Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why?

If you've spent enough time around small children, you'll be familiar with the "why?' game. A child asks you a question, beginning with the word, "why". Then, he/she responds to any answer you offer up with another, "Why?" This goes on indefinitely until the adult has had enough, and ends the game with, "Because I said so", "That's just the way it is", "I don't know", "Stop bothering me; I'm busy", etc. Eventually, children grow up and stop doing this, which is unfortunate because this type of relentless why-ing is a very effective way of arriving at, what Aristotle called: first principals. It is a golden key for revealing the bottom-line truth about anything.

This is, basically, the method I used to come to the conclusions I have about money. It all started with the observation that our society's most dangerous, and apparently unsolvable problems, all seemed to stem from the use of money in some way. Many of those problems are so dangerous, and so horrible: environmental destruction, war, mass starvation, homelessness, human trafficking, political corruption, etc., that I had to ask, "Why do we need money?" It would have to be a damned good reason, to make the costs I've listed, a fair price to pay.

So, I started with the question, "Why do we need money?" Then, I started entering it into search engines, to get an overview of the justifications on offer. By far, the top answer was: Money is needed because we require a medium to facilitate exchange. That answer is, apparently, enough to satisfy most people. In my case, though, it led to another question...

"Why do we require a medium of exchange?" After all, I give and receive things all the time without the requirement of a medium of exchange. Anatomically modern humans existed for at least 100,000 years prior to the first appearance of money. Even today, a few human societies manage without it, and they do just fine. They do not, as some would have you believe, resort to hitting each other over the head and taking each other's stuff. They also don't feel the need to barter. They share, and not just with those they know; if a stranger wanders into the midst of such people, he can expect the same generosity you would afford to an invited guest. Money does nothing to facilitate exchange; it restricts it. Money facilitates only the kind of exchange wherein both parties have something to offer. It facilitates trade, not exchange per se. Trade is a conditional exchange wherein one gives in order to receive. Money makes trading easier by providing a universal symbol of value. Both parties must still have something to offer the other, but they can trade even if one of them doesn't want what the other has. So, the answer to the first question, "why do we need money?", should be reworded as: Money is needed because we require a medium to facilitate trade. Given the very high costs (environmental destruction, war, mass starvation, homelessness, human trafficking, political corruption, etc.) of using a medium to facilitate trade, yet another question arises...

"Why do we need to facilitate trade?" What makes trade so desirable that we would want to incur such high costs just to make it easier? Let us not forget that trade excludes a lot of people: children, disabled people, the elderly infirm, new mothers. Why go to such insane lengths to privilege trade over less conditional forms of exchange? In order to answer this question, we need to enter the fantasy world of Homo Economicus. Homo Economicus is a theoretical construction of mainstream economics. Unlike every other group-dwelling mammal on Earth, he has little in the way of social instincts, and is almost entirely driven by the desire for personal advantage. His relationship to other members of his species is primarily a competitive one. Homo Economicus is incapable of entering into unconditional, or open, exchanges. Therefore, he must be provided with incentives, in the form of personal punishments or rewards, in order to contribute anything of value to his society. Homo Economicus is a psychopath. So, sadly, he does exist, but he is far from representative of "human nature" in spite of long-standing, and intensive, efforts to make him so. Nevertheless, he is necessary to justify the existence of a market-based civilisation. If you ask a market apologist to justify the need for his preferred system, he will always, at some point, invoke "human nature" to explain the need of it. Ask him to elaborate on the meaning of "human nature" and he will describe Homo Economicus. Try it if you don't believe me. The answer to the question at the start of this paragraph, as far as I can tell (and please feel free to argue otherwise, if you think you can), is: We need to facilitate trade in order to allow Homo Economicus to function and succeed in a social setting. Next question...

Why would we want to create conditions that favour the social success of Homo Economicus? Does it really seem sane to collectively promote the interests of psychopaths over those of non-psychopaths? Why would we want to deliberately construct a system that encourages competition over cooperation, and taking over giving? How is it not utterly crazy to withhold resources from those who have nothing, while affording unlimited access to those who already have far more than they require? A normal human being, not previously indoctrinated to accept it, would laugh, if he didn't cry. Only ideology can explain it. We reward taking over giving because we believe that "might makes right". We encourage competition over cooperation because we believe in the philosophy of social Darwinism, that the strongest should thrive and the weakest perish. Few will admit to such beliefs, because, deep down, we know this is savage and immoral. We invent a whole collection of demonstrably untrue stories about it to make it all sound necessary. Yet, our collective actions speak far louder than our indignant, sputtering protests. So...

Why do we believe these things? There's no way we adopted these beliefs by evidence or reason. We don't even know, for certain, how we came to have them in the first place. The lame excuses we give for believing are justifications after the fact. The truth is, we inherited them. We believe because it's what we were taught to believe. We believe because, "everybody says it's so." Ironically, we believe because our social instincts are far more powerful than self-interest ever could be.

8 comments:

  1. My dear I absolutely love this entry! I think I believe the same way you do but I'm still working on myself every day! This entry contains so much wisdom and truth that I can't help but smile when I envision a world with no money, a world where everyone shares with those who are in need. Your wisdom gently touches my very soul and I'm so happy to call you a friend of mine. Keep up the great work! "HUGS"

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    1. Thank you, Ron.
      I'm grateful for your willingness to entertain these ideas with an open mind. It's not easy to do, because when you can start to envision how beautifully and joyfully we could be living, it makes our current situation much harder to bear, emotionally. But that's the only way to get from here to there, so again: thank you!
      Hugs to you too.

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  2. Great essay. Very thought provoking. And you have convinced me now that there is a simple and rationl argument as to why money is inherently evil and inhumane (not that I needed much convincing). I never encountered the concept of Homo Economicus before but "narrow self interest" sums up not only money but capitalism as a whole. A psychopathic system at every level. Luckily our current financial system is in the late stages of self-destruction gobally. We simply have to reject all attempts to continue with new forms of money.

    I remember reading in the writings of Dmitri Orlov ( http://cluborlov.blogspot.com ) about how Russians developed a culture of gifting when the Soviet Union ecxonomoy collapsed. People simply shared whatever they had with the people around them, with no expected return. Apparently this system worked for many. That is - simply rely on the law of karma to keep things fair. Of course that requires a good bit more enlightenment than we commonly find in the west....

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    1. Hi Ian.
      Thanks. I'm kind of kicking myself now for not writing a piece where I "showed my work" sooner. It's a lot more helpful than just stating conclusions. Thanks for that link! I'm looking forward to reading Orlov's account. When Chris was travelling through Africa on his bicycle, he came across a village of people who were living without government, religion or money. They invited him into their midst, fed him, and gave him a place to sleep. He told me they were the most loving, bonded people he'd ever met. The children called all the adults "mother" and "father", and the idea of withholding was just alien to their nature. I'm told it was much the same with the coastal natives here when the Europeans colonists found them.
      I can understand (even if I don't agree with them) sociopathic types defending the market system, but I can't help feeling frustrated when people who say, "we are one" and "love is the answer" claim there's nothing wrong with money, which forces us to compete with one another to survive. I see a lot of people desperately in need of a belief-audit.

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    2. Yes, I remember reading Chris's account of that experience on his blog a while back - surely a life-changing experience? It seems very clear that money is divisive and - as you say - forces competition. Human beings are inherently loving and caring and co-operative - it is our sick systems of "civilisation" that make us barbaric. We don't need a new economics - we need to foret the whole concept of economics (and I say this as a an honours economics graduate, and a former professional accountant - big mistakes there in my youth, that I am still embarrassed to admit to.. I listened to my parents instead of my own heart and mind, and suffered the consequences).

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  3. Why would we want to create conditions that favour the social success of Homo Economicus? I think it was accidental. I think the idea of trade is supposed to be to cope with activities distant in space or time: things from foreign countries, seasonal goods, specialist skills etc. But you're right: it favours the Homo Economicus in each of us, who is only a fragment of our humanity. I like to think of our predicament as a forest fire, when we only wanted to keep warm. It'll burn itself out eventually, same as last time.

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    1. Hi Speedbird.
      Finding ourselves here, certainly wasn't intentional, at least for the vast majority. But, my question wasn't: "why did we?", it was: "why would we want to?". In other words, how can it be rationally justified? Until recently, that question simply wasn't asked because the system had not yet developed into an extinction level threat.
      I agree that trade has some legitimate areas of usage. For those, though, I think barter is better because its inconvenience is a natural barrier to excessive use. For example, locally sourced goods and services ought to be preferable when possible. Having to rely on far distant sources for necessities, like basic foodstuffs, puts people at considerable risk, should supply-chains fail, (not to mention the environmental costs.)
      Your forest fire analogy seems apt. Same as last time. Too bad it's probably going to be: same as next time, and the one after that...

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  4. Indeed, there is no reason to want to! But in the words of Matt Yglesias, "Who better to solve the world's problems than people who benefit from the staus quo?"

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