Is Liquidity the Root of All Evil?

August 20, 2004 | 17 comments
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Money is the root of all evil, or so we are told. What exactly does money do that makes it so nefarious? Should we simply understand this as being a reference to wealth or to money in particular?

Money provides liquidity. It provides a way of easily storing, transporting, and conveying wealth. We know that one doesn’t need a government in order to create a currency. All that is needed is what Adam Smith called mankind’s natural inclination to “truck and barter.” In markets, people tend to naturally gravitate toward holding their wealth in some form that is easy to move and is widely traded. Suppose that I have apples and Kaimi has oranages. I want oranges, but Kaimi does not want apples. In order to get Kaimi’s oranges (provided I don’t bop him on the head) I need to trade my apples for something that Kaimi wants. When lots and lots of people in the market face this sort of bargaining problem, they will tend to all trade toward some commodity that is fairly widely demanded and easily moved. (Also, you want to trade toward something where the supply of the item in the market as a whole is fairly stable.) This is why cigarettes frequently ended up serving as a form of money in POW camps during World War II. If you traded toward cigarettes, you could be reasonably confident that you could trade from cigarettes to something that you actually wanted later on.

Liquidity is a dangerous thing. Wealth that can not be easily transformed or transferred tends to reinforce fairly static social orders. Land, for example, is the classic example of an illiquid form of wealth. Money is the ultimately liquid form of wealth. In a society where most of the wealth is in money, assets will flow quickly and easily to their most valued use. Markets will tend to respond quickly to changes in consumer preferences and it will be much easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses and amass wealth (and with it social status and the like) in new and disruptive ways. In a society where most of the wealth is tied up in land and where there is not much in the way of money, markets will respond to changes in consumer preferences much more slowly, and entrepreneurs will have a difficult time starting disruptive new businesses. The 18th and 19th century South was a cash starved economy based on illiquid assets, mainly land and slaves. Early 20th century America was a cash rich economy that lived on the liquidity of trade and credit. Not surprisingly, the antebellum South was stable and socially rigid. The America of Theodore Roosevelt was being constantly convulsed by transformation, dislocation, and the crumbling of previous social hierarchies.

Now in all likelihood, attacks on money are simply attacks on concentrations of wealth rather than on liquidity and social disruption. I can’t help but thinking, however, that lurking behind some prophetic denouncements of wealth their lies an uneasiness with the change that liquidity hath wrought. I am not sure what to make of this. One answer (the one that Russell, for example, seems to have endorsed) is to embrace this implicit message and retreat into comfortable anti-commericialism a al Wendell Berry or Hugh Nibley. My problem is that I find dynamic, fluid, market driven societies very appealing. The scriptures, however, don’t seem to share my enthusiasm.

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17 Responses to Is Liquidity the Root of All Evil?

  1. Charles on August 20, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    Those are some really good thoughts Nate. But I think that it is important to note 1 Timothy chp 6 verse 10 is “… the LOVE of money is the root of all evil…” Let us not unjustly beat upon the cold hard comfort of cash itself.

    However, I find an interesting correlation here. The love of money (I realize people can covet money whether it is in the form of Land, salt, cash or credit.) seems to become more common when money is in a liquid form. If it is easily trasnferable then people would be more capable of realizing their desires, and often wealth creates the greed for more wealth. In this sense I can agree that liquidity can lead to greater evil (more love of money).

    But I must disagree with your argument in the 3rd paragraph. Liquidity vs illiquidity and market flexibility vs stability is different. If we remove the emotional connection to money or keep it in check to avoid the love of money then the societal aspect is more neutral.

    Having large pockets of wealth where wealth is determined by land or a less transferable resources only creates a wide class gap that creates inequality and will ultimately stifle social improvements. In this case I would have to argue that liquidity is good for the mass population.

    Lots of very interesting thoughts here.

  2. Rusty on August 20, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    But Nibley even went so far as to imply that money is something the Lord never intended in the first place. The Lord would provide our needs if we would but ask. Lucifer then offered to provide our needs for an exchange of money. ANYTHING in this world, he said, can be purchased.

    When Lucifer says he will buy up armies and false priests I can’t help to wonder what that means in my own little sphere (not on the global scale where his money influence is easily discernable). It makes me glad that I served my mission in Guatemala to be able to more accurately understand the difference between needs and wants.

  3. greenfrog on August 20, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    I agree that Nibley has said such a thing. I think that he might have been mistaken, both about divine will as well as about the sorts of things he implies about the operation of human societies, economic markets, and information theory.

  4. Rusty on August 20, 2004 at 1:53 pm

    Greenfrog: I think that he [Nibley] might have been mistaken, both about divine will as well as about the sorts of things he implies about the operation of human societies, economic markets, and information theory.

    In what way?

  5. Dave on August 20, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Nate, I think the quote is actually, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” So perhaps affection for bartering is a sign of election? Personally, I hate haggling and trading, I’m much happier with posted take-it-or-leave-it pricing.

  6. Kristine on August 20, 2004 at 2:54 pm

    Does NT Greek make the same distinction between “wealth” and “money” that English does?

  7. Geoff B on August 20, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Nate, this is a very thought-provoking post, but I’m not quite convinced that liquidity is truly the problem. As far as the historical evidence shows, liquidity has always been around. Gold, silver, etc. Even the BoM has a reference to liquidity. Certainly, we are more liquid than ever now, but that goes hand-in-hand with having a more information-oriented and global economy.

    Because the Church is part of the world, it is necessary for the Church and its members to deal with the realities of modern-day living. That means dealing with the temptations and pitfalls associated with money.

    In my estimation, the moment that you make your goal making money — rather than maintaining your family, fulfilling your responsibilities, being a good steward of the things you have been given — you are heading in a dangerous direction. Hugh Nibley’s solution — that we all become farmers or college professors — is certainly not very realistic. I know that Hugh Nibley’s view is more complex than this (I own the Complete Works and have read them several times each), but his bottom line viewpoint is extremely idealistic and not representative of what the Brethren have said recently about careers and money.

  8. Jim Richins on August 20, 2004 at 3:34 pm

    It may be interesting to note that most of the Church’s wealth is not in liquid form.

    Remember also, Rusty, that in response to Satan’s zeal to obtain, Peter firmly declares “we have sufficient for our needs.”

    Every year, I sit through the requisite Sunday lesson on wealth/debt/tithing, and inevitably, (usually after an all too predictable pattern of instruction) the conclusion is drawn that money is not evil, and that it is OK for Latter Day Saints to purchase the latest model Hummer or wall-hanging, plasma-screen HDTV, so long as they don’t go into debt, and continue to pay a full tithe. Jacob 2 is always quoted, and especially v. 18 (“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye first the kingdom of God”) is used as another justification for such behavior.

    However, I disagree with this. In my experience, Latter Day Saints take serious liberty with Jacob (and other similar scriptures) by ignoring the context in which he was teaching, and end up miscontruing his intent. I have come to believe, generally speaking, that the accumulation of wealth, riches, influence, etc. is NOT consistent with living the Gospel. I am not saying that the Huntsman or Marriot clans are living in sin. It’s just that the *accumulation* of wealth, or the goal/desire/process of improving one’s financial standing (as measured by the world’s standards) is as much a preface for sin as is patronizing a strip club that serves alcohol.

    There is an oft-repeated story which (I think) has been elevated (reduced?) to the status of Mormon Urban Legend, that tells of a mission president, upon releasing his elders from the field, encourages them to go to college, get high-paying jobs, and get rich. The reason, this mission president gives, is that the Lord doesn’t need poor and needy people who depend upon welfare or who can not excercise enough financial freedom to send their children on missions, or themselves serve later missions. Unfortunately, the reality seems to be that, during the time in between a 21-year-old RM heads off to college and becoming a 60-year-old retiree, the desire for obtaining those riches in order to serve in the Kingdom has been replaced with a desire for consuming those worldly riches upon his own natural-man lusts.

    Hopefully, many others who read this have been in Sunday lessons where the instructor goes the extra step to ask “But, does obtaining that Hummer or HDTV truly serve the Lord’s purposes, either for the individual personally, or for the Kingdom as a whole?”

  9. danithew on August 20, 2004 at 3:52 pm

    For those of you who would like to be unburdened of the sin and responsibility represented by money, I’ll be happy to help you out. My experience with this in the past is that some would like to get rid of their money burden all at once (sending me a single large check) whereas others prefer to do so in installments. Just send me an email and I’m sure we can work out a plan that works best for you. :)

  10. Nate Oman on August 20, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    I wouldn’t want to suggest that Ancient societies lacked any kind of liquidity. However, they were nothing like as liquid as our economies, or even the economies of the 18th century.

    I agree with those who see this scripture primarily as being a condemnation of the accumulation or concentration of wealth. I am just curious if there is a second order concern about the form that the wealth takes.

    If I am rich and all of my wealth is in land, then that wealth has different social consequences than if I am rich and all of my wealth is in cash. Obviously, much of the law dealing with land is concerned with making it into a more liquid form of wealth, and I suspect that with sufficient time and contractual ingenuity most forms of illiquid wealth can be made liquid. (Think about something like secondary markets in home mortgages.) I just wonder if the focus on money indicates a preference for certain kinds of wealth over other kinds of wealth.

    The idealized yeoman farmer of Nibley or Wendell Barry may well be a millionaire in terms of the sheer value of the assets that they possess. The illiquidity of those assets, however, has major implications for the kind of society that those concentrations of wealth foster. Illiquid wealth will not foster innovation and rapid change the way that liquid wealth will.

  11. danithew on August 20, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    Jim Richins writes: “I am not saying that the Huntsman or Marriot clans are living in sin.”

    I’m just glad that Paris Hilton doesn’t (to my knowledge) have a Mormon Marriott counterpart.

    Reading this, I’ve got all these “money songs” going through my head…

    Money (That’s What I Want) — performed by the Beatles

    Money — Pink Floyd (somehow the “sh” word on this song never gets bleeped out on the radio)

    For the Love of Money — The O-Jays (this is the song you hear at the beginning of Trump’s Apprentice show)

  12. greenfrog on August 20, 2004 at 4:41 pm

    I suspect that there are others who frequent T&S who could provide views of price theory and policy better than I can.

    The beginnings of it, however, lie in the concept of money as a relatively efficient form of communication. I am highly skeptical of the idea that a society of individual subsistence agrarians who eschew the use of money could support a population of six billion.

    The data processing alone would crater the enterprise. How would a Chinese famer in Hunan know whether he should ship his rice (however one would “ship” in a world with ships) to a needy family in Chile with price information systems to convey to him the information of rice demand? Prices, and consequently money, are enormously complex information mechanisms that, IMO, are essential to the provision of daily bread to more than six billion humans.

    Could a society exist without them? Surely.

    Would have six billion humans in it? Not for long.

  13. Clark Goble on August 20, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    First off I’d second Nate’s comments. I think that a lot of the comments on wealth in Isaiah or in the Book of Mormon have to be understood in the context of the societies. That makes it somewhat difficult to understand because their society and economies were so radically different than ours. There simply are numerous checks and balances on monopolizing resources in our society that make the comparison difficult.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t principles that do apply nor is it to suggest that seeking for wealth isn’t a problem – especially in Utah. However I think the way the issue is framed is often misleading.

    I’d also note that in my experience with Benjamin’s address, most Sunday School lessons or Priesthood lessons turn into a “bash the rich” session. Numerous comments about those who “live on the benches” are made. (For those not familiar with Utah, both Salt Lake and Provo tend to have mansions on the benches, or at least many more rich people. The bench is the shore of old lake Bonneville and are basically the part of the mountains you are allowed to build upon)

    Now perhaps my experience is biased since I spent most of the last 15 years in Utah county single wards.

  14. greenfrog on August 20, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    [ed. note: not even I could stomach that many typos in one post, so the following tries the same idea again, only in English this time. Insertions are bracketed by **]

    I suspect that there are others who frequent T&S who could provide views of price theory and *monetary* policy better than I can.

    The beginnings of them, however, lie in the concept of money as a relatively efficient form of communication. I am highly skeptical of the idea that a society of individual subsistence agrarians who eschew the use of money could support a population of six billion.

    The data processing alone would crater the enterprise. How would a Chinese famer in Hunan know whether he should ship his rice (however one would “ship” in a world with*out* ships) to a needy family in Chile with*out* price information systems to convey to him the information of rice demand? Prices, and consequently money, are enormously complex information mechanisms that, IMO, are essential to the provision of daily bread to more than six billion humans.

    Could a society exist without them? Surely.

    Would *it* have six billion humans in it? Not for long.

  15. Adam Greenwood on August 20, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    What an interesting question, Nate. May I remind you of another second-order reason for disliking money that you have proposed? If liquid wealth increases prosperity (which it does) then we may dislike money because we think prosperity a danger in our fallen state (hence wealth-destroying but salvation-enhancing projects like the United Orders in Utah).

    Unlike Greenfrog, I do not think the population of the world per se matters that much in the long term. If people are being born maybe how long they live is immaterial. But I do think his population query suggests the ultimate response to the dilemma you raise. The concern for the stability of institutions which you evince here is laudable, but money is now an enormous social institution. Trying to get rid of it would unleash far more havov than keeping it around, as dangerous as it is, would.

    But I do see a practical point. We saints tend to prosperity as a measuring stick when we support public measures, just like everyone else does in this country. Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking this way. God may not want us to be rich, above all.

  16. Last_lemming on August 20, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    Would it not be incongruous to laud the concept of “eternal progression” on the one hand, while, on the other hand, denouncing a critical means of overcoming social stagnation?

  17. Jim Richins on August 20, 2004 at 7:09 pm

    Despite the subtle difference between generalized *wealth* and the more specific (possibly more sin-inducing) *liquid wealth*, I don’t think there is a difference when it comes to Latter Day Saints. A land-owner may have few liquid assets, but could still build up great pride based on his/her large land holdings.

    Another way to look at it is, if I am liquidly poor, but own a lot of land, how does that help build up the Kingdom? If I use the land to raise crops for Church Welfare, I am making use of the land to produce liquid assets (food). If I donate the land to build a meetinghouse or Temple, haven’t I liquidated it from my own accounts to transfer the holdings to the Church?

    I don’t think it matters whether wealth is liquid or not. If one allows the accumulation of wealth to become ones focus, such that it displaces a desire to build up the Kingdom, it has become a utility for sin.

    I look at it this way: God grants us certain blessings/stewardships. We are free to choose what to do with those blessings, but what He WANTS us to do with them is bless the lives of those around us. To an extent, it is acceptable to use those blessings to improve the lives of our own families as well – as Pres. Hinckley has said, it is good for us to enjoy “some of the better things in life.” But, at the same time, to the extent that we begin hording the blessings God grants us, God begins to “slow the flow.” On the other hand, I believe, if we attempt to share the blessings we have received, God can see that we have learned to “play nice and share” in the sandbox he has created for us, and so He will continue to send more blessings.

    Of course, anyone can see that I am thinking of the Parable of the Talents here.