Limitations of Money: Market Outsiders and Impersonal Systems

Something I have noticed in my own life recently is that I am less patient and less personable with random strangers in stores. My wife and I do most of our grocery shopping on the weekends, but typically each week we have a meal planned that will turn out much better if I pick up a single ingredient the day we cook that meal rather than four or five days ahead of time during our weekend shopping. This means that usually at least once a week (more if I forgot an important item) I am running to the store after work. During these trips I’m usually in a little hurry to pick up what I need, get through the afternoon rush hour traffic quickly, and make my way through the store and everyone else who is at the store after work to get home and start cooking. I know what I want at the store, where it is in the store, and I’m not really interested in chatting with a random person who I may never see again about the weather, local sports, or some peculiarity of the grocery store. Sometimes I feel bad about it, but I just don’t feel like engaging in personal chit-chat with the grocery store employees or other shoppers. I’m simply on a cold and heartless shopping mission.

My story reflects one of the limitations of money and markets. It enables trust between people and helps organize and order our lives, but it doesn’t really build community or relationships between people. This heartless impartiality of money is a fair critique and it is one of two primary critiques that Yuval Noah Harari presents against money in his book Sapiens. Harari isn’t denouncing money, but he is demonstrating that money and economics are an insufficient explanation for human global expansion and dominance. Humans live as a globally connected species, forming relationships and connections with people from Alaska to Japan to South Africa to England and back again. Money and modern economies helped us forge this global path, but there are things within the human experience that lie beyond the reach of money and the markets that currencies enable. To explain how we got to where we are today, we have to consider economics, but also look beyond money.

“Human communities and families,” Harari writes, “have always been based on beliefs in priceless things, such as honor, loyalty, morality, and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market.” There are certain things we cannot buy and sell, or at least if we do, we are aware that they are not exactly genuine. Purchasing honor, love, or loyalty is more like a quid pro quo rental agreement. I provide you with certain financial incentives and you signal a certain amount of honor, love, or loyalty back toward me. Like modern college football coaches, as soon as a better financial opportunity comes along, all the rhetoric around such values is out the window and all those values are instantly transferred to someone else. Humans don’t cooperate on large scales and build massive societies and institutions simply because someone payed a lot of people to do so. Something more intangible to human existence is necessary.

Markets and money don’t seem to be able to reach those intangibles. Money fosters cooperation and trust between people, but doesn’t necessarily get people to connect and relate to one an other or feel any sense of mutual respect and geniality between one another. My grocery store example demonstrates this. The store trusts that my plastic card will transfer sufficient digital numbers to the store in exchange for the steak that I am taking with me. But I don’t have any real loyalty or good will toward the store and it’s employees. Harari continues, “for although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities, or sacred values, but in the money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbor, we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust.”

Money can break down barriers between groups of people. It can facility trade, cultural sharing, knowledge spread, and tolerance. But it isn’t enough for humans to be a globally peaceful and cooperative species. Money is off limits in some domains, as there are certain things that lie outside the realm of markets. Money doesn’t build meaningful relationships between people in a way that forms long lasting and deep trust and engagement between people. It seems to have been necessary for human global dominance, but insufficient to explain exactly how we have arrived at the modern world we inhabit today.

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.

Money - Signaling & Counterfeiting

Money – Signaling & Counterfeiting

Growing up, I was much more interested in the design and appearance of money than I am today. I remember being fascinated by the faces on paper bills and coins, by the small printing details and hidden items present on currency, and by the small details that contained important information within serial numbers or other markings. Today, as we get further into a digital world and use less physical currency, I hardly think about these factors, but for much of human history, these physical markings and the signals they contain have been incredibly important and worthy of the awe my younger self felt toward them.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari spends some time examining currencies as a medium of exchange and discusses the crucial role that state sponsored currencies played in the growth and development of human economies and human trust. Currencies created a medium of exchange and money became a great tool to build trust between individuals who had never met, were not family, and otherwise had no reason to trust each other. Currencies helped hold the social world of humans together, and counterfeiting currencies quickly became one of the most serious crimes. Harari writes, “counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges, and person of the king.”
Ancient currencies tended to feature the likeness or symbol of a powerful ruler. Their images and depictions had tremendous signaling potential, and special, hard to copy markings, helped uphold that signaling potential. Harari explains that a coin stamped with the face or emblem of a ruler was a guarantee based on the honor, power, and authority of that ruler that the coin contained the amount of precious metal that was indicated by the coin – contrasting unmarked ingots or in-kind goods that could be subtly adjusted and manipulated to create unfair trades. Counterfeiting was an act directly against the ruler, their social order, and the trust that a population would have in that ruler.
The signaling potential of currencies has carried forward to the modern day. American quarters feature a wide variety of state-specific designs on the back, intended to promote the authority, Americanness, and prestige of each state and the notable landmarks in the country. Paper bills feature the faces of presidents and founding fathers (and one day a woman will be added). These currencies still signal the history and authority of the United States. Difficult to copy markings and printing techniques still give us confidence that the currency is authentic. The paper and the coins we may still occasionally use are backed by the authority and trust of American governance, even if that authority and trust is no longer tied to a single king or ruler. Many of the same features of ancient currencies are still at play in our modern money. The signaling role of currency is still central to it’s use, as is the trust it generates. 
Money & Trust

Money & Trust

Currencies are not always intuitive. At a basic level, human trade is more straightforward when we can trade item for item, service for service, or knowledge for knowledge without the use of a different medium of exchange. After a natural disaster, on the playground with playing cards, or in the neighborhood, exchanges of similar things without a currency can be common and straightforward. If you have a lot of extra water but need fuel for a generator after a hurricane, you can probably come to agreement with someone close by who has extra fuel and is need of water. A limitation, however, of exchanging like goods, as can be seen in all three examples, is that such exchanges often require proximity and trust with the individual. Young kids on the playground probably wouldn’t make a lot of trades with random kids they don’t know from other schools (I did as a kid and got burned by a fake card). And neighbors will help each other out, but few of us would ask someone from several blocks away to check on our house while we are on vacation and few of us would shovel snow from the driveway of a house that wasn’t immediately next to ours (no matter how generous we feel during the holidays).
Currencies are able to overcome these barriers. “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Money allows us to make exchanges with people who are not in our immediate proximity and who we don’t know. I wouldn’t shovel the driveway for someone I didn’t know who lived a few blocks away from me, but I would certainly give them a few pieces of paper or coin in exchange for a lamp if I saw one I was interested in at a garage sale. I don’t need to know the person, know anything about the lamp, or demonstrate that what I was trying to trade them was of equivalent value to the lamp. We could both trust the currency I was using in the exchange and smile and move on without ever seeing each other again.
Money expands the scope of who we can interact with and facilitates markets by providing a medium through which we can compare different goods, services, and information. It is hard to trade information about an approaching winter storm for a gemstone, but if enough people are willing to give someone money if they can relatively accurately predict the weather, then that forecaster can go purchase a gemstone. If we couldn’t trust the forecaster, if we only had goods and services to exchange for their information, the market couldn’t exist and trades could only rarely take place. Instead we trade currencies, or numbers from digital bank accounts, for information, goods, and services. The money, or digits on the computer screen, are not in themselves valuable, but through our system of trust they become valuable. Currency enables trust and is further enhanced by trust, allowing us to cooperate with more people than just our neighbors or the other kids on the playground.