For a while now I’ve been pondering the question: What is money? I’ve come to some rough hypotheses: (1) money measures our lives; (2) money is a placeholder for value; (3) money is infused with the values of those who hold it in trust. My thought-experiment today follows up on this last point: what if every time you spend your money, you are actually spending everyone’s money?
Many of us have jobs. What is a job? From one angle, a job is a place where you go to perform a service that society values. In exchange, you receive a certain amount of “tokens” at a certain rate. You trade your time for value. Your time is valuable. Karl Marx and Adam Smith agreed on the engine of labor-economy: ORGANIZED LABOR IS MONEY. Since your life is made of time, and you can use some of that time to labor, and labor trades for money, LIFETIME IS MONEY. Alternatively, if life is measured by time, and time is money, then life is measured by money. The heavens move and money circulates. Money is the clock by which we live.
Karl Marx once observed that money is the “universal solvent”–money trades for anything. So what if we took money out of the equation? The equation still balances as a barter between yourself and your society: you go to work, create goods or perform services that society values, and in exchange receive (something that trades for) goods and services you value–food, shelter, clothing, a new xbox, etc. Money, then, is a placeholder for value.
“Your money’s no good here.” Which of us wants to work for Hitler? Who among us would be willing to buy clothes from a store known to be a front for a child-slavery cartel? I imagine we all understand the risk in accepting a loan from the Mafia. Similarly, under certain conditions, some of us wouldn’t even consider taking a loan from our own parents. Being in debt to someone means being in debt to their values. Employees tacitly represent company values. Employing and being employed, earning and spending, borrowing and lending: money is infused with the values of those who hold it in trust. Add this to the fact that each of us is, potentially, a creator of value. If money is infused with the values of those that hold it in trust, and each of us is a creator of value, then each of us is poised to redefine the meaning of money.
Peter Singer asks: What would you do if you knew you could save a toddler from drowning, even though it meant ruining your brand new $200 shoes? Singer follows up this question by alerting you to the fact that it takes roughly $200 to feed, clothe, house and provide clean drinking water to a child in Africa for an entire year. Reflecting on Singer has led me to the question: What if every time you spend your money, you are actually spending everyone’s money? The imperative to ask this question may be the new cornerstone of a rational economic ethics. I call it the capitalist imperative.
To qualify this, it may be argued that, from the standpoint of theoretical ethics, the capitalist imperative is hopelessly broad. Just as Hegel critiqued Kant’s categorical imperative for being hopelessly general, how much more might a similar critique be leveled when the general rule for individual action is economic? It’s not always clear how to stand in the shoes of another, even when they’re standing right in front of us. How much more so if we’re being asked to try on seven billion pairs of shoes?
As another qualification, it may be pointed out that we’re animals. We’re bodies. If the local environment offers abundance, what kind of great apes feel guilty for eating? If the local environment provides shelter, what kind of great apes feel guilty for sheltering themselves? Given the choice, what great ape wouldn’t choose air-conditioning, delicious meals, power, status, and pleasure? However globally we may choose to think, we must still live and move and have our being locally.
So the capitalist imperative is a general and heuristic rule for individual action. It is also sensitive to our practical needs and desires as animals. It teaches mindfulness that we live in a global system of exchange; that there is a global system of monetary equivalences that most people happily and intentionally ignore; that every time money changes hands, values and lives are being created and destroyed. It’s your two hundred dollars: new shoes or saving a life in Africa? The choice is, more than ever, yours.
 Singer’s original question is posed in The Life You Can Save (2009, p. 3): “On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is ﬂailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand over the child to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”