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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Love and Mammon: The search for something by which human values can be judged

 by John MacBeath Watkins

From the Vashon Loop, an article on the non-monetary part of the economy:

Which brings me to a point I've made before: The math tends to obscure it, but economics is the study of values. That's why it was invented by a moral philosopher, Adam Smith.

The market is only one form of the expression of values, and it's such an abstract one that most people don't really understand what money is. They reify it, that is, try to take it from the abstract to the real and regard it as something more solid than it is. People who yearn for the gold standard want money to be something that exists outside human values, something by which human values can be judged.

Here's my take on the reification of monetary value:

Those who reify money want it to be a sort of value that exists independent of human consciousness, a part of nature to which mankind must accommodate  itself. In essence, they want Mammon.

Biblical scholars among you will recall that the Bible uses the word mammon, which in latin means wealth, as if it were personified:

"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can not serve both God and Mammon."
—Matthew 6:19-21,24
 In medieval Christianity, Mammon was sometimes personified as one of the seven princes of Hell. An earlier personification of wealth would be the worship of the golden calf, both gold and cattle being expressions of wealth in the ancient Middle East.

In the earlier post I linked to, I characterized money as an expression of value we might think of as "favors owed." If you own a lot of dollars, you're owed a lot of favors. That's an expression of how people value you; in terms of the structure of language, a signifier that communicates the meaning that you are valued.

It's pretty easy to move from the fact that people often use money to express their values to viewing money as value, rather than an expression of value. And because money is useful only for expressing monetary value, the next step after you've mistaken money as the source of value rather than an expression of it, is to regard monetary value as the only true form of value, and the market as the only true arbiter of value.

This is the flaw in the Libertarian project, to consider only the market as a legitimate arbiter of value. It's a handy one, and a great way to distinguish between useful work and work that is not useful, or ugly fashion from delightful fashion, but human society is more complex than just markets, and there are other ways of expressing our values. Voting, for example, is an expression of our values, and certainly a better way of expressing how we value leadership in the political sphere than buying candidates. In fact, we are constantly at war between these two ways of expressing value, and concerned with the contamination of politics with money.

A society that valued banking highly and children not at all would become extinct. Children were an economic asset when my father was born (his father never got a tractor until the boys went off to war, because the boys meant there was enough labor on the farm to plow with horses, and besides, Amos Watkins loved his horses.)

By the time I was born, my parents didn't expect me to be an economic asset. They had children because they wanted children, because it was an expression of their humanity, and I suppose on some level because the continuation of humanity is worthwhile even if it costs you money. My father's chores had helped keep my grandfather's farm solvent; mine were expected to build my character and teach me how to work. The monetary value of washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and shoveling snow off the walk (remember, this was in Maine) may have been minimal, but it was an expression of family values.

The curious thing is that people have this desire to worship Mammon or the golden calf, and it keeps happening, from the time of Moses to the time of Jude Wanninski. Wanninski compared family relationships to market relationships, but argued that money is a substitute for trust, and with adequate trust, money becomes redundant.

In one sense this is quite insightful, because it shows a deeper understanding of what money is than most people have. In another, it's appalling, because while family values are often expressed with money, most of the time money is not merely redundant, it's irrelevant. Love is simply better expressed with a hug than a cheque, and expressing some things with money would express entirely the wrong kind of value. How much money expresses "you complete me," or "whatever you've done, you can tell me?" Certainly we value our loved ones, and cherish or forgive them in expression of those values. Much if not most of the things we value cannot be expressed with money.

Yet Mammon remains attractive, because humanity is messy, and the abstract form of value that is money seems less so. To have an outside force that judges our value would mean the messy business of dealing with human emotions could be replaced with simple, solid ledgers. Of course, religion saw this as a threat because they wanted God to judge you, and that was the major source of power for his earthly representatives. But Mammon worship doesn't just threaten religion, it also threatens to cheapen the rest of our values. For example, trust is an expression of value, and most of us give it sparingly. Can you express it with a substitute for trust?

Edited to add:

While it's true that money talks, it is not only incoherent in the areas we've discussed, it falsifies values in some areas. The reason we object to the influence of money in politics and justice is that it counterfeits the values that are supposed to be expressed in these forums. It is legitimate to say, I am owed many favors, and my dollars will redeem them in the form of a nice car; that is a recognized commercial value. It is not legitimate to say, I am owed many favors, and my dollars will redeem them in allowing me to kill my rival without punishment; murder may be a commercial venture, but it is not supposed to be a commercial value. And the values expressed in justice may have a monetary component, but they also transcend the values expressed in money.

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