The Injustice of Money
I. Systemic Problems
Currency is an abstract, mathematical idea that is quite one-dimensional.
- It claims that every object, every service, and every entitlement can be assigned a number that can be used to objectively weigh the difference of value between two things.
- It claims that by receiving something, you automatically enter into debt, and that debt must be settled with something else of exactly the same monetary value. As long as the two objects or services have the same ‘price’, the transaction is considered just.
This calculation completely overshadows any other considerations – emotional, social, environmental – or common sense one might otherwise have. I believe it is therefore utterly unsuitable for the real conditions of the world we live in.
“Going to work” essentially means that for 8 hours a day, we must blindly, unquestioningly follow orders from our “boss”, do things we might find very unpleasant (such as scrubbing someone else’s toilets, or collecting garbage), or not even agree with morally (dumping toxic waste, cutting down forests, keeping farm animals in horrible conditions, etc).
We do not dare to speak out against this boss for fear of losing our job. In a way, each person willingly submits themselves to temporary slavery in order to afford food, shelter, and medical support.
Because money is necessary in order to obtain things such as food, housing, and medical support, every person can be effectively blackmailed by simply offering the sufficient amount of monetary pay. The looming threat of losing access to water, food, heat, and shelter is what drives people to continue their daily lives of slavery, never stopping to catch their breath and question the legitimacy of the entire system.
Displacement of responsibility in large companies
What separates this from traditional slavery is that there is a way for financial slaves (employees) to rise up the ranks, and become financial slave owners (bosses) themselves. In order to do this, they must make enough money to blackmail other people into working for them. The desperate need to escape this financial slavery breeds an egotistical, cut-throat mentality. As a result, only the least empathic and the most unscrupulous rise to the top.
In the hierarchy of a large company, a top-down chain of command is established, where at each level, those below must unquestioningly obey the orders from above. The larger the company, the less this obedience is held together by a shared interest in the goal, but instead by the promise of a paycheck. (the guy flipping burgers at McDonald’s is not necessarily interested in the higher goals of the CEO.) However, the main objective that is being followed is that of the person whose money is being spent: the owner of the company. And at the end of the chain, a person simply executes his order without knowing much of the original intent or its implications.
1. A wealthy person has a financial interest in something being done. The primary goal of every company is to minimize cost and increase profit- so the owner of that company is subjected to those pressures. This could manifest in a variety of ways – anything from cheapening the disposal of waste to investing more in marketing in order to sell more of the product.
2. The authority structure of employment lets him order another person to do something. A person can be blackmailed to do anything, if he is paid enough money. Being engaged in a job puts him at the mercy of his boss’s orders, unless he wants to lose financial security. The worker could develop moral qualms about what he is doing, and leave. But usually he rationalizes it simply as “a job that needs to be done”, because personal survival, security, and status always take precedence over other matters.
3. The delegation of responsibility over a long chain of command gets it done. The longer the chain of orders from the boss to the final executor of the order, the more this blind obedience is exacerbated. This prevents that final worker from being aware of the original intent or the actual consequences of his doing. The guy who drives the truck with the toxic waste doesn’t necessarily know it’s toxic, and the marketing team that comes up with a catchy slogan for a potentially dangerous drug doesn’t necessarily know it’s dangerous.
It’s important to remember that any injustice that is caused by this system is not down to the “evil of the person doing it”, but rather the simple result of placing humans into a monetary system. You can’t really blame a worker for wanting to survive, and you can’t really blame a CEO for wanting his company to survive.
Beyond personal survival
Each person is subjected to the pressure to make more and more money if he wants to survive and eventually graduate to a higher level. The goal of any company, logically, is to maximize profit and minimize cost.
Once a certain level of success is attained, however, there is usually no relaxation of that pressure, because with increasing wealth, you take on more and more responsibilities that could not be maintained after a lessening of income. A bigger house costs more to maintain; a large company buys more supplies and needs to pay more employees. Also, less income usually leads to diminishing life quality for that person and his family. One gets accustomed to a certain standard of living very quickly. There are always new layers of wealth to compare yourself with; and there will always be richer people than yourself.
Even if there is no immediate risk of personal starvation and homelessness, there are plenty of other strong motivations that keep people needing to make money: being able to support one’s family, paying for college tuition; paying back one’s debt, or being able to pay one‘s employees.
As part of being a businessman, one enters into countless favors and deals which one strives to uphold for the sake of one’s own integrity, social acceptance and the trust of business partners. These immediate, personal obligations are often felt much more strongly than some vague, far away notions of collective social and environmental responsibility.
We are told that with enough money, we are allowed to have whatever that money will buy. This cultivates a childish entitlement towards things we had no part in creating and were not gifted to us. With enough money, we get to walk into a store and take an incredibly powerful flatscreen TV with us and call it our own. We return home from our shopping sprees and look over our loot, like thieves, boasting to everybody about the new things we have obtained.
The single consideration of adequate pay completely blots out any other concern in our minds. We don’t wonder who designed the product or whose work really went into its manufacturing. We don’t stop to consider if we actually deserve to have it – if we are ever questioned about that, we get extremely defensive and usually fire back by saying “I spent my hard earned money to get this!!” And therein lies the core problem: getting to buy things is the reward we are given for submitting ourselves to slavery; the carrot at the end of the stick that keeps us working. We equate the hardship we endured in the workplace with the entitlement to receive completely unrelated objects.
The basic morality of “buying things” stands on shaky ground. How do we possibly deserve to suddenly own the work of somebody else through the swipe of a credit card? This doesn’t just apply to acquiring products; especially on the larger scale of acquiring companies, I find the idea disturbing that the ownership of an entire enterprise or project can suddenly shift from person to person, without any of these people actually being involved in the work. A wealthy individual could buy another person’s company, even a journalistic magazine or newspaper, gaining control over what gets to be published, and eventually creating a journalistic monopoly.
Displacement of respect and honor
When someone owns a large house, an expensive car, and regularly takes aeroplane trips to exotic countries, that person is considered “high status”, and people are impressed. However, this person probably had absolutely nothing to do with the building of that house, the manufacturing of that car, or even the fact that he was able to travel to those countries. He didn‘t just “go to Thailand”. He hitched a ride on an incredibly sophisticated machine that some brilliant engineers built in another country that happened to be going to Thailand. He did absolutely no work building the car, or building the house. And he certainly had no part in making the trip to Thailand possible. He was only able to cash in on those things, anonymously, and undeservedly, because of some numbers that were moved around on a computer.
We have all seen the insides of car factories; we know how many people work tirelessly to produce the designs, the engineering plans, and then the construction. So why do we attribute so much status to the person driving it? Only the most hardcore enthusiasts look at a car and appreciate the work that went into building it. Even then, we are blind to the origin of the materials they use… simply because, “the company bought them”. Whose work guarantees that Mercedes always has enough steel, leather, and plastic to work with? The act of buying things blinds us to the origin of the product, and completely reverses the order of respect we ought to give. So instead of respecting and honoring the people who first harvested the materials to make the car, and then the artists and engineers who designed and built the car, all our attention goes to the “consumer”, who “owns” it, even though all he did was go to a store and pick it out.
Similarly, after a group of friends or family have eaten at a restaurant, it is customary to profusely thank the person who paid for the meal. It is very uncommon for anyone to go to the kitchen and thank the cook, or the guy who washed the dishes. It is even more uncommon for anyone involved to know where the food actually came from, where it was grown, or who harvested it. All the gratitude and honor goes to the person who simply swiped a card through a machine which made numbers appear on somebody’s computer. It has nothing to do with the actual preparation of the food.
The disconnection between the manufacturer and the user
If someone buys your product, and then sells it to another person who doesn‘t know you, it causes the loss of very important information for the final recipient. He will not truly know who the manufacturer is, why you made it, how it works, or your philosophy behind it. And you also lose out on the experience of giving: knowing who is using your product, knowing that you helped someone, and seeing the gratitude and enjoyment in his face when he received it. There is a disconnection between the provider and the recipient, which can lead to the provider believing he is not actually doing anything worthwhile, and the recipient not feeling any gratitude or humility at all.
The customer is usually wrong
In capitalism, everyone becomes an isolated, individual “buyer”. The idea behind it is this: by giving money to people and letting them spend it where they wish, you give the customer power over the provider. By paying for certain things, he can decide which resources are harvested, which products are manufactured, and ultimately which businesses succeed. “The customer is always right”, and everything will work its way out. People won’t consume too much of a scarce resource because of the scarcity of money- and questionable businesses will lose the support of the public, only leaving those businesses that increase wealth and happiness for everyone.
Unfortunately, this mentality leads to the providers losing their integrity. Instead of being, first and foremost, responsible stewards of the planet’s resources, original thinkers, skilled makers and artists, they spinelessly pander to the consumer’s every whim and desire. This is problematic because buyers make decisions primarily for *themselves*, seen as an isolated entity from the rest of the world, rather than what’s right for everyone on the planet. And even if they were a good judge of what is right for the planet, its resources, and the providers in our society; they cannot truly apply this judgement unless they have exactly the right amount of money to do so- but the amount of money they happen to make from their occupations has no relation to the price of the things they would find appropriate to purchase.
When you are poor, of course you dispense sparingly of that money and therefore won’t claim too much of any scarce resource. But you also aren’t able to afford the things you actually need, and often must sacrifice your consumption of art in order to afford food and rent. On the other end of the spectrum, having an abundance of money can corrupt your higher knowledge of “what would be the right thing to do”. In the competitive free-for-all system of capitalism, there is always the danger of scarcity creeping in. So if you happen to be wealthy enough to buy more than you need, you are likely do so because your primal instincts tell you to “stock up as much as you can”, even if this is unnecessary and unsustainable.
By eliminating money, you shift towards the mentality that “the provider is always right”. He is the most qualified to make sustainable decisions because he is at the source of the product and can judge its scarcity, and he deserves to decide what happens to the product because he made it! He wouldn’t discriminate between customers based on how much work they have done in another field, because it is totally unrelated to the subject at hand. The provider would choose to provide his service to those who are in most need, or to whom it fits most, or to whom is the most interested. Unsustainably stripping the environment, selling out his integrity, or withholding his service from those who genuinely need it would no longer be practices that benefit the provider in any way.
The illusion of constant income
Since food must regularly be bought and rent constantly paid; in order for a human or a company to survive, it must establish a constant income. This implies that whatever service you provide is
1) regularly repeatable,
2) of never-changing value,
3) and in constant demand.
Unfortunately, this is far removed from real life: a large portion of occupations and services are naturally neither constant in their volume of output and their quality, nor do people need these services all the time. Let’s take a look at some examples of the natural supply and demand curves of certain jobs:
Has unpredictable bouts of creativity and output, with interspersed “writer’s block”. Low quality lowers demand, and vice-versa.
Can give constant output. High healing success actually lessens demand, and vice-versa.
Can give constant output. However, demand drops off sharply once the market is saturated. Only another invention down the line rekindles demand; even then, the value might be different.
The demand for food is constant- the value of food is as well. Different seasons and crops cause inconsistent output volume, however.
Similar to the manufacturer. Once enough houses have been built, demand for houses drops to virtually zero, unless a house is torn down, or the birth rate surpasses the death rate.
Interestingly, food is the only thing for which there is truly constant demand. No other occupation can possibly compete with this. So in order to compensate, a number of techniques have been devised for these other occupations to provide constant income and fit into the monetary scheme:
Sometimes, when something cannot be produced frequently enough to ensure a regular income, a steep increase in price is utilized. For example, a well-known painter or sculptor who only creates two works of art a year might set the price exorbitantly high. A less honorable tactic is to simply create formulaic, unoriginal art in the meantime. The musician suffers from an inconsistent supply; so derivative, unoriginal music is created to fill in the gaps and generate income. This is commonly encouraged by large music publishing companies, and it unfortunately devalues the artistic output as a whole, and floods the airways with mediocre music.
The doctor can provide regular output, but can’t always provide successful treatment. So instead of being paid for actually healing people, he demands money for simply the time spent, rather than success with patients, no matter if they leave the office feeling worse than before. The drug company can give regular output and constant value, but suffers from the strange fact that if they made everyone healthy, there would be a lessening of demand. Therefore, a constant income is ensured by focusing on chronic drugs that perhaps never truly heal.
The manufacturer suffers from the fact that the demand for his product stops once everyone has one. He must either consistently think of new inventions; or utilize planned obsolescence – create his products with the intention of them failing or becoming obsolete in a short amount of time. This is especially noticeable with phones and computers, kitchen appliances, and clothes. Even more dramatically, the demand for the housing company drops off almost permanently once all citizens are living in functioning homes. After a certain point, it cannot resort to the steep increase in price method; instead it must collect rent to ensure consistent income.
Perhaps the most ethically objectionable technique is manufactured scarcity. A resource that is normally freely availible is made scarce by a company who has seized control of it, or a product that has a certain quality and availibility is then purposefully lowered. Examples for this are: bottled water companies syphoning off natural springs and then selling that water back to the citizens; airline companies making their economy class seats awful on purpose in order to charge more for business class; and record companies preventing music downloads in order to sell more CDs.
Again, keep in mind that all of these techniques are necessary in order to survive in a monetary society. Let us not fall into the trap of demonizing anyone.
The value of music and other “goods”
The advent of digitalized music recordings has brought us the technical ability to endlessly multiply a recording without losing quality. Thus, many questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the transaction:
Now that we can digitalize the recording, what is the actual “thing” that we are selling? If a recording can be copied infinitely, doesn’t the price for one copy also have to be infinitely low? Or if you want to set the price based on the value of the listening experience, how do you do that, when everyone’s tastes are different? You could set it incredibly high, and only the people who think that the listening experience is worth that money would pay for it. But that’s not fair, because just because you can appreciate a work of art doesn’t mean you have a lot of money. Why should the people who really appreciate the music and think it has high value have to sacrifice more food/rent/medicine to hear it?
It is evident that the majority of people who download music do not consider themselves criminals. Since there is no real material trade, the notion that there needs to be some sort of compensation seems wrong. Many have taken this as a sign that the digitalization of music is inherently wrong and that the music industry is being “destroyed” because of everyone’s so-called immoral behavior.
I do not see it this way. To me, it is a sign of truth rearing its head! For many, it is the first tangible, real-world example of the disconnection between a monetary sum and the material we trade it for. To me as a musician, it is obvious that the many hours spent practising the instrument, the price of the equipment used, the time invested in the studio, the creative ideas that formed the song, the value of the material used to print the finished record, could never equal in value the 10 dollars, or any other amount you pay to hear the album. And nor should it! The value of music, or anything else you create, is immeasurable. It cannot truly be quantified by a price.
Traditionally, people have traded all sorts of objects and services because one person wanted something the other person had, and the other person did not want to give it away freely, but wanted some sort of compensation in the form of some item or service that the first person could offer. It is the compulsion to compensate that lies at the heart of the monetary system. But does it make sense that a bowl of oranges can be “compensated for” on any scale by a musical recording? Can a haircut have an equal value to a meal at a restaurant?
Trade and money force us to evaluate things in terms that have nothing to do with reality. Our brains love to play with numbers, divide and organize things. Money gives us the opportunity to take that abstract, mathematical construct in our minds and force it upon the material world! But unfortunately, the real world isn’t as simple, neat, and clear-cut as a calculation of integers. We must bend and distort the real world in order to make sense of it within the framework of money; and we cause a great many injustices that way.
More importantly, we have forgotten the pure act of giving and receiving. An act that requires generosity from one side, and respect, gratitude, and humility from the other. Instead, we have become spoilt children who feel entitled to take anything we have enough money to buy. Our concept of deserving something becomes entirely dependent on the integer in our bank account. We measure our ability to take, rather than the provider‘s willingness to give.
Working freelance as a guitar teacher, I have observed that those who make the most money aren’t necessarily the best at their trade, but simply the most unscrupulous about demanding a high price. For example, telling your student to his face that you expect them to give you 50 Euros for a lesson requires you to believe that he should forfeit 50 Euros worth of food, because he had the luxury of being taught guitar by you. When money is involved, there can never be a gift of good will, but instead there is always a “balance of compensation”. I don’t want my giving of a guitar lesson to be something that I am “compensated” for; where the recipient needs to sacrifice a potential meal or two!
My colleagues tell me: you have to get over it. Don’t hesitate to ask for a good price – you need to pay your bills! But then I ask: why should my guitar students be responsible for my food and rent? They have nothing to do with my personal survival; they are simply people who appreciate my skill as a guitarist and would like to learn from me.
It is actually an honor to be asked for a lesson, because it shows how much respect that person has for my ability and knowledge, and is humbly asking for me to help him. It is then through my generosity that I decide to teach that person. Having a student pay me afterwards is almost insulting; it implies that I lost something teaching this person, and that whatever I lost could be compensated for by the 30 euros I can then use to buy food and rent.
Giving and receiving is like a sacred ritual. Two characters – the provider and the recipient – have very clear roles. Just think back to any situation where you asked a good friend for a favor, or vice versa:
- A person will humbly ask the provider for something he would like.
- The provider then decides if he can give it, considering various subtle factors such as availability of the resource, his own abilities, and the recipient’s needs.
- If so, he offers his gift generously and not looking for compensation. The recipient accepts the gift with gratitude.
- After the two have partaken in this ritual, the significance of the gesture is privately clear to both, yet its value is not analyzed or quantified.
A gift can have unlimited value and meaning, depending on the eye of the beholder. It should not be our task to degrade that value into a one-dimensional integer. For most of us today, a gift is usually interpreted as a sub-text prompt to give something of similar value in return. Many people don’t know how to truly accept a gift, because their conscience is nagging at them: they believe that if there’s no equal transaction, there is some profound injustice. But it should not be our task to obsessively create symmetry in all areas of life! Sometimes you have the need to give more, say more, and work more. Other times you have the need to receive more, listen more, and rest more. This varies from person to person, from time to time, and from topic to topic. There are those who can afford to be more generous, while others depend on the gifts of others.
Absolute equality and symmetry are an imaginary concept- forcing it upon the naturally colorful and uneven real world is stifling and unnecessary.