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What's the Matter With Money?

There is nothing new about all the badmouthing of money we witness so often in our culture and political environment. Not only do we find many of the literati railing against money, even while some of them eagerly urge their agents to negotiate hefty deals for paperback or movie renditions of their works – e.g., John Grisham, whose The Pelican Brief is a rich-bashing pulp novel if there ever was one. Most on the Left are leading while some on the right are joining the chorus of money-bashers.

Current and common anxieties have prompted many people to seek instant scapegoats, which has often lead to intensified denunciations of greed, avarice, the "me" generation, and the attempts of a few politicians during the past decades to contain government expenditures. The rich are supposedly most to blame for it all – reminiscent of how the Nazis and others in Europe and elsewhere managed to turn so many against Jews, many of whom have been closely associated with finance and banking.

But in our "age of whining" one might have guessed it: the fault lies never in the souls of men and women who engage in the rash and destructive behavior. Instead the responsibility for all misfortune lies with those who want to be thrifty with taxpayers' dollars, or with their own. Even news-reporters, who are supposed to be objective, refer to cost-cutting efforts by government as "Washington's cutting of benefits," as if it were a foregone conclusion that people have a basic right to be handed, with the aid of the government's guns, other people's money.

Many of our current candidates for political office have been talking about all the horrible greed that pervaded our nation throughout its history, most recently during the Reagan-Bush administrations. Some appear to love to repeat this theme as if it were their private mantra, even while all they can promise to do to alleviate further trouble is to throw more of other people's borrowed money at bureaucrats hired to help the poor and downtrodden. They are, of course, taught this by heavy scholarly tomes, such as Daniel Bell's now classic The Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism, which propounded the thesis that capitalism forces us all to become hedonists, people who care for nothing other than the satisfaction of their desire for instant pleasures, thereby undermining capitalism itself which requires adherence to certain principles that hedonists ignore.

Money is at once evil and good, by these accounts. It is seen as a very useful instrument, facilitating as it does the improvement of the poor, market exchanges, employment, savings, and economic communication in general that help produce prosperity yet, at once, a corroding influence because it encourages us to view everything in terms of a market price. As Marx put it, with money a society becomes a cash nexus.

The thinking witnessed around us about money is, in any case, certainly quite confused. Some points, however, may help with setting things straight.

First of all, it is worthwhile to recall that the famous Biblical statement often quoted about money is not actually about money but about the loving of – that is to say, being obsessive about – it. That is what's the root of all evil, not money itself, nor indeed a preference or desire or even a high regard for it. Now that is crucial – love is to be reserved for one's God, family, and friends – in short, for one's personal and crucial intimates, not for anything else. No wonder, then, that if one gets confused and actually seriously loves money (or one's collection of rare books, golf or deep sea fishing), and thus seriously mistakes one's priorities, it leads one astray and ought to be avoided.

Second, the lament about materialism – that is to say, the embrace of worldly advantages – needs to be grasped in the context of the widespread admonition that we should lead lives of greater spirituality, other-worldliness, and eschew pleasures and other so called materialistic, non-supernatural pursuits. The right response to this is that there is nothing wrong with being in tune with the material world and, thus, with money (a means for coping with it), nor with a healthy regard for their importance in one's life – any more than with a serious concern for one's health, fitness, nutrition, or with seeking to gain life-enhancing amenities of all sorts. Nor is there anything amiss with striving to obtain as much money as one requires for living as well as one can, which for different folks will mean different amounts.

Ralph Waldo Emerson articulated a far wiser notion than what all the fuss about money's bad influence suggests. As he put it, "Money, which represents the prose of life, & which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses. Property keeps the accounts of the world, and is always moral."1

Third, money is actually no more than a convenient commodity, useful first for purposes of trading other commodities and services. Money is a convenient means of avoiding the very cumbersome process of barter, one that once suited small human communities but simply will not suffice on today's economic stage, the globe. And money can be – and is more and more being treated as – a derivative kind of commodity. Because it is a thing that represents or attests for people the having of values, it becomes a value – somewhat as a ticket to the theater or sporting event can. Many items of derivative value exist, such as airline tickets. In this derivative state, of course, they can gain and lose value. Tickets to a concert or claims checks for pawned articles also function this way. Promissory notes, too, are of derivative value – no one would purchase them for the paper they are written on. But as a means for attesting to values which back them they are extremely useful to us. And this is indeed an excellent thing – human beings and their choices and actions can produce a great many varieties of valued items for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Fourth, even as a commodity, the value of money derives from its utility as representation, as a means to obtaining other ends that are in fact of substantive value to persons.

So what does all the hostility toward money mean, and what does it reveal? What in fact do all the cheerleaders of envy object to when they rail against money?

Put bluntly, their main target is actually living well. What motivates most people's highly demeaning outlook about money is misguided guilt about their own and other people's achievement of a decent standard of living, and of some luxury and pleasure from life. It is a form of misanthrope.

These people may well be sincere – but, sadly, sincerely wrong. They think that no one should or has a right to be happy so long as there is poverty, disease, misery, deprivation, hunger and other regrettable human conditions in this world. They are the puritans whom H. L. Mencken defined by noting that they are afraid that somewhere, someone might be happy. Just consider the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s observations about this:

"As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30 years, I can never be totally healthy – even if I just got a good checkup at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way the world is made. "

Critics of money, and of those who have a respectable sum of it, tend to look at all the successful and prosperous people in the world as an affront to the less fortunate. They draw hardly a distinction between those who have met with misfortune through no fault of their own, and those who have destroyed their lives of their own accord. While it may not be simple to draw such a distinction, without it we rob ourselves of conceptual tools that are indispensable even as we evaluate the thinking of different people on various topics, including this one. Neither do they see any relevance in the fact that some of those who are wealthy have honestly earned it from serving other people who wanted them to be of service. They tend to see earning wealth as a zero-sum process.

But this is very wrong, very unjust. It also makes very little sense. What, after all, is it that the poor would like most? To have more money than they now have, to be more prosperous than they are. The unfortunate poor want to be well off and that is what is so sad about their lives. Yet they disagree vigorously about the value and merit, indeed, the moral propriety, of having money. Many both implicitly and explicitly approve of it. They would just as soon obtain it now, even before many others do, than wait until the entire world is well off. Rightly so, since one cannot in fact build utopia, although one has a decent chance at improving one's own and one's intimates' lot.

Maybe many lambaste money, in part, because some of them haven't earned it. Some could be miseducated about what kind of life is good, even while they do not abide by that philosophy. Some have built up misguided guilt. Yet others surely believe in a goodly dosage of demagoguery, that their own views will resonate with the public, most of whom may be prone to generate some measure of envy in their hearts about other people's prosperity.

Can anything be done to stop all this confusion and injustice about money and those who have a healthy sum of it?

For one, it would be helpful if people started to actually think more about the nature of money rather than simply let themselves be guided by their feelings and the casual opinions of cultural leaders. Then, too, if people realized that those with money are really no different from those without, aside from being more prosperous, they would stop seeing these persons as caricatures from the pages of the old Pravda and The Daily Worker.

It would also be helpful if it were recognized more widely that many people's misfortune isn't the price of the fortune and success of others. Life is not a zero sum game where all the good things that accrue to some have to be taken from others. Just consider, as a simple case in point, that some people benefit from their looks, health or natural talent, without taking any of this from others. Furthermore, throughout the history of civilization there has been an absolute increase in wealth even as there has been a constant increase of the population.

In any case, there is altogether too much waste of precious book, newspaper and magazine space devoted to damning money and those who are involved in its management. Indeed, the generalized hostilities shown Wall Street or banks is an ugly sign of unrestrained human prejudice, stereotyping and demagoguery, not to mention scapegoating. Money as such is innocent, as is flour or steel; and to want more of it is perfectly healthy and justified, provided it is come by honestly and spent wisely and prudently. But even when these conditions aren't satisfied, it isn't the fault of money per se but of those who misuse it. To smear all those who handle it carefully, prudently is gross injustice.

Note:

1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nominalist and Realist," in The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1929), p. 307.

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