I recently found myself thinking a lot about something that I believe the vast majority of us take for granted. Now, while a very few of us do so because we got far too much of it, the rest of us take it for granted because we have simply forgotten that it is not a part of nature, but just another human invention. To us it seems such an intrinsic part of our world that we forget it was something a person once dreamed up and built; that it did not always exist. This thing, by the way, is money.
A Brief Description of Money
Money really is strange, especially in the modern sense. We tend to think of it as concrete, yet it is anything but. It is really more a concept than an object. A five dollar bill is worth five dollars only because we believe it to be worth five dollars, not because it has some inherent value. It is simply a piece of paper.
Now at one point, we based all printed money on the amount of gold held in the nation’s treasury. At that time, a five dollar bill at least represented something, specifically, a pinch of gold locked somewhere in the vaults at Fort Knox. Then, in the seventies, we debased the dollar. We stopped requiring the Treasury to set aside an equivalent amount of gold whenever money was printed. From that point on, money became purely conceptual, without value based on material reality.
In truth, however, money was always conceptual. Value is a perception and not a concrete reality. After all, what is the value of gold based on? Simply what people are willing to pay for it. Value lacks a foundation.
The Headless Horseman
I find this quite baffling, actually. Money drives the world, yet it has no driver! When we talk of cars we talk of horsepower as if a thousand horses could really run at two-hundred miles an hour. Yet when we talk of money we do not even attempt to tie it to material reality. It seems to me, however, that a lot of the world would make more sense if I knew that the five dollars in my pocket actually constituted five liters of wheat stored in an Iowan silo, or a ten-foot board of lumber drying in a Washingtonian yard, or a gallon of oil sloshing in a Saudi tanker. Instead, I hold it and trust in it as I do God—with faith.
After all, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and evidence of things unseen. When I slam my five dollars down on the counter with my right hand, I certainly hope that the cashier allows me to walk out with whatever substance, likely beer, that I hold in my left hand. As far as I know, torch-bearing mobs razed Wall Street since I entered the store, and the mystical green illusion of money ran off into the night with them, so that I am left slamming down, not five dollars, but an intricately inscribed green note bearing the number five prominently in many places, the glowering rebuke of a dead president, and—thankfully—the timely reminder that it is in God that we trust. We will certainly need to do a lot of that now.
This point hits a bit closer to my target. We have seen that money is not a solid fact, like beer, but a religion (though some might also say this of beer).
Returning briefly to the car we raced a few paragraphs back, we find it a primary specimen of fact. We see it, touch it, hear it, and smell it (hopefully you have stopped here and not indulged your fifth sense). Thus far, a car shares the same qualities as my tired five dollar bill, but this is also where they diverge. When I climb into my car I expect it to start up when I turn the key and drive me to where I wish to go. This expectation is not faith. A great deal of physical and mechanical science informs this conviction; beyond which my experience also teaches me to trust the particular make and model of my car. My experience of cars is founded in physical reality. My experience of money, on the other hand, is religious.
A Complicated Matter of Faith
I am—you may have ascertained from my recurring allusions to religion—a Christian. Now, by way of avoiding a lengthy explanation of what all is encompassed by that title, I will settle with this: the basis of my subscription to this so-called religion is not rooted in empirical fact but subjective truth. My life and many so-called mystical experiences led me to the fervent adoption of this creed, and to such an extent that I know there to be no irrefutable evidence against it, just as I even boast that there is no irrefutable evidence for it. Religious faith is, more or less, a subjective reality. If it were not, it would not require faith, it would require robots.
Now, as a personal theological matter, I do not consider Christianity to be a religion. I certainly believe in God and the Bible, I pray, I go to church, and I even give a tenth of my income to the church, but I do not consider myself religious. Why? Because men made religion. God made man for Himself; man made gods for himself. Money is merely the most powerful and pervasive of these. Yet like all of men’s gods, its power arises only from the faith men invest into it. Money, being but paper or metal, has no power of its own.
If religion is a belief system meant to unite various people in pursuit of common social goals, then money is a religion. We might call it Materialism. As a matter of fact, we do. If religion is all a scam meant to pull the wool over the eyes of fools, as I have heard said by many a wealthy atheist, then money is a religion. If religion is sustained by the devotion of its adherents, then money is a religion and a popular one to boot. We find few ascetics and far between, while the masses of converts crush themselves in fevered mobs rushing to touch the avatars of their god on that holiest of holy days, Black Friday. Even the supposedly money-hating atheists known as Chinese communists came over, en-masse, to the other side, turning their once starved socialist society into a gluttonous orgy that would make even the fattest cat on Wall Street blush. If religion is a matter of faith requiring belief in something practically unbelievable, then money is a religion. In practice, we talk of dollars and cents like we talk of apples and oranges; in reality, they are really harinstiglas and forfomalins: figments of our vivid imaginations (to clarify, I was recently apprised by the Journal that today’s conversion rate is one harinstigla for five forfomalins).
Now, after such an obscenely long rant about the nature of money, you might assume that I am somehow against having it, and you might be right. I would imagine, as that is my only experience of it as well as the full extent of the research I am currently disposed to make into it, that a society based on bartering would be far better, in so far as you personally would at least have more or less direct control over the perception of an item’s value, rather than being told that a piece of paper is worth an abstract value. You would know that your brown billy goat is worth exactly ten sacks of wheat because that is how much you are willing to take for it, rather than being told that a gallon of milk is worth five slips of green paper bearing the number one prominently in many places. We abandoned the ancient art of bartering, not because it was bad, but because it was inefficient, meaning that it took time. Bartering forced you to strike up a relationship with the person you wished to barter with. It required a great deal of social effort simply to gain a good you did not have. It took time, lots of it, spent getting to know people. It involved the transaction of solid goods, not abstract values. It tied a person to another person in that strange bond of friendship. Sad to think we traded all that for big box stores and self-serve checkouts.
Now, many will no doubt rebut this undeniably untenable longing for regression with some vague reference to progress, brandishing that word as if it pointed the way to the messiah’s crib. I would say to you that it does exactly that, only he is the false messiah. We find progress today touted as an end in itself. Whatever it might be that has progressed, it is considered better merely because it is not what it once was. I challenge this notion, however, with these examples. Delicate wildflowers carpeting an untilled meadow far surpass the beauty of a regimented field exploding with tulips. I once camped in woods where every tree marched in line, not one of them wild-born, and found that those woods untouched by human hands touched my heart a thousand times more.
Progress for progress sake is not an inherent good, but a foolish pursuit. One must progress towards something to get where one wants to go. Progress without purpose is the merely polished outgrowth of pure festering greed. It cannot be satisfied. It wants only and always more. Progress for progress sake is, therefore, a core tenet of the religion of money, which is why we find it preached so commonly today.
I will end by stating that, if it is a fool’s errand to return to where one came from, as might well be universally thought of my notion of a return to bartering, at least that fool knows where he is going and what awaits him there. The progressive simply gets in the car and hits the gas. He may end up on the mountain, but more likely in the ditch. The ditch is a certainty, however, when that car is fueled by money alone.