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As simple as the concept of money is, humans always find a way to make it more problematic. Even if money is nothing but a medium of exchange in this society, I’ve observed what complex relationships people have with it.
On the one hand, there are some who love it so much with an obsessive kind of love: acquiring all the money that they could, in many different currencies, not letting go of even one cent and acting as if they could bring it to the afterlife. For others, they love acquiring money because of its utility: because later on they could use it to avail themselves of the goods and services they wish.
On the other hand, there are those who seem to hate it because they spend as much as they could the very moment they receive it. And lastly, I know of people who don’t seem to care about money- they lose some, earn some, save some, share some… they don’t seem worried at all about it.
These are only some of the most common ways people relate with money- and all of them seem normal once you stop to think about it.
However many, if not most people think that money is bad.
They are the ones who stick to the words “Money is the root of all evil”, without considering that the more accurate version of this quote is:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
… according to the Biblical passage 1 Timothy 6:10
Notice how it refers to love of money as the root of all kinds of evil, not money itself. A similar but ridiculous example would be be like saying that the sun causes skin cancer when in fact, it is irresponsible sunbathing that is the originator of the malady.
What if we turn the tables around and say that likewise, it is “the lack of money that is the root of all kinds of evil”? (Quotation from Mark Twain) I’m afraid this is also questionable, because not everyone who lacks money is poor and is deficient of resources for survival (money is merely a representation of liquidity; a person may lack cash at a certain point of time, but may still live in a mansion, possess gold bars and hectares of land). Just as well, not all who lack money get evil ideas about how to acquire some.
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Also, as the late A. Graziani pointed out, there is a difference between a monetary economy and one in which trade occurs by barter. Are we then to conclude that evil is more rampant in the monetary economy? I would guess not. During the hyperinflation in Russia in the early 90’s, people scoured for food and would exchange gold jewelries for any kind of nourishment… they weren’t really after money. Yet during that period, offenses against the law have been undoubtedly committed just to be able to procure supplies for the household.
The way I see it, money has been pinpointed as the root of evil because as Investopedia said,
… money is the way we get the things we need and want.
… and so many people have indulged into poor, even immoral and illegal actions just to be able to acquire some of it. Many people have also used it for questionable aims.
But going back to a situation where money “doesn’t mean a thing”, what could be the root of evil in those cases? Imagine a Chinese trader cheating or being cheated by a Malay counterpart in a silk and spices exchange. In that antiquated but real economy, there was room for evil, even if money was still inexistent.
To answer this question, I consulted Adam Smith because the man’s words are timeless and likewise truly applicable to this topic. He talked mostly about money but if you looked deeper in his words, you’d realize there is a more profound source of corruption:
(1) Goods can serve many other purposes besides purchasing money, but money can serve no other purpose besides purchasing goods. It is not for its own sake that men desire money, but for the sake of what they can purchase with it.
(2) A great stock, though with small profits, generally increases faster than a small stock with great profits. Money, says the proverb, makes money. When you have a little, it is often easier to get more. The great difficulty is to get that little.
(3) The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.
(4) With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.
(5) No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.
(6) Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.
-Excerpts from “The Wealth of the Nations”
Did you see how Adam Smith had made a compelling appeal to humans’ sentiments? This was how he unknowingly built the foundation of economics. And such a genius foundation at that! for what is economics but the distribution of limited resources according to a human being’s criteria- where the said criteria is highly influenced by his sentiments?
It might already go without saying that what I believe to be the truest root of all evil is the sentiment behind anybody’s actions. This becomes the motivation that would fuel a person to take a step in one direction or another. This direction might lead to cheating someone out of a business trade or towards exchanging one’s golden wedding band for a loaf of bread.
What is the intention behind those actions**?
When we pinpoint money as the root of all evil, we push our responsibilities as thinking and feeling humans away from us towards an inanimate item that wouldn’t complain when greatly blamed. When we deny our accountability in contributing to this world’s evil, we will never find the solution to lessen it, let alone to eradicate it. When we transfer the burden of bringing evil towards something as ephemeral as money, we will only forget what troubles it gave us once it ran out. In fact, we risk continuing to indulge in the same (if not worse) immoralities to keep on acquiring it.
There is evil connected to money in our society because those who already have a lot of it, can’t get enough of it; because those who lack it are struggling to have a little bit more of it; because the people behind the real value represented by the money (the workers and entrepreneurs within the agricultural, industrial and service sectors) usually end up with less money than they deserve; because there are many civil governments who have promised to redistribute money to attain a more equitable society, but end up keeping the stash for themselves.
Money is not evil. What could be evil are the motives behind wanting to have more (of it), the type of deeds carried out in order to receive some and the objectives for wanting to spend it.
*Evil in this case is understood as arising from bad conduct, resulting into committing an illegal act.
**One could argue that a man who commits evil to feed his family could be “excused”. It is not within the scope of this post to transmit any value judgement, but only to expose the existence of evil and argue that money is not its root cause.
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- “What is Money?”, by Investopedia staff, available at: http://www.investopedia.com/articles/basics/03/061303.asp
- “What is Money and How is it Created?”, by Steve Keen, Investing section, Forbes Magazine online, available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevekeen/2015/02/28/what-is-money-and-how-is-it-created/#7dec264c7df4
- “15 Smart things Adam Smith said About Money”, by Elizabeth Bogner, Business Insider website, available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/adam-smith-wealth-of-nations-money-2011-11#