As I was doing some Christmas shopping on Newbury Street–Boston’s major commercial area–this morning, I noticed some interesting graffiti:
Money makes you a payable slave
Although this sounds profound, in its sort of sidewalk philosophy way, it demonstrates a profound ignorance on the part of the artist with regards to the nature of both money and slavery.
First, money. Money is simply the name we give to the means of exchange that we use. I take money from my employer in exchange for my labor, and use it later on in exchange for a book from the Mises Institute. The role of money here is simply to act as an intermediary. It makes life easier for everyone. Were it not for money, I would have to sell my service in medical research to only the interested parties who had and were willing to pay me in the form of books on Austrian economics. The existence of money makes this problem–known as the “coordinate coincidence of wants”–obsolete. I accept money from anyone, and use it to purchase all goods.
Perhaps what the artist meant is that money, as a means of exchange, promotes a culture of materialism, and that it wrongfully allows people to indulge in earthly pleasures. I doubt it, but it’s possible. Anyway, this criticism is just as bad, since it rests on a personal subjective value that probably isn’t shared by most of the shoppers on Newbury St. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that the only logical end of an opposition to money must be opposition to mutual beneficial exchange, which I see as an extremely anti-social position to take. On top of that, it is unrealistic. Without interpersonal exchange, we would be less than human, since this–in combination with reason–is what separates us from animals. Without money–in the form of gold, or paper, or hugs, or any widely accepted form of currency–we would have less interpersonal exchange.
Now, slavery. Slavery is a state of being in which the will of one man–the slave–is superseded by that of another–the master. The slave can have no ends of his own; he is bound, usually by violence or the threat thereof, to do as his master tells him. It is possible that a master could pay his slave, but this has no bearing on whether or not his slave is actually a slave. He is a slave by virtue of the fact that his master has complete control over him, and dictates his every move. He is a slave by virtue of the fact that he is violently compelled against his own will, and has no freedom at all. Paying him or not does not change this, and so is not the determinant factor in what “makes you a…slave.”
To suggest that we are all “slaves” because we work for money is simply sensationalistic hyperbole. (It is also factually incorrect, according to the philosophical definition of slavery). As an individual, I might value certain things. In order to attain them from others who own them, I need to present some value of my own. I embark on a mission to do that by seeing who will pay me wages for the work I can do. I can only working and cooperating with those around me, and by helping to fulfill their wishes . This is an example of mutual, voluntary, beneficial exchange, which is mutually exclusive with the idea of slavery.
Much more could be said on this, but I’ve got to get back to the books.