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.