Aquinas and the Market: Part 9, The Problem with Money

In the last post we discussed one of Hirschfeld's criticisms of the rational choice model in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy. Specifically, utility maximization assumes unbounded desires, and this insatiability eventually leads to scarcity as our desires always outstrip our resources. 

In this post I want to turn toward Hirschfeld's analysis of money, as money supercharges this insatiability.

Specifically, and building upon Aquinas's account of virtue and happiness, Hirschfeld tells us that we need to keep in mind two things about created goods.

First, since created goods are particular conduits of God's grace, they are not interchangeable. Each created good is a sacramental sign telling us something qualitatively unique about the goodness of God. Hirschfeld uses the example of an apple. She writes,
In essence, this is an argument that material goods should be viewed as sacramental signs, representing God's goodness to us in the only way possible in a finite creation. Recall that for a finite creation to reflect God, the qualitatively distinct goods we find in the world represent some aspect of God's goodness. The appleness of the apple tells us something of God, distinct from what the orangeness of the orange tells us...To put it another way, the apple is not merely a device for delivering us nutrition, one that is not interchangeable with a pill containing the same set of nutrients. It is a way of sustaining bodily life, along with the goodness communicated in the crunch, smell, and taste of biting into an apple.
Second, and following Aquinas, our appropriation and use of these created goods must be ordered toward ultimate ends. This ordering creates bounded desires for created goods. Finite goods are met with finite desires, and infinite desires are directed only toward God.

Given all this, we find that money distorts our relationship with created goods. To be clear, Hirschfeld is very clear that money is a vital tool for modern economics and, therefore, modern levels of economic prosperity. So we're going to keep money around. But if we are not extraordinarily vigilant, money disorders our relationship with created goods.

In two related ways. First, the power of money is that, via liquidity, it makes goods fungible. Each good has price it can be exchanged for, and that money from the sale can be used to buy a different good. All created goods get monetized, reduced to a price.  

This ability of money, to reduce all goods to a single, interchangeable metric, to a price, is the great dynamo of modern markets. I don't have to barter my pig for your eggs, or my labor for a gallon of milk. We can use money instead, putting prices on an hour's labor, a dozen eggs, or a pound of bacon.

But there's a danger lurking here. As Hirschfeld points out, money is a tool, a means toward an end, the created good itself. But due to money's liquidity and fungibility, we stop using money as a tool and begin pursing money as an end in itself. Instead of seeking an experience of God's goodness and grace in created gifts, our goal becomes simply to get money, and more of it.

This creates the second problem. Our desires for created goods tend to be bounded. We can think prudently about having "enough." How many apples do you need? Or square feet of a house? Practical reason and wisdom can help us bound and limit desires for these goods. We have too many apples if we can't eat them all before they rot. And we have too big a house if we aren't able to put all the space to good use. Bigger isn't always better when it comes to houses.You can look around and say, "We don't need all this space."

True, discernments will vary on how much of any created good is "enough." You and I might disagree on how many shoes or books is "enough." Our desires for shoes or books can become insatiable, unbounded, and disordered. But discernments about created goods are much more amendable to analysis as goods exist within a teleological framework, goods are related toward particular ends. Having more books is disordered if you can't read them all. And a good intended to bring you delight only makes sense if it actually brings you delight. If you buy a fishing boat but work so much you never take the boat out, something is disordered about that. The fishing boat is only a conduit of God's grace if you take the time to get out on the water. But that would demand ordering the other goods in your life, like how much you work. As Hirschfeld discusses, for Aquinas the virtue of prudence is the ability to bring all these goods into proper balance and proportion. And seeking this balance and proportion in life helps us find "enough."

But when money becomes the focus of our desire, we lose this connection to created goods. How much money is enough? Since money is an abstraction, there's never enough. More money is just always better than less. That's how you end up working weekends instead of taking the boat out. You're working on the weekend because money became the goal rather than a means to an end.

In short, money fuels insatiability. Our desire for money is infinite. Why? Because the logic of utility maximization says that $$ is preferred over $. And $$$ preferred over $$. And on and on and on. You can never have enough money. Unlike our bounded desires for created goods, our desire for money is unbounded. By separating us from created goods, money supercharges the insatiability being driven by utility maximization. Economic growth--more and more money--becomes our final, ultimate goal. And once we start playing that game there will never be enough.

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