I worked in construction for some years before returning to graduate school. My crew members were all hardworking guys, and an ethos of manly ruggedness prevailed among them. Beer was drunk. Pickup trucks were driven. Camping and fishing were practiced faithfully.
I am, of course, no slouch in the manliness department. Let’s be clear about that up front. But I’m also a bookish individual, and an anti-intellectual bias was also strong with my co-workers.
My foreman, for instance, was bewildered by my desire to return to university. Don’t know why you want to hang out with all those egghead homosexuals, Steve, he said one day, shaking his head. In his mind, questionable higher education was associated with questionable sexuality—just as in other minds questionable riches are associated with questionable morality.
Which brings us to our theme: Money is one of the greatest inventions ever. Just as books are one of the greatest inventions ever. And for the same reasons.
Those who argue, as a noted author once did, that The love of money is the root of all evil are, whether they realize it or not, in the same camp as those who disparage airy-fairy geeks and book learnin’.
Here’s why. Books are collections of abstract symbols that represent ideas. We are each individually capable of having ideas, but the invention of written language enables us to record and transmit ideas in ways that make all of us better off. Writing enhances our thinking in four ways—portability, storage, precision, and universality.
Take the ideas of Einstein for example. If Einstein hadn’t been able to write his ideas down, how would the rest of us learn about them? Only by going to him or bringing him to us so that we could hear them directly. Since Einstein did write his ideas down, his ideas become portable. It’s much easier to transport Einstein’s books around the world than it is to transport Einstein himself.
Also: While Einstein is a cultural Immortal, he was physically mortal. Ideas stored only in his brain would have expired upon his physical death. But his written ideas have storage value indefinitely.
Written ideas can also be studied more easily with precision. We can compare Einstein’s physical theories with Aristotle’s, Galileo’s, and Newton’s, refining our interpretations and determining their degrees of truth more accurately. Imagine trying to do that with only talk and memory.
And books enable everyone, in principle, to communicate with each other. Anyone who speaks the language can access them, and translations enable us all to cross the linguistic barriers.
All of those points hold for money. Money is an abstract representation of wealth. A piece of paper (actually a cotton-linen blend, typically) with $1 printed on it is mostly indistinguishable from one with $100 on it, except for the abstract difference between 1 and 100.
Without money, we can of course make valuable things and trade them. But consider the severe limitations of the barter system, which are the same severe limitations of an oral-only language.
Suppose that you raise chickens and I make boots. I want a chicken and so offer to trade a pair of boots. But you don’t need boots. So I have to find out what you do need—say, some wheat. Then I have to find a wheat farmer who needs boots, make a trade with her, and then bring the wheat to you to trade for the chicken. The introduction of money obviously makes everything easier. Money’s universality means that we can all trade directly with each other.
Now suppose that I could trade a peck of wheat for your chicken, but I also need my wooden door repaired, which a carpenter offers to fix in exchange for the wheat. Which is the better deal—wheat for chicken or wheat for door-repair? Money makes the calculation much more accurate. If I know that a peck of wheat is selling for $4, a chicken is typically $5, and an hour of the carpenter’s labor is $10, then it’s clear which deal is better. I can allocate my resources more precisely.
Further: Suppose that I want to do my week’s shopping or take my family on a cross-country vacation. In a barter economy—supposing still that I’m a bootmaker—I need to haul to market enough pairs of boots to trade for everything I want. In the case of the family vacation, I have to pack a large trailer’s worth of boots to pay for everything as we wind our way across the country. Portability is much easier if I slip my money into my pocket.
And boots go out of style, wheat rots, and chickens die. If my wealth is held in physical commodity form, then my control over my financial is limited by the survival time of the commodities. A chicken can live for seven years, but a $5 bill lasts indefinitely. Money’s wealth-storage potential gives me much more control over my long-term financial future.
The key point is that respecting and even loving books and money is healthy—and for the same reasons. Money enables us to trade with anyone, evaluate each deal more precisely, transport our wealth more easily, and store it indefinitely. Books enable us to exchange thoughts with anyone, evaluate theories more precisely, transport our ideas more easily, and store them indefinitely.
Yes, the ideas in books can be false, and knowledge can be acquired by immoral means such as invasions of privacy and inhumane experiments. The same holds for money, which can be counterfeit or acquired by theft and extortion.
But to be hostile to money on principle is no different than being hostile to books on principle. Being anti-book is the mark of a cultural illiterate, just as being anti-money should be seen as the mark of an economic ignoramus.
Books and money are tools—powerful and wonderful tools that are a credit to the inventive genius of the human mind. Take away the tools, and you keep people stupid and poor. Make the tools—and respect them and keep them clean—and you enable people to become smart and rich.
[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]