For the most part, a system of money is good. I probably wouldn’t want to live without it. Life would slow down considerably if we had to go back to bartering for everything, and I like my all-you-can-eat buffets at the casino.
But there is something important that is lost when you move from a system of barter to a system of money. You lose the immediate sense of the value of your labor, expertise and entrepreneurship. Abstract transactions involving money allow us to trade with people we’ve never even met, and acquire products we couldn’t even dream about otherwise. But that abstraction also makes it hard to see whether we are actually producing anything of value.
If you are a shoe-maker in a bartering society, and you only make shoes for the few hundred people you know well, you don’t have to wonder whether your job is valuable. You don’t have to wonder what your place in the world is. You don’t have to ask, “but what does this all mean?” You just look at your friends’ feet. You can see what it all means. You can see, clearly, the value you’ve created. And they’ll remind you of it. And you’ll be respected for doing a good job. Your reputation, based on your actions, will be a matter of life and death for you. No need for existential angst.
In our more abstract society, we have to find that respect in less tangible ways. And I’m just not sure that acquiring likes on facebook is enough for most of us. Really, in a society where everything is reduced to numbers, how do you see, clearly and concretely, the value you’ve created?
We can also lose the intimacy of the friendships that might form from exchange. The unforced, unplanned, day-to-day interactions that happen when you have to trade all the time often lead to real relationships. When you barter, you have to build up trust. And you learn whether other people are trustworthy or not. Again, in our abstract society, what do you do to acquire that same sense of trust? Stalk people on social media?
Finally, as buying and selling increasingly happens over the internet, we even lose out on the chance encounters we could have had if we traded in person. We don’t even meet the other customers or professionals we would have met randomly, just walking to and from the store.
We have to be intentional about meeting new friends and finding valuable work now, and I’m not sure that’s the easiest thing for most people. For now, though, just recognize that as powerful and useful as money is, there are always trade-offs. We are missing out on some of that basic human contact when we don’t barter face to face. We have to be intentional, then, about getting that in-person interaction that we all need. Because there’s no way to buy your way out of loneliness or isolation. Money can buy a lot of good things, but not everything has a financial price.