Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Few Thoughts about Money

Money has not always existed. There must have been a time when human beings that needed something could either obtain it on their own or ask another person/group of people to help them acquire it without having to think in terms of a price to be paid.

Times changed. Societies were formed. Money was invented. Various objects and services could no longer be acquired for free; they had to be purchased.

Nowadays, very few things that are necessary to live comfortably can be given or obtained freely. Food, clothes, a decent roof over one's head, education...several of these have to be bought. And if one does not have any money to acquire these things, that is where some very serious hardship could be expected.

There is no denying the fact that in order to live well, money is indispensable. And, of course, the more money one has, the more possible it becomes to enjoy many of the pleasurable things that life has to offer. Individuals who are millionaires can roam the world and divide their time in the many properties to their names whereas the millions of human beings who earn little more than a minimum wage are frequently cautioned to avoid thinking about certain pleasures since they must "live within their means". For the people who are earning little more than a minimum wage and who have absolutely no external support, what exactly does "living within their means" mean?

I have sometimes asked this question to people earning far more than me. Their answers were along the lines of "Well, if you are not earning a great deal of money, it is irresponsible to think about travelling, eating out, going to the cinema, buying good clothes, etc." Such thinking suggests that all those people who are barely earning enough to survive should - in spite of spending the same amount of time at work as several other individuals who are earning much more money - just focus on shutting themselves up at home and spend the little money they have on pure survival. And let's not fool ourselves here...with the prices of many essential items going up, it is sometimes very difficult to imagine how a monthly salary of, say, EUR 650 could be sufficient to even cover all the necessities that could crop up during a given month!

Nowadays, I frequently ask myself: why have so many societies embraced systems whereby various things and services that could be provided freely must be acquired following payment of a sum of money? Why am I obliged to spend money in order to nourish myself? Why am I obliged to spend money to have a decent roof over my head? Why must I spend money to buy enough clothes to keep me warm in winter?

When I talk about the sometimes shocking financial inequalities between several individuals, I am regularly told that the people who are extremely rich must have done something good to possess such wealth; that they must have worked very hard for the money. To me, this is quite debatable. There are countless individuals who are incredibly wealthy simply because they were born in very rich families. Other extremely rich people manage to build an empire for themselves by using the labour of other human beings to generate the wealth, but then keep most of the proceeds to themselves. Of course, there are also many people who are incredibly wealthy as a result of engaging in several criminal activities such as drug trafficking.

When talking about the huge gaps between salaries, I am often told that the market is the master of such matters. To give a simple example, waiters tend to be far less paid than, say, medical doctors because the labour market has a far greater supply of waiters than of doctors and waiters are, therefore, less "valuable" than doctors. Thus, if a typical waiter would like to live an average medical doctor's lifestyle, they would probably need to think about how they could sustain themselves for several years until they are able to graduate as a doctor. But what if someone really likes being a waiter and has no interest in medicine? Must the waiter be constrained to spend the rest of their life deprived of various comforts simply because the market rules that waiters should not be paid as much as people working in many other professions? To me, this type of unquestioning worship of the market is terribly disturbing.

I believe that we should try to imagine - even if only for a few minutes - a world without money. A world where human beings can be happy without needing to spend a penny to achieve that happiness. A world where people are not valued according to how much profit they could generate, but where they are regarded as equally deserving of the many comforts that life has to offer. What is so wrong with such a world? Why do so many people keep putting up one obstacle after another to prevent such a dream from coming true?

Perhaps we should remember that the world and all its resources once belonged to the entire human species. Huge tracts of land never had anyone's name written on them. When apples and oranges grew on thousands of trees, they never had any price tags stuck to them. Countless things were available to all and they were free.