The humanity of money

Published 6:47 pm Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Does the buying and selling of certain things degrade our society? By now the selling of naming rights for sports stadiums is commonplace, but I bet many Crimson Tide fans would be angry if the University of Alabama sold off the name of Bryant-Denny Stadium. What if people sold the naming rights to their children? Should people be able to buy their way out of jury duty, or purchase human organs available for transplant?

Many people find “selling” things like names or organs unethical and degrading. For instance, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel fears that money can exert a corrupting influence, and argues that “market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about.” The denigration of economic values relative to higher values often is a prelude to restrictions on markets and economic freedom.

Certain types of transactions also make me uneasy, but I attribute this to a knee-jerk reaction against change and an (often unfounded) presumption that the old ways were better. The argument that money corrupts or crowds out more important human values, however, I think ultimately misses the point. Money and markets are all about human values.

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Money is just a means to trade, and must be acquired before it can be spent. Typically people acquire money by exchanging their time and effort for dollars, or working. The time and effort must be spent doing something that others will actually exchange money for, which usually means a task well done, whether babysitting or writing computer code. Earning money challenges people to use their talents and consequently is all about human value.

We trade our money away for things that allow us to sustain our lives, like food and shelter, and to improve our lives. Consider a family game night, the type of value we often say that money can’t buy. Family game night might entail the purchase of pizza and some games, and a comfortable place to play, like our homes. We invest our time – our lives – putting together game night: we use some time to play the games, and some time earning the money needed. Thus spending money also embodies human values.

Businesses are also ultimately about human values. Consider a young man I’ll call Joe, who owns a small house painting business and has just bought his first house. Joe cannot move all of his furniture by himself, so he asks some of his friends one Saturday to help him move. In appreciation for taking time out of their Saturday to help him, Joe treats his friends to dinner that evening.

On Monday Joe returns to work. Joe needs help to paint homes in a timely fashion, and so he needs some people to help him. Because Joe needs their help on Tuesday too, he pays his house painters and we call them his employees. Joe’s business and moving day are both examples of voluntary cooperation; ultimately business is about cooperation to improve our lives.

Physical forms of money store value, which is nice because people may not want to spend the money they earn immediately – they may want to wait for family game night, or a family vacation. Money can then be saved, invested, given away, inherited, or taxed by the government, and it can exist far removed from the effort which created it. Its independent physical existence obscures money’s source in human value.

Improving the lives of ourselves and our children are perhaps two of the most fundamental human values. Families have had game nights for thousands of years. Yet throughout most of human history, families played around a fire in a cold and damp hut, often with little food, while disease shortened lives and left families with few nights to share together. Money, business and the modern economy allow progress, meaning that families enjoy many more game nights together, in comfort and safety.

Money and economic values do not stand in tension with other human values. Rather, economic and noneconomic values both spring from the same fountain, our lives.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.