Search Term Friday: How Much Money Is Enough?

This week a search term question brought someone to the blog:

how much money is enough?

Wouldn't it be nice to get an answer to that question?

Well, that question linked to a 2012 post were I shared insights from the book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.

The point of that post was that we can never have enough because of the way money hides our greed and insatiability:

One of the things the Skidelskys do in their book  How Much is Enough? is provide an analysis of the roots of our insatiability, why we can't seem to answer the question "When is enough enough?" Why is it that we keep wanting more and more?

A part of the reason has to do with the advent of money.

Money has blurred the line between needs and wants and between necessities and luxuries. Because of this we tend to want more as the line of "enough" is fuzzy and obscured.

How has money contributed to this situation?

One of the things that the Skidelskys point to is how money has shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Prior to modern economies and the ubiquity of money value was determined by use. The question wasn't "How much does something cost?" but "What is it good for?" Value was tied up with function. A shovel was valuable because it helped you dig. A bucket was valuable because it helped you carry things. And so on.

When use-value governs our imaginations the question "How much is enough?" is easier to answer. For example, how many forks do you need? How many cars? How many shoes? How many chairs? How many lawnmowers?

When we ask about use-value we get a sense that there is a reasonable answer and a limit to how much might be "enough." We don't need 100 forks or cars or shoes or chairs or lawnmowers. How many lawnmowers is enough? Just one for most of us.

Most of the ancient moral philosophers, as they pondered vices such as greed and acquisitiveness, were working with conceptions of use-value. That is, they could rightly see and condemn persons who acquired more things than they had use for. Such greed looked irrational, it was hoarding. Why would anyone want 1,000 chairs or shovels?

But things changed with the rise of money. Money shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Instead of acquiring chairs or forks--which have defined functions and, thus, inherent limits as to how many of these things are "enough"--we now acquire money which has no particular use or function beyond purchasing power. Money introduced liquidity into our lives, where goods can be reduced to money and that money used to purchase other goods. In modern economies liquidity is what makes the world go around. But liquidity makes is hard to determine how much is enough.

How much money is enough? It seems clear that a person with 1,000 forks has a bit of a fork-problem. How many forks do you really need? You only need as many as you have use for. But what about money? Does someone with with $1,000 have too many dollar bills? How about $10,000? Or $100,000? Or $1,000,000?

Because money has no use-value such questions seem odd. You can never have enough money because money is about exchange-value. Money can get you anything with a price, anything you need. Or want. And that's the root of the problem. When our desires shifted to money rather than to real goods and their function we lost our ability to draw a clear line between need and want and between necessities and luxuries.

Money, in sort, allows us to hoard. Someone with a million forks is clearly insane. But someone with a million dollars? To be sure we've tried to make a connection here. Misers are those who hoard money like a crazy person hoards forks. We think of someone like Ebenezer Scrooge here, a miser counting his money, hoarding it, having too much of it.

But the miser is an old-fashioned concept. The miser expressed a moral worry in the early years of capitalism when use-value began to give way to exchange-value. The miser was an attempt to apply notions of hoarding, a notion coherent in a world of use-value, to the new era of exchange-value. The miser was hoarding money. The miser had more than enough. Like a person with 1,000 forks.

But again, the miser as a moral concept has fallen on hard times. It would sound weird today to call a millionaire a miser, a hoarder of money.

But it's not just an issue with millionaires. Money has affected how all of us ask and answer the question "How much is enough?" We can never have enough money. And this drives greed, materialism, consumerism, and insatiability.

Basically, because of liquidity money hides our hoarding.

With the rise of money we've lost the ability to ask "What do I really need?" That's a good old-fashioned use-value question that we should spend more time contemplating. Unfortunately, our questions tend to be exchange-value questions, questions like "How much can I buy?"

And with those sorts of questions leading us forward the words of Paul seem particularly prophetic and apt:
1 Timothy 6.10
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

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9 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: How Much Money Is Enough?”

  1. It would sound weird today to call a millionaire a miser, a hoarder of money.

    Yes, not a "hoarder" of money but a hider of money -- e.g., in hedge funds and off-shore accounts.

    How much is enough? In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake suggests: "You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough." Blake, however, wasn't talking about money (though he was talking about desire). The poem "Holy Thursday" (in Songs of Experience) catches the take of Blake on early capitalism:

    Is this a holy thing to see
    In a rich and fruitful land,
    Babes reduc'd to misery,
    Fed with cold and usurous hand.

    Is that trembling cry a song?
    Can it be a song of joy?
    And so many children poor?
    It is a land of poverty!

  2. Within the very limited context of asking a question of "how much" vs. "what do I need" the differences between the middle class, affluent, and super-rich can vary depending on what you look at. LeBron James is super-rich and doesn't "need" 15 cars or a 10,000+ square foot home. That could be considered hoarding by your definition. However, a lot of affluent people may have the same number of cars as a middle class family (2-3, depending on the number of teenagers). The difference is that a middle class family might have a Honda and a Ford, while the affluent family might have a BMW or Mercedes. It's the difference between going out to eat at the local buffet vs. eating at an upscale trendy restaurant. You might actually get more food at the buffet, but the price of the upscale restaurant will be higher.

    Do you see any trends where people with a fair bit of disposable income aren't necessarily buying MORE things, but simply buying more expensive things? It's becoming popular in some areas to live more spartan lifestyles but spend oodles of money on a location to build a 600 sq ft. house. A week car-camping is a lot less expensive than a week in the Swiss Alps, but it's still a week.

    I guess my point is that there is some evidence that people find more happiness with their money when buying experience rather than just more things. From a purely anecdotal perspective, I know we have tried to eat out less but then used the "saved" money to go to a more expensive restaurant when we do go out. How does this fit into the "need" vs. "how much" sort of argument? I suppose a meal is a meal and eating at a celebrity chef's restaurant is just another way of showing off your money.

  3. Not mentioned here is the simple fact that money is the physical embodiment of someone else's labor. It is a method of barter or exchange. Its value (per unit) is generally understood, and it is simple and portable. I do not know how to build a car, so I must exchange my cash for something that someone else has produced using their skills, time, and labor. If I need a lung removed, I cannot do this for myself, but the folks who can may seek and deserve some incentive beyond altruism -- a means to acquire some thing or service upon which they may not wish to expend their own time and energy. Labor/work as an intrinsic value unto itself is another matter, of course, as is being compensated for doing or producing nothing.

  4. This makes sense on the surface, but I think it is definitely possible for a person to "need" $100,000, thanks in large part to the exchange-value situation that exists related to medicine, for example. If someone acquires cancer, for instance, even $100,000 may not be enough to pay for their treatment. Is it truly irrational to "hoard" that which has a good chance of proving useful? 10,000 silver forks is irrational, of course, because they're not useful, but what about 1,000 cans of food in a world where drought and food shortage is a horribly common occurrence?

    Or would you say the high cost of medical care is part of that problem as well?

  5. Is there a non-trivial or non-arbitrary reason to ask "how much is enough" on behalf of someone else?

    ISTM that the problem in the heart pre-exists by quite a long time the actual manifestation of anything we might presume to call "too much." By the time we are asking the "enough/too much" question, the train has long left the station.

    In the meantime, members of the apocryphal "1%" (retch) are underwriting a great deal of human goods, many of which I would have to team with hundreds of others to underwrite myself.

  6. I think that depends on what we call needs. I would argue that we don't need to live forever, that death is not to be feared and therefore choosing to spend that 100k elsewhere might alleviate greater human suffering if we are willing to give up our need to be assured long life. By the same token if you were a wise man and saved up a huge pile of food for the lean years, you might choose to still use that food to feed those that were to poor to save up enough or were to young or old to be able to care for themselves. I'm not saying it would be wrong or evil or anything to save for the rainy day, I'm just saying that despite saving for the rainy day we can always choose to forfeit our rights for the good of others if compassion moves us to do so. Which may well be worth more then the benefits of whatever the money could buy.

    Probably a balance in this somewhere, but this post made me wonder if there is a point in life where I could just say that my income was enough and that everything beyond was more then I needed.

  7. Your humble servant would encourage you to make that decision for yourself, but he would advise against others presuming to make it for you.

  8. And something that's not really addressed is the culture of fear and scarcity that our financial sector feeds and encourages. You know all those ads about "will there be enough money to live on till you die?" I used to love to watch Suze Orman until I realized that she is part of that fear-and-scarcity-based culture. She seems to think that we all need to be millionaires in order to live a decent life in retirement. I much prefer to live in the culture of abundance that is supposedly what the Christian life is about. In my experience, there has always been enough, whether I thought so or not. On the other hand, ask me again when I'm 90 and living in and eating out of dumpsters!j See how easy it is to fall into fear?

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