In Praise of Money

I wanted to write about this story months ago, but held my fire because I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mark Boyle—a man who planned to walk from England to India without any money, relying on the kindness of strangers. He did manage to make it as far as Calais, France, where he discovered to his surprise that people thought he was a wandering freeloader and promptly withheld their charity. Mr. Boyle doesn’t believe in money, and thus adds his name to long tradition of disdain for currency that probably began right after Croesus put his first stamp on a little bead of electrum.

Of course, there is something very natural about disliking the institution of money—people will assault, maim, and even kill for it. However, money is the handiest of inventions and paradoxically the very thing that makes the charity that Mr. Boyle so desperately needed to make his pilgrimage possible. Money is not something imposed on people, but an institution that arises naturally in society. Even if there are no notes or coins available, people will find something—anything—to act as a medium of exchange in order to compare apples to oranges. Native Americans (often erroneously cited as examples of non-market societies) used sea shells. Constantly starved for cash by the British, American colonists traded receipts for tobacco. Gold and silver are traditional favorites, but they have occasionally been supplanted by such commodities as salt, beaver pelts, peppercorns, and even chocolate. My personal favorite spontaneous money supply is the curious bi-commodic system of cognac (used for large purchases) and cigarettes (used for smaller transactions and to make change), which prevailed in Western Europe following World War II.

While disdain for money is certainly understandable, those who hold such views mistakenly forget why money exists. Strangely, money’s critics usually champion some sort of barter system, which is exactly what money is—a system of barter through a mutually agreed upon medium of exchange. Money allows division of labor and ease of exchange essential to prosperous society, and only a prosperous society can afford charity (or welfare for that matter, which is an institution unique to countries with market economies). Mr. Boyle may make it to India eventually, and he might even do so without any money; but he will not be able to do so unless the institution he despises paves the way with prosperity.

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