Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “for thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance.” Calling money evil is shortsighted. Even saying the pursuit of money is evil is shortsighted. The reality is that humans evolved in small tribal groups where mates were not evenly distributed. Social status and power were important factors in who was able to mate and pass their genes along to the next generation. For ancient hunter-gatherer tribes this often meant that the most physically dominant, the most well connected socially, or those who rose to the highest social status by other means became the person to pass their genes along. The key was accumulating social status and demonstrating status so that everyone knew about it. We can do that today with money, but we can also accumulate wealth, power, and prestige and signal those things through means other than money. Harari calls this out in his book and suggests that money has actually had much more important values throughout the human experience than just serving as the root of all evil as men try to compete for status and power.

Harari continues, “money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation.” Money enables human trust and cooperation at a grand scale. As Joseph Henrich explains in The WEIRDest People in the World, human tribes broke away from family, clan, and guild centric groups in part through trust that money could build across groups. There was of course much more to the story, but currencies enabled cooperation, trust, and coordination among humans at a large scale, something that other institutions had difficulty accomplishing.

Today people complain about companies and corporations pandering to certain groups or messaging and marketing their goods and services in ways that reinforce what is often called identity politics. The reality is that businesses need to be profitable to survive, and that means they need to convince people to purchase their products and services or shop in their stores. Money and currencies can flow between people of differing demographics and ideologies, allowing for cooperation where none would exist before. Messaging and signaling to people that they should spend their money in a certain way is not an evil, but is a demonstration of tolerance and acceptance. Rather than an evil, money and currency pushes a more accepting stance, even if that means that companies are slow to denounce clearly objectionable people and beliefs and slow to push for needed reforms and innovations. I think it is fair to argue that has more of a moderating effect, limiting the extreme and irrational rejection of some groups in an attempt to sell to the general middle or in a willingness to lose the fringes to remain more in the middle of opinions and beliefs generally. In the end, money, as corporations demonstrate, builds more trust and cooperation among people with different identities and ideologies than would otherwise exist.

Ultimately, money is the root of all large scale cooperation, but not necessarily the root of all evil. It is a neutral tool that has encouraged less discriminatory and biased stances at the same time that is has been a means for signaling dominance and status. Without money we likely couldn’t exist as a global species that interacts and cooperates peacefully a majority of the time.

New Considerations for the Public vs Private Discussion

In the past I wrote about the importance of privacy in our politics from the point of view of Jonathan Rauch and his book Political Realism. We have almost no trust in government, and we frequently say things like, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but the reality is that politics is made much more complex when it is in the open. Difficult negotiations, compromises, and sacrifices are hard to do in open and public meetings, but can be a little easier when the cameras are turned off and political figures who disagree can have open and honest discussions without the fear of their own words and negotiations being used against them in the future.


In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak acknowledge the difficulties faced by governments when open meeting laws force any discussion to be public. The laws come from a good place, but for local governments that need to move fast, make smart decisions, and negotiate with private and civic sectors to spur innovation and development, public meetings can lead to stagnation and gridlock. A solution proposed by Katz and Nowak is for local governments to authorize private corporations overseen by public bodies and boards to operate economic development areas and to take ownership of public asset management.


They describe how the city of Copenhagen has used this approach, “Copenhagen has found that by managing transactions through a publicly owned, privately driven corporation, operations run faster and more efficiently in comparison to how local government traditionally tackled public development projects.”


The private corporation running local development is publicly owned. It is still accountable to the local elected officials who are ultimately still accountable to the voters. But, the decisions are private, the finances are managed privately, and negotiations are not subject to public meeting laws. While the corporation has to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest, free of corruption, it can engage with other public, private, and civic organizations in a more free and flexible manner to accomplish its goals. Leveraging the strengths of the private sector, publicly owned private corporations that put local assets to work can help drive change and innovation.


Directly calling back Jonathan Rauch’s ideas, these corporations create space for negotiations that would be publicly damning for an elected official. They also prevent elected officials from having undue influence in development and public asset management, preventing them from stonewalling a project that might be overwhelmingly popular in general, but unpopular with a narrow and vocal segment of their electorate. This prevents public officials from pursuing a good sounding but ineffective use of public resources to signal loyalty or virtue to constituents. Removing transparency and making the system appear less democratic, as Rauch suggests, might just make the whole system operate more smoothly and work better in terms of the outcomes our cities actually need.