Saturday, January 29, 2011

Money as Speech and Peacemaking

Athens c. 450 BCE
“Francisco’s Money Speech” is a monologue from Atlas Shrugged.  If you do not know the soliloquy you can find it online at Capitalism Magazine courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute.  As dramatic as it is, the essay is as negative as positive, a denial that money (or the love of it) is the root of all evil.  The broad and deep anti-capitalist prejudices in education and arts leave us with few investigations into the benefits of money.  Pink Floyd’s hedonist plaint, Gordon Gecko’s short “Greed” speech, and Larry the Liquidator’s “Amen” are about the top of the heap in common culture.  

Oddly enough, Ludwig von Mises agreed with Karl Marx that money derived from trade and that by natural selection, gold and silver became the best forms of commodity money.  (Compare Mises, Human Action, Chapter XVII “Indirect Exchange” with Marx, Capital Volume One; Chapter Two: “Exchange and Volume,” One Chapter Three: “Money, or the Circulation of Commodities.”)  In our time the across the political right wing, it is perhaps impossible to find anyone who describes themselves as conservative, libertarian or objectivist, who does not believe this.  

Summary of Traditional Moneys
In fact, money did not begin with trade, trade did not begin economic calculation, and the true power of money is not what you can get for it – though that is, indeed, powerful – but what it says to you and for you. ("The Technology of Ritual Exchange is now on the new Washtenaw Justice here)  Historically, in human and perhaps proto-human development, friendship came from the exchange of gifts.  When strangers met, giving and receiving almost anything at all avoided conflict. 

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs posited that the cities derived from permanent hunting camps, not from agricultural settlements.  Successful hunters exchanged their bounty, more for novelty than for need.  According to Jacobs, grains that were not eaten before the next gathering were tossed aside.  When they grew, agriculture was discovered within the city walls.  The need for space took agriculture outside.  According to her theory, where today we find pastoral people, somewhere near the center of their range, we can find a lost city.  

If gold and silver as money derived from trade as economic calculation, then tin and copper (and bronze) would be the basis for money.  And there is support for this.  We know bronze blocks the shape and size cowhides.  The first Roman metal money was in blocks of the stuff, weighing one pound, cast with the images of pigs and elephants. The value in silver and gold is that they can be exchanged for bronze.  At the same time, however, there is no doubting the beauty of precious metals.  That, too, is valid.  Durable, uniform and malleable, they excel over other pretty stones and attractive feathers.  But as such, they have no utility except exchange.  Fundamentally, the value in money is that it allows us to make peace.  Economic calculation then becomes possible, but that is not the origin of money.

Once coinage was invented, money took on a new dimension: it carried images, and eventually words.  For pre-literate and proto-literate people, coins spoke in symbolic images.  Ancient coins were read in a depth of meaning that even numismatists too often glide past.  But no one mistakes what Junius Brutus meant when he issued coins celebrating the Ides of March.  Roman imperial coins announced military victories and the subsequent enslavement of peoples, as well as the emperor's tours of the provinces, the liberality of his gifts to the people, and the renewal of his appointment to office by the senate.

Even in the Dark Ages, coins carried so many words that they had to be abbreviated.  Historically, in obedience to the Commandments, coins from Muslim nations displayed no images, but announced, “There is no god but God; and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”  In China, from ancient times to the 19th century, the common cash coins carried four characters, at least two of which were the political message of the emperor, just as our presidents announced a “New Deal” or a “Great Society.”  In the 18th and 19th centuries, privately struck coins in England and America carried explicit political messages threatening revolution and touting our rights – and celebrating hard work and free trade with beehives and handshakes.  In America of the 1830s, one series of tokens lampooned Andrew Jackson as a jackass with a law degree; another showed the general, sword in hand, taking responsibility for an empty treasure chest.  Today, we use paper money and the typical Federal Reserve Note carries twenty different messages from the letter seal of the bank to the printing plate position, from the Eye over the Great Pyramid to “In God We Trust.”   

Pan American Airways

Stock certificates from the great age of capitalism carried vignettes.  Generic deities posed with wonderful machines.  Some of those demi-gods sported slide rules and calipers.  Goddesses of agriculture delivered bounties via railroad. The goddess of Gulf States Electric delighted her child with sparks from a generator.  

As the Internet eclipses print, we no longer purchase bank checks dressed up with icons and messages.  Electronic money is anonymous, surrendering its powers of speech and peacemaking.  But the foundation remains.  On the Internet, that overt trust is too easily exploited, but it could not be stolen by the dishonest if it did not exist.  Each exchange minimizes conflict and allows an opportunity for friendship. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.