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Religion & Liberty: Volume 26, Number 4

Why money matters

In his first epistle to St. Timothy, the Apostle Paul includes a warning about money:

Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. (1 Timothy 6:9–11)

This is often erroneously summarized as “money is the root of all evil,” but that is clearly not what St. Paul said. It is the “desire to be rich” and “the love of money” that are the problem. Why? Because such outlooks confuse a means with an end. If treating a person as a means to an end is a sin (and it is), so too is treating an object as an end in itself. When that object is money or riches, that is the definition of greed. But ignoring an object’s nature is surely a mistake as well. So it is important to understand what money is, how it works and why that matters.

Couldn’t we do away with this problem if we just didn’t have money? Certainly, if money itself really were the “root of all evil,” then abolishing it would be the most moral thing to do. However, if the problem, just as it was in the garden of Eden, is not the object (the tree that God made) but the desire for it, then the solution to greed is a matter of the salvation of our souls. We need deliverance from the vices and sins that hold us down, which for Christians is what the gospel is for—not laws.

What people don’t often see is that the alternative to money is a barter economy. While this is sometimes romanticized, it would be a mistake to think it is better. For one thing, the economist Walter Eucken insisted that “even in the barter economy there may still be a scale of reckoning, which may be cattle or a unit of some standard good, without there being a generally recognized means of exchange—that is, money.” So even without money, people naturally adopt some money-like “scale of reckoning.” Money is just an advancement on that.

Eucken’s analysis gives us a clear picture of what money is really for:

The exchange value of a good is a definite quantity because and only because a scale of reckoning is being used. If wool were being exchanged against flax, tin, bread, labour, and other goods, without the use of a scale of reckoning, it would exchange at as many different rates as there were goods. If copper becomes the scale of reckoning and a unit of copper the unit of account, then all the exchange relations will be described in terms of copper and therefore become comparable.

What money allows us to do is to compare the economic value of all sorts of different goods in an economy. Economic value represents the subjective preferences of everyone in an economy. That information is conveyed through prices, and in large economies, prices are measured in money.

Why is this a good thing? Because money enables us to portion out our resources in ways we otherwise could not. It helps us be better stewards of God’s world. If a farmer, Maggie, has a cow in a barter economy, she must accept a trade in one or a combination of other goods, such as chickens, corn, horseshoes and so on. But then, if she takes it, she is stuck with those goods. She can try to trade again, and eventually get to a point where she is able to meet most of her needs, but it will take a lot of time and haggling. In our modern, super-connected, hyperfast, global economies, that is time people simply do not have. The invention of money was an important advancement in human civilization.

Now imagine that Maggie has a cow in a monetary economy. She sells her cow for the best price she can find and receives that price in money. With that money, she can then go and buy all the things she needs and can afford. She isn’t stuck exchanging a lasso for some turnips with the hope that she can then exchange the turnips for something she actually wants and needs. Maggie can’t cut a chicken into parts and keep the gizzard with the expectation that someone will be willing to trade two apple pies for that gizzard later. But she can sell a chicken for some money and then use the money to buy any variety of things she wants or needs, whenever she needs them. Money serves a vital human need by helping economic exchange better serve other human needs.

Most people, however, are not anarchists or Marxists who actually desire the abolition of money. What is a much bigger problem is policymakers misunderstanding and ignoring the nature of money in other ways. In particular, every so often a government forgets (or purposefully ignores) the fact that money, just like every other economic good, is subject to supply and demand. Early modern Spanish kings, for example, were advised to debase their currency. But the result was simply that people, including the king, ended up needing more of it to buy the same things. People value a coin of 10 percent gold a lot less than one of 100 percent gold. If demand drops, supply must increase to keep up.

While most modern currencies are no longer tied to gold, they can still be debased, arguably more easily. All a government needs to do is print more of it. By increasing the supply, the value of the currency decreases—supply and demand. This is one source of inflation, how prices increase as the money supply increases or “inflates.” As a result, the value of the money decreases.

To some extent, all modern governments do a little of this. Deflation—reduction in the money supply—is feared because it would mean that debts would increase. Why? Because if I take out a loan for $1,000 today, but the value of the dollar increases, then the thousand dollars I will use to pay that loan in the future will be worth more. By contrast, and for the same reason, inflation encourages debt (and, if too high, discourages saving). If the money I use to pay back a debt will be worth less than the money I get at the time of the loan, then I’m getting a deal. A little inflation can help ward off deflation and encourage investment since people are more likely to take out loans.

Deflation isn’t the only thing to worry about though. If inflation gets out of hand, people will stop valuing that currency at all. This happened in Germany in the early 20th century. This happened in Russia toward the end of the Soviet era. And more recently, this happened in the summer of 2016 in the nightmarish failure of the Venezuelan government’s “21st-century socialism.” In Venezuela, they literally couldn’t print money fast enough to pay their debts, which, incidentally, contributed to the hyperinflation in the first place. They tried to shut down currency exchanges to force people to use Venezuelan money (otherwise how would they fix prices?), but it didn’t work. No matter what tyrannical restrictions people implement, supply and demand are simply facts of our society.

If a currency fails through inflation, people will find some other unit of reckoning: cigarettes, grain, metals or something else. The disadvantage all of these have, however, is that not everyone universally wants them, and in many cases they are much harder to protect and store than money. Some of them may even be perishable, making longterm saving impossible. The collapse of Venezuela’s formerly advanced economy to a barter system has meant widespread hunger, crime and poverty. A barter system can’t support a society that large. Their monetary system collapsed by violating private property rights, fixing prices, demonizing profits and debasing their currency, among other dystopian measures. As Dany Bahar and Miguel Angel Santos put it for the Brookings Institution, “Venezuela’s current crisis was completely preventable. In fact, it is the consequence of almost two decades of irresponsible policies.” Unfortunately, those who foresaw the coming collapse were ignored.

Without a stable currency—one with low and steady inflation—commerce breaks down. People seek to get rid of money as soon as they get it, only further contributing to the inflation. Why keep a dollar today if it will be worth only a dime tomorrow? So people stop saving. Banks stop issuing loans. Foreign investment dries up. Trade disappears. The wealthy migrate. Vital consumer goods go missing. (Long before there were food shortages in Venezuela, there were toilet paper shortages.) Poverty and hunger grow. The lesson: Money matters, and it is not exempt from the laws of economic life. We need it, and we need to treat it rightly. It is not an end in itself, as the greedy think, but it is also not something without its own internal laws and properties. These laws are what make it an asset to the common good, and ignoring them damages the general welfare.

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture.

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