There's an old joke, “If it's true that you can't take it with you, then I ain't goin'!” It flies in the face of the fact that we come into this world with nothing and that is how we leave. Still, in the here and now, we have it, so I've been thinking about what “it” is. What is money?
The dictionary says that “money” is a “medium of exchange”. I confess that the definition doesn't give me much understanding. I know “exchange” means the transfer of goods or services. Yet, the only reason we transfer goods and services is because we want something we don't have but someone else does. So, we give them something they want in exchange for something we want. That means money is closely related to the desire which results in the exchange. But what is the “medium”? Here it gets even more abstract. A medium carries something else; like a sound wave traveling through the air. Air is the medium which carries the sound, but it is not the sound itself. Similarly, money is the medium of an exchange, but it isn't the exchange itself. You might think, “Well, money changes hands all the time.” It does, of course, and that is why we get confused. We think we want money, but we don't. We want what money will buy. Money is an abstraction of our desires.
In “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” Douglas Adams mocks the desire for money. He wonders about why human beings are unhappy and says, “Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” We think we are unhappy because we don't have what we want. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we think getting what we want (with money) will make us happy. So, you see, money is the medium which carries or expresses our desire. Money is just an abstract symbol.
If you will allow it, here is my definition of money. Money is an abstract object or symbol for desire which facilitates the exchange of goods and services between people. People have had desires long before there was money to express them. In fact, like language, money is so old, we don't really know where it came from or who invented it. People have always traded goods and services through barter, but money, as a abstract medium of desire, makes it much easier for those transfers to take place.
There are many different kinds of money but they will all have similar characteristics. Some of the characteristics which make money possible as a medium of exchange are that is relatively rare and therefore highly valued and accepted by most people. It should be easy to carry, to divide, and to verify. Money is also best when durable and hard to counterfeit. Throughout history, commodities like grain, cattle, salt, precious gems or metals have all been used as money. In our modern world, governments print pieces of paper to facilitate the exchange of goods. The paper, as Adams' joke suggests, is intrinsically worthless. It is only the acceptance of its value by ordinary people that makes it useful as a medium. That acceptance rests on the people's faith in their government. The people trust that the government will make those pieces of paper relatively rare, durable and hard to counterfeit. When a government makes the money more plentiful by printing excessive amounts of it, the economic laws of supply and demand inexorably make everyone's money less valuable. Then the people begin to have less trust in the government that prints it. Historically, this happened in Germany before WWII. During the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic, wheel-barrows full of currency were required to buy a loaf of bread. That collapse led directly to the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and the great sorrow it brought to the world. More recently, economic policies in Zimbabwe have resulted in a similar kind of hyper-inflation. The government there actually printed 100 trillion (with a "T"!) dollar notes. In 2008 it was estimated that it would take tens or even hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean dollars to equal one American penny!
It seems likely in the future that, rather than paper or coin, all currency will be handled electronically. We are moving toward what has been called a “cashless society” as more and more people use credit or debit cards for their transactions. Finance companies continue to improve their methods to deal with the problems of counterfeiting cards or identity theft. Thieves, on the other hand, continue to develop more sophisticated ways of defrauding. But even while that battle rages and the kinks in the system are being worked out, the advantages of never having to print or mint moneys will probably drive governments to encourage these electronic transactions as the standard medium of exchange. Then, the abstract nature of money will be unmistakable. I mean, people get excited over piles of cash, but how can you lust for patterns of electrons inside the memory chip you carry in your wallet or purse?
Some people think that the Bible says that money is the root of all evil. That isn't so. The Apostle Paul in I Timothy 6:10 says that “the LOVE of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It isn't money itself that is evil. Since money is just an abstraction of human desire, money is no more evil than hunger or thirst. But the obsession with desire, the need to fulfill those desires at all cost, which could be called the “love of money”, leads people to commit all kinds of wickedness. Some of that wickedness we name “greed” or “avarice” or “lust” or “theft” or “fraud”.
As an abstract symbol, money is basically just a tool. Since money is merely an expression of our desires, it makes a wonderful barometer for the health of those desires. Consider what kinds of things you spend money on. Those things you desire indicate what is really important to you; what you value. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Then He encouraged us to put our treasure in heaven where it is durable and secure. So, the old joke which began this article really expresses a desire for treasure here on earth that will necessarily fade away. Yet, by putting one's desire in heaven, one can take a pass on the many desires which tempt us here on earth. So, the attitude recommended by Jesus literally pulls out by the roots all kinds of evil.