(Note: My boilerplate Point-In-Time Disclaimer applies for this post.)
Not long ago, in another part of the web, I watched a discussion wherein someone attempted, very unconvincingly, to defend the position that money should be abolished. He had no coherent idea about what to replace it with; in fact, he didn't seem to be of the opinion we should replace it with anything.
From what I could tell, he had far bigger problems than the fact he was stumping for a not-very-defensible idea in the first place. He could barely hold a train of thought long enough to complete a sentence, let alone complete it coherently.
But out of that grew some thought on my end: would there come a time, far enough in the future, where money might well be abandoned as no longer serving any useful purpose? Note that I'm not talking about a "cashless society", but a society where the very concept of money has been ditched.
I didn't think this would happen, and here was my reasoning for same.
One of the things I hear widely bruited is the idea that after we reach a "post-scarcity" society, money will serve no real purpose and will simply wither away. (Gee, where have I heard that terminology before?) The first problem I have is with the term "post-scarcity"; the second is with the concept of "withering away".
The exact definition of "post-scarcity" is a bit nebulous, but it seems to refer mostly to a way of life where all the basic material needs of civilization have been satisfied. Problem is, the whole idea of what constitutes "basic material needs" is a constantly moving target, since civilization itself is also a moving target.
Five hundred years ago, nobody had electricity. Thing is, nobody worried about not having electricity, because there was absolutely no demand for it. Today, most anyone who lives without electricity is regarded as living under conditions of privation that most of us would abhor. A hundred years from now, not having a cortical uplink to the world-grid will be seen as unbearably crippling. And so on.
The way I see it, there is never going to be any such thing as a "post-scarcity" society because there will always be something of value to us that is in short supply. Always. The fact that human nature constantly seeks out new horizons of all kinds is a guarantee of that. The only "post-scarcity" society I could envision is one where mankind has essentially become the Beings of Pure Energy that came along every dozen or so Star Trek episodes to give the Federation a terrible hassle.
Incidentally -- and my memory's a little hazy on this part -- but if I recall correctly one of the more Utopian concepts in Star Trek was the obsolescence of money. I think this was downplayed or dropped completely after a while, especially in any universe where you have "credits" (read: money) or "gold-pressed latinum" (read: money). (Most of the arrangements I've seen for doing away with money, in either fiction or reality, simply involved creating a substitute for it with a different name.)
Anyway, until we all turn into the Lights of Zetar, the Q or the Organians, there's always going to be something in short supply somewhere. It might not be material -- then again, it might well be. As long as such things exist, there's always going to be a need for abstraction of labor.
That's what money is: an abstraction, a way for you to compensate me without having to go through the hassle of bartering or swapping work. Money's not going to vanish just because we suddenly all have the ability to synthesize material objects, because our needs are going to be shifted into other directions.
Who knows? Maybe just because we can synthesize material objects doesn't mean we'll find that a useful, wholesale replacement for creating things the old-fashioned ways. It would certainly complement it, but there's nothing that says it would automatically replace it. We're discovering that a mass-manufactured world is not always the most comfortable or appealing one, and even attempts to mass-manufacture things that have a non-mass-manufactured flavor to them fall short of the real thing, because once we're aware of the difference, it bugs us. (I'll have more to say on this in a future post as well.)
None of this is meant to imply I'm cool with the excesses of unregulated capitalism, or any of the other things that can be done with money that leave a bad taste in the mouth. I'm just being realistic: as long as there's a situation where certain things are unevenly distributed -- and from where I sit, there always will be something like that -- there's going to be a corresponding need to buy and sell, and a medium to perform that exchange with.
Money is too useful, in too many ways, to simply dismiss as an archaism or a social obstacle. To simply say "Let's get rid of money" is as thoughtless and counterproductive as saying "Let's get rid of written language". Yes, I've heard of some people who have in fact stumped for the latter. Last I checked those guys didn't have a whole lot of adherents.
The most common replacement for money is barter -- an ad-hoc transaction of some kind. This works on a small scale, and we do it every day of our lives. Not a thing wrong with it. It's a handy thing to be able to give someone a lift and have them spot me lunch, or what have you. What's onerously complicated, and I would argue unsustainably so, is the idea of replacing all economic transactions with such things. The work I do isn't going to be of much direct use to a farmer, or someone who doesn't read English, so having an abstract medium through which we can arrange trade is a massive help.
Maybe at some point down the line money will be replaced with another social convention, one far more elegant and all-encompassing, the way Roman numerals or carbon paper all worked in their day but were eclipsed by better things. I, in my less-than-infinite insight, have yet to come up with such a thing.
If you do, by all means let us know. I'd hazard there's a Nobel in economics to be had.
(For bonus points, feel free to mention in the comments any works of SF (or fantasy) that have interesting approaches to the problem described here.)
Other Lives Of The Mind