-neighbor sorts weren’t rewarded since, perhaps, no one would want to trade or even associate with those kinds of people.
That’s probably very unlikely, because those slimy sorts got where they are because they’re good at exploiting others. As much as I want to believe the best in people, there are people out there who just get a thrill out of exploiting others for their own gain.
So, is all of this a pointless experiment to say ‘we’d always end up somewhat like we currently are, and we will never change?’
No, not really. After all, there is that sliver of potential that we could just suddenly one day start looking out for each other without caring about how much we can get from the person we are helping in return. It’s an incredibly naive idea, but there are lots of people who just love to help others already. Yes, you can go super cynical and say ‘well, the reward is happiness!’ but, first of all, is it really so bad to want more happiness in the world? Second, you can’t eat happiness. You can’t wear happiness. You can’t live on happiness alone.
Money can buy you food, and clothes, and healthcare. Happiness cannot.
But, of course, food, clothes, healthcare, and everything else could be provided without money. Not easily, not with the way it is so entrenched. A hospital can’t just say ‘all care will be free from now on!’ because, well, they have to get supplies, and their staff has to eat and care for their families, and they have to have electricity and clean running water so they can perform medical procedures, just to name a few big expenditures. The suppliers (and the suppliers suppliers, because the suppliers have to acquire the stuff to make the supplies from somewhere) could offer supplies for free, and farmers could make food for free, and electric companies and water companies don’t need to charge for their services, but all of these groups, and so many more, would need to decide together to stop charging everyone involved for the services they provide before one single hospital could open up for free services.
Human are the only creatures with any system even remotely resembling money. Sure, other animals have been shown to trade with each other, and there have been many cases of various simians learning how humans use money and attempting to use it themselves, both when humans forcibly taught them and what they learned for themselves from observation, but no other animals developed a system that even remotely resembles ours in any way.
Our history with money is also of interesting. One day we’re trading valuable commodities like salt and silk, then chunks of metal (and who knows what else that didn’t survive Mother Nature’s forces) as an agreed upon substitute for the actually needed commodity. Of course, from there it only made sense for countries to have official trading hunks of metals, which became coins that officially represented the countries that they came from. Then, perhaps because it was just easier, money moved from ‘actually useful in many ways beyond just trade’ chunks of metal to what really is a placeholder with no value, aside from what we as people assign to it. If tomorrow every single person in the world decided that $1.00 bills were actually worth $100.00, then they would be. But for actually material value, even $100.00 bills aren’t actually worth $100.00. As of this year, it cost just over 13 cents to make one $100.00 bill. And yet, we still agree that it’s worth $100.00. Though, of course, how much $100.00 is worth has certainly decreased over the decades.
All of this is presented as normal, and natural, when we are being taught about money and economics. It doesn’t have to be, technically, but that is the way that it is. In our world, we are constantly trying to find equilibrium between what we are making, and doing, and giving and what we are getting in return, for better and for worse.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that change can’t and won’t happen.
Just as coins evolved from trade and bartering, representative money rose after commodity money (that’s paper vs. gold backed money), and now credit cards and internet transactions have risen in the wake of paper money, something new could be on the horizon.
Actually, something new is already here — Cryptocurrencies.
Cryptocurrencies don’t have any value. Well, they do, but not an actual material value. They are pixels on a screen. And yet, one bitcoin is currently worth $6688.64 (as of 09/23/2018 — and that is significantly less than it was even just a few years ago). You have to ‘mine’ for them, and work for them, and people do accept them as payment for things like cars and houses and food. Not everyone accepts it, of course, so it’s far from universal, but there is a tax plan for dealing with it in America. I might accept it, since they seem to be worth a lot to others and I could make some real (ie: widely recognized by my society) money off of them quite easily.
Of course, there are ways around that, such as using the bitcoin to get gift cards from companies that will accept it, which you can then use at establishments that don’t.
We very well could be on the cusp of a radical shift in how money works.
So, with all the changes that have come, and all that could be coming, it’s not so radical, I think, to also consider a world where we move past money.
To think about our descendants learning in school ‘and this is something our ancestors called ‘money.’ An arbitrary thing that had no value except the value they collectively decided to assign to it. And they based their entire lives around that! Wow, were our ancestors backwards.’ You know, the same way we look back at old medical techniques and cringe because wow, were our ancestors backwards. And many fought tooth and nail to stay that way, because it was what they knew. Of course, we moved past that.
There is no doubt that money has been extremely useful. But there’s also no doubt that it’s been, well, a monster. What would happen if we slowly phased it out?
(You know, killing money might still be on the Millennial docket list.)
I know, I’m no economist. This isn’t necessarily my wheelhouse. But thinking about people, and society, and how people behave in societies — that’s what I live for. So for everyone who read this far, I ask you to please let me know what you think the world could look like without money, both in the catastrophic sense but also in the sense of a lack of money being a choice made by society. Or, to get really fun, you can also tell me about other thought experiments that have sprung on you late at night while fighting off colds. Those do tend to be the best ones.