This is the evolution of money, and beyond…
Money began to be used by humanity many thousands of years ago, long before recorded history. At first, the money used was some commodity that everyone was willing to accept in trade because everyone knew that almost anyone else would also accept it. Thus one could work out an indirect trade in order to get just what one wanted. One could trade one’s goods for the money commodity and then trade the money commodity for the desired goods.
So there were many different kinds of money. Among the items that served as money were shells, spear points, blankets, pigs, cattle, and salt. But no matter which commodity happened to be serving as money, it seemed that there were problems with it. For example, how do you make change for a spear point? If you break it up, the value is lost altogether. And what if you want to retain the commodity for a while before trading it. The pig could die and you had to keep feeding it or it would die for sure. And what about portability? If you wanted to take some money on a trip it was difficult to slip a few cows in your pocket before leaving.
But though the commodity money was making things easier, it simply was not good enough for the circumstances that would come about with the development of the city. Cities had lots of people and a lot more trading going on. Cities had market places where scores or even hundreds of people would come each day to trade. The needs of the city demanded a better money. Salt was one of the more commonly used monies of the time because it could be divided up into “fractional” amounts without changing the value of the total amount. Salt didn’t need to be fed. Salt would last a long time without changing its character. Of course you didn’t want to be caught out in the rain with it, or your fortune might wash away. But even salt was not as good as metal, the second great step in the evolution of money after commodity money.
As cities developed, the uses of metal also developed. Metal could be divided and subdivided without losing its value. Metal didn’t need to be fed. And some metals didn’t even rust when caught out in the rain. In fact some metals were downright pretty when shiny. So in the societies that had lots of cities, the use of metals as money began. This was a much-improved money. Trade was easier. But being able to weigh out the amount of metal became important. This led to the development of scales and units of measure for weight. (And to numbering systems for counting and to accounting and writing and taxes and all sorts of cultural advances.) There was also a problem with knowing which metal was being offered because some metals looked like other metals but were much more common. It wouldn’t do to accept a common metal in trade thinking it was the much more valuable rare metal. So there was a lot of cheating and suspicion, leading to squabbles in the marketplace.
The rulers of the time, those who held power, found these situations quite upsetting, especially when they were the ones being cheated. So that led to the third great step in the evolution of money, the coin. Now coins were pieces of a metal which were all the same size and shape and which were metal of a set purity so just by glancing at the coin one could tell what one was getting. They even were made with pictures of the ruler or someone that was important (usually a god or goddess) on them. That was how you could tell that the ruler gave his word that the coin was what it was supposed to be.
Coins could be made of several different metals but over the centuries, the two most commonly used metals were gold and silver. There was a lot more silver available, so the gold coins were more valuable pound for pound; but no matter what metal was used there were problems with coins as well. For one thing, a person could shave just a little metal off the coins, melt down those shavings, and make more coins. This made the original coins weigh less than their “face value” and thus the person who accepted them in trade was being cheated. In order to prevent this form of theft, those who minted the coins took to putting grooves all around the edge of the coins so that if the edges were trimmed, it would be obvious. But that didn’t get rid of one other way of cheating on the coins. Sometimes the government wanted to make more coins than they had the metal to make. They would “debase” their coins by adding some base metal to the gold so that the coin would no longer truly have its face value of gold. One might call this “inflation.”
Coins were the main form of money for several thousand years in many nations of the world and they still exist in our currently used monetary systems. They have been one of the most successful forms of money, and there are those today who believe that we should still be using gold coins as our only money; however, that brings up some other problems that people and governments have experienced with gold and silver coins.
If you traveled, the weight of your coins could be a problem. Transferring a large amount of money from one place to another was not only work but risky as well. Once banks developed (probably originating from jewelry stores) it was safer to simply write on a piece of paper that the bank would be good for a certain amount of gold if the bank in the destination city would be so good as to give the bearer (who could even be named on the paper) that gold (perhaps for a small fee for being so nice). This led to the fourth major step in money’s evolution: paper money (including cheques, bank drafts and letters of credit).
With paper money, one could carry almost any amount easily and wouldn’t have to worry about the weight of gold being short or anything of that sort. Of course, paper money had its own set of problems. Paper could burn. Paper that was traded a lot wore out rather quickly. Worse, sneaky people could print up money for themselves that looked just like (or very nearly just like) the real thing. Some would say worse still: governments were no longer restrained by the supply of some valuable metal, but were only restrained by how big the numbers they could print on the paper were. Several notable instances of governments generating huge amounts of money (hyperinflation) that became worthless paper have happened in the last few centuries.
Also, even though paper money could represent a lot of value in a small space and weight, one still had to move that paper itself from place to place in a time when speed of movement of money was becoming important. The fifth major stem in money’s evolution came with the “account” and electronic funds transfer. If one put money into a bank, the bank could send a message by telegraph and “wire” that money to another bank just like the paper messages that had moved from bank to bank previously. This made it possible to get money from point A to point B with the speed of electricity (which is very fast, indeed). So the use of the account in place of commodities, metal, coins, or paper money came to dominate the market; in terms of the amount of money in existence and the movement of money from one party to another. In fact, the amount of money in accounts increased far more rapidly than did the amount of goods and services for sale and even than the amount of value of assets such as real estate.
Nowadays, money in accounts is no longer a physical object, of course, but we treat that money as if it were a set of physical objects. We transfer it from account to account. Money in an account had to come from somewhere… and when taken out of an account it had to go somewhere. We think of money as a physical object, we treat it as a physical object, and therefore its consequences are still those of a physical object.
We now have a thoroughly modern type of money. But is it really much different than the salt or the pigs or the cows or the spear points? Remember the problems that people experienced with those other forms of money? The nature of salt as a money is that it is a physical object with certain physical properties. Those physical properties had consequences for the people who used it as money. The same is true for every one of the forms of money that have been used down through the ages.
Let’s look at some of those properties, the properties of physical objects in general, the properties which have consequences for those who use those physical objects (or things which they treat as physical objects).
Physical objects can be taken from you against your will. This is true for physical objects in general and for money in particular. Even your bitcoin wallet can be stolen or confiscated. Every form of money to date can be taken from you against your will by force (robbery, theft, threats, fines, taxes) or fraud (counterfeiting, swindles, lies) or loss (fire, misplacing, hole in pocket etc.).
Physical objects are amoral. They can be used for any purpose whether good or bad. This is also true of money. It can be used to motivate any behavior at all.
The supply of one physical object does not determine the supply of other physical objects. One can increase or decrease the supply of money with no corresponding increase or decrease in the goods or services for sale.
Transfer of possession of a physical object goes from one party to some other party. Thus monetary transactions are two-party interactions. Each party may represent a whole group of people such as when a business deals with a government, but the transfer of money is from one party to another.
The use of physical objects small enough to be a good commodity money cannot be controlled. Therefore, the use of money as a physical object cannot be controlled. Neither government with its monopoly and the use of physical force, nor the Church with its faith-inspired authority, or even the family with its intimate knowledge of its members, can prevent money from being used however the person possessing that money chooses.
The transfer of possession of a physical object means that what one party has gained, some other party has lost. When one is playing poker with table stakes (only the money at the table at the beginning of the game can be used) what one wins must come from the losses of the others. One can only gain if the other players lose. Likewise, for them to win, you have to lose. This relationship is called a “zero-sum game”. You will note that the relationship among the various participants in such a game or form of interaction is that of opponents, rivals, competitors, enemies. Since our money is treated as a physical object, transfer of money from one to another means that the money that one has gained the other has lost, just like in a zero-sum game. Of course an economy is not a zero-sum game but money makes it appear to be one even though that is false. Because we pay attention to the money and forget the goods and services going the other way, we feel like we are in a zero-sum situation. When there is not enough money for the company to pay everyone and some must lose their jobs, it feels like a zero-sum game. The pay that goes to one person cannot go to some other person.
As you can see, we get all sorts of problems from these consequences of our money being a physical object or being treated as if it were a physical object. A sampling of the problems includes theft of your money, inflation/deflation, organized crime, oppressive governments, and poverty.
What change should be the next step in the evolution of money? The answer seems obvious, we should stop using a money which is, or is treated like it were a physical object.
Now that is difficult to even think about, isn’t it? Every money that has ever existed has been a physical object form of money, even those bank accounts. How can there be a medium of exchange if there is no object to be the medium? How can there be trade if the money is not transferable from one party to another party? How can a money be moral?
But remember those previous steps in the evolution of money? In a society in which pigs are the medium of exchange, to suggest using metal would seem insane. Who has metal in an economy centered around the raising of pigs? In a society that uses the raw metal for money to suggest the coin as an improvement would be met with rejection. Think of the work it would take to make all those coins and to make them just alike. That’s crazy! In a coins-only economy, to suggest paper money would get you laughed out of the room. To think that anyone would accept a piece of paper for their goods or their work would be beyond belief. And who would ever believe (before the computer) that one would earn money, have it deposited in one’s bank account, spend the money, and never once have the money be in the form of currency?
You see, each of the steps in the evolution of money in the past has been unexpected and has seemed impossible when first proposed. So please try to suspend your belief that money has to be what it is today and can never be anything else. The evolution of money may not be over. Just as the failings of the various forms of money in the past led people to think the unthinkable and consider the insane so we are coming to a point in history when the old form of money we use today will have to be replaced or it will destroy us.