What would you do if money were no object? A familiar question I’m sure. Often we fantasise about the choices we’d make if we had enough money to act without fear. But there is another interpretation of this familiar idiomatic question that is much less considered.
What if money literally were no object? ie. what if it didn’t exist at all? What if we never traded? What if we never got paid, and everything was free? Sounds crazy, right? Well it’s not so crazy as you might think, and, chances are, you’re already engaging in this kind of behaviour.
But first, what is money anyway?
In recent years, assessing humanity’s economic progress from a purely archaeological point of view, it’s beginning to appear like our generally accepted story of money being the ‘inevitable’ replacement for the impracticalities of barter has zero evidential basis. According to anthropologist David Graeber and a growing school of archaeologists, there is no evidence whatsoever that any such ‘barter markets’ or widespread community bartering ever took place.
It appears far more likely that money, in the form of precious metal coins, was first deployed at scale by emperors and kings to enable their marching armies secure basic necessities during the course of their conquests.1 This legal coinage also provided a convenient way for rulers to collect taxes and mete out financial penalties to their subjects. Thus, in the business of war and extortion were sown the seeds of modern society.
But before money (and insatiable monarchs) the evidence (or absence of) appears to support the idea of implicit debt within small, agrarian communities. In other words, when someone did you a good turn, a debt was implied, but not to any specific value, nor perhaps to any specific person. Assuming that you were a contributing member of the community, it was understood that all such ‘debts’ would even out over time.2
With the advent of money and the numerical simplicity it brought, our economy pretty soon became based on explicit trade – that is, exchanging like-for-like value in an exclusive one-to-one arrangement. But if we are to accept that money and explicit trade systems have only been in existence for the last five thousand years or so, then that only accounts for five percent of our entire modern human history.
So how did we survive the first ninety-five percent without it?
While it’s true that our society, wants and needs are far more complex today than they were five thousand years ago, it nevertheless declares a precedent. Exchange and money are not requirements to organised society, and today, are becoming increasingly detrimental to it.3
Presumably, very few people today would wish to return to that humble, hard-working life of our non-monetary forebears, but this time it’s different. We now have highly advanced technology to support most of our wants and needs with minimal – and increasingly zero – effort.4 So, the question is, could humans return to a non-trading, non-monetary, yet more advanced system?
The answer, I believe, is yes – if we merely chose to, and organised our priorities towards that purpose.
Today, there are many change movements centred around this idea of a better world beyond money, trade and all their socially and environmentally destructive spin-offs, movements that have identified the pursuit of profit and growth as inherently detrimental to our planet and the general health of human society.
One such movement is The Free World Charter; a ten-point document that describes itself as ‘minimum operating requirements for a freer, fairer and more just society’. Each Charter principle defines an optimal standard which, if adhered to, could produce the best long-term outcome for humanity and our planetary cohabitants. These principles are about shifting our priorities and attitudes towards our ecosystem, our human community and future life on this planet.
For example, Principle One states:
“The highest concern of humanity is the combined common good of all living species and biosphere.”
This declares that, regardless of whatever else we might believe, our shared fortunes and that of our biosphere must take precedence.
Principle Three boldly declares all the world’s resources as jointly owned by all:
“Earth’s natural resources are the birthright of all its inhabitants, and free to share in the combined common good.”
Principle Six, of particular interest to this article, states:
“Our community provides for all its members the necessities of a healthy, fulfilling and sustainable life, freely and without obligation.”
This effectively rules out trade as the optimal mechanism for meeting people’s basic needs. And, since our trade-based world fails to meet half the world population’s needs and renders life unnecessarily stressful for the other half, it’s a difficult point to argue.
So, if we removed money and trade, would that situation improve? How would we automatically meet everyone’s needs by doing so? And how do we know?
Well, the honest answer is, we don’t know. Because our society is highly complex and such a system has never been tried at that scale, we can’t say for certain that a worldwide money-free system will work. But we can infer a lot.
But before going any further, let’s remind ourselves of what we do know for certain:
1. Our current expectations of life and levels of mass consumption are unsustainable and we have already put ourselves and our planet in great peril. To put it rather grimly, one way or the other, current rates of consumption will stop.
2. Technological advances are continually reducing production costs and eroding the human labour market – without which a trading economy as we know it cannot function.
So, while there are many arguments like social equality and justice that would make a money-free world desirable, there are also factors at play that are rendering it inevitable.
So, why is going money-free the answer? And what makes me think it will work?
1. It’s built in.
We are social animals. All things being equal, we humans seek to bond, to seek approval and community. In other words, we are hard-wired to be invested in each other’s wellbeing.5
With no threat to our survival, and furnished with an abundance of our basic needs, our true nature is that of social congress, compassion and cooperation. We see this in our own lives. When we are replete and looking for something to do, our normal instinct is to offer our help to someone else. This is why billionaires create philanthropic foundations, or why well-heeled middle class people offer themselves to local charities as volunteers. We have an innate need to serve the wider community once our own personal needs are satisfied.6
When life is a money-based predatorial game, it rewards us for predatory behaviour. We benefit by being selfish and greedy. Yet, even despite this, our social nature is so strong that even the most poor and desperate are still drawn to altruistic and cooperative behaviour among their family and friends. And of course, in times of crisis and danger, most people automatically look to the welfare of others.
We are naturally social. And it’s not difficult to imagine that removing the predatorial money-game from society would only enhance that cooperative, compassionate urge exponentially.
2. We have the technology
We have incredible technological capabilities. We can provide the basic necessities of life through advanced agricultural and production methods with minimal human toil. The automation which terrifies the vanguards of economic growth is actually our saviour, not our assassin. We can leverage the best of technology, combine it with a basic community volunteer system, and provide an abundance for all our basic needs with minimal effort.
In a community that met one’s basic needs unconditionally – without the obligation to work forty hours a week for it – I daresay only a small few would refuse to offer back a small portion of their time and skills to help maintain that community.7
This technological bounty already exists in modern society, but lies behind locked doors in the monetary maze, where we, like rats, must undertake tasks to release it. Without those restraints in the production of technology itself, one can only imagine what other marvels could also be made possible.
There is no longer any logical, scientific reason not to give people free access to the things they need to live. In fact, continuing not to do so in such an enlightened age is tantamount to barbarism.
3. We will think differently
How we think about behaviour and how we perceive the world are nothing more than reflections of the system in which we operate. We regard some people as greedy or selfish, but isn’t it more likely that that is a result of the nature of the system rather than the nature of people? Isn’t it far more likely that a person brought up in desperate need of basic necessities would develop selfish adult behaviour as a result, rather than through some innate, irrational meanness?
We see ugly stampedes for ‘bargains’ and never stop to think that it isn’t the stampede that’s ugly, but rather the restraining system before and after that instigates it.
Our behaviour always has a purpose and a source.
We see ugly stampedes for ‘bargains’ and never stop to think that it isn’t the stampede that’s ugly, but rather the restraining system before and after that instigates it. We see chaotic protests and decry people’s violence, but never consider the structural violence that brought those people to that point of violent desperation.
Because our restraining systems are in force 99.99% of the time, they are considered normal, and the release abnormal.
To us, a system of competition is ‘normal’ because we haven’t experienced anything else out in the wider world. Our entire education system is based on peer competition, pressure and scarcity of grades. Why would we believe life to be any different when we have never been taught any different?
The education system of a money-free world would teach group thinking and cooperation, not competition. It would provide essential life lessons in community respect and responsibility. It would foster empathy, compassion, self-confidence and self-awareness. It would teach effective communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving. It would intentionally provide a solid foundation for the kind of community and lifestyle that works for everyone.
Just as our current education program prepares students for a world of careers, competition and individualism, we can equally prepare them for a world of cooperation, compassion and community.
We know that a time of great change is upon us. Only a fool would argue that at this stage. Yet most still want to frame the solutions within the same context of the problem. They say, “tighter regulation” or “greater wealth distribution” or in some cases, “free money for everyone!” While ameliorating some of the symptoms, none of these solutions appear to be even vaguely cognisant of the problem.
Who would honestly believe that if you jailed every corrupt politician and banker and replaced them with someone else that the same problems wouldn’t just appear again shortly later?
The very notion of profit and scarcity creates the incentive that drives irresponsible behaviour. No matter how you regulate it, or shuffle policies and personnel – as long as that incentive remains – irresponsible behaviour will always result.
Who would honestly believe that if you jailed every corrupt politician and banker and replaced them with someone else that the same problems wouldn’t just appear again shortly later? Who would honestly believe that if you stripped every billionaire of all their assets and redistributed their wealth to the poor that you wouldn’t just end up with a different set of billionaires and poor within a few years?
The money and trade system is today nothing more than a superfluous game on which we operate society, deciding who gets what. Changing the rules will only ever have limited results. We need to change the game entirely and evolve our thinking to match our technological capabilities and the challenges that face us.
In a money-free world where we each guarantee a certain level of commitment to our communities, where we understand the follies of mindless consumption through our history lessons, where we are uniquely appraised of the importance and fragility of our community and natural systems, we would understand our most precious resource is life itself, and each other.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of movements currently proposing these kinds of changes in the world today. Please give them your consideration and support, and let’s try to move ourselves onto Level 2.
The Free World Charter
The Zeitgeist Movement
The Venus Project
Free World One
New Earth Nation
The Auravana Project
Common Heritage Movement
- A small, portable store of value was certainly more practical for making long journeys than hauling livestock and supplies around with you.
- Presumably the reverse would also be true: if you weren’t a productive member of that community, the same implicit form of accounting would eventually catch up with you.
- Adherence to fossil fuels, reckless resource extraction and poor production methods for short-term interest, etc.
- Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society makes a compelling case for production prices moving towards zero.
- And of course, as with any other species, we only revert to violence when threatened.
- The International Red Cross apparently has over 100 million volunteers worldwide. That’s 1.3% of the world population in just one organisation, often working in dangerous jobs, in a society that explicitly disincentivises volunteering.
- I always hasten to add that the ‘malingerer’ argument would be at least no different from the same argument one could apply today, and likely be far less a problem in a society that didn’t systematically marginalise people.