WalletHub is running a fun little debate on the question: “Is money the root of all evil?”
Here’s an excerpt from my piece:
If anything, money actually lessens the evil effects of greed by channeling it away from socially destructive practices, and toward socially productive ones. Money is a medium of exchange – of trade. And in societies without trade, the most common way of getting what you want from someone else is to take it by force. At best, that kind of violence and theft produce a zero-sum game where one person’s gains equal another’s losses. At worst, they produce a negative-sum game, and a Hobbesian society in which the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
But trade is different. When you trade with someone else – whether through barter or money – the only way to get what you want from them is to offer something that they want more. Trade is therefore only possible when both parties value what they receive more than what they give up. And in this way, the possibility of trade fundamentally changes the social character of greed. What was once a force that led individuals to help themselves at others’ expense now leads them to help themselves by serving others. After all, as Adam Smith noted over two hundred years ago, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Money isn’t wealth (if it was, any nation could make itself wealthy simply by printing more of it). But by creating the possibility of mutually beneficial trade, money helps us to create wealth. On the micro scale, wealth is created every time two people walk away from a transaction better off than they were before. On a macro scale, money and trade provide the incentive for the creativity, innovation and growth that has already lifted so much of humanity out of poverty, and continues to do so today.
None of this is to deny that some people do very bad things in pursuit of money. Or that many people value the things that money can buy more highly than they should. But those vices are reflective of deeper flaws in human nature: flaws that pre-existed the invention of money and will remain with us as long as we are human. Money does not alter our human imperfection. But it does both put a limit on the harm that imperfection can cause, and provide us with a way of redirecting it toward the greater human good. That is something to be celebrated, not decried.