Friday, February 23, 2007

The Money Muddle

by Fr. Vincent McNabb

During a meeting at the Olympia, Glasgow, my lecture on ‘Unemployment and the Land’ led a man in the hall to ask me if I could give a definition of what I think he called National Credit. I ingenuously confessed that I could not give a definition of National Credit. Indeed, as there seemed some hesitation in taking my word, I again confessed that I did not know what National Credit was; and indeed I did not care.

To tell that truth, I had a suspicion that National Credit had to do with currency or token-wealth. Now, I have long felt that as the way into our social quagmire was by putting second things first, our only way out of the quagmire was by putting first things first. But as currency is not a first thing, or even a second thing, but only the token of a thing, to be deeply concerned with money and the money view of the world is to sink still deeper into the quagmire. Hence my indifference to all schemes based on a money-unit.

A walk throught the slums, and a study of the official reports, of Glasgow had made me perhaps unduly sensitive to the futility of the money-standard of civilization. I do not mean that I was depressed because Glasgow was Glasgow and not, say, Birmingham or Liverpool; but because, like Birmingham and Liverpool, Glasgow has a large number of human beings living in inhuman conditions thought the money-muddled thinking of a small group of not ill-minded human beings.

I cannot remember all the rungs in our exchange of question and answer. I can recall that my courteous questioner said: ‘But there must be money paid by the man who buys land from the State.’

We were thinking of the Land Purchase scheme which transformed Ireland from a country of a few large landholders to a country of many peasant-proprietors. To his question I answered a little sharply: ‘No. The proprietor who buys and bowers from the State need not pay in currency, but in kind.’ I remembered that a most efficient sliding-scale of payment was to be found in the tithe, and in the metayer system; whereby the land-worker gave a fixed proportion of his yearly harvest. This direct dealing of the borrower and lender, with its direct exchange, was more economic and efficient that another which demanded a third person who gave to the land-worker, in exchange for his tithe, a currency token which the land-worker gave to the State.

The truth was that money, which was invented to facilitate barter and measure price, has ended by darkening counsel and measuring value. Money, being a token and not a thing, could be a means and a measure, but could never be the means and the measure. Here a principle of S. Thomas was golden: 'Of things related to an end the measure is the end.' Thus the measure of a poker is not its power to add lustre to a brass-finished fire-grate, but to poke and rake a fire.

Of course, as things do not measure other things, but mind measures one thing by another, a mind can employ not the true measure, but a false - not an essential measure but an accidental - not the measure (which is the end) but a measure (which is not the end).

If, then, we measure a thing or commodity by something which is not its end, we do not give its absolute value, but only its relative value. Yet how many modern minds, when asked the value of a commodity, think in terms of the end of the commodity? If we are asked, ' What is the value of a hundred-weight of wheat?' we naturally say 'Eight, ten, or twelve shillings.' We do not say 'A hundredweight of wheat will support a man's life for six months.' In other words, by expressing a hundredweight in terms of currency we gave, not its value, but only its money-value. No wonder that minds accustomed to the atmosphere of currency find themselves in an intellectual money-muddle.

But the money-muddle is more than intellectual: it tends to become real. Money is a token, or artifice devised by intelligence to express a reality. But intelligence, as Lewis Carroll reminds us, 'can make words [or tokens] mean anything.' Thus the same intelligence which to-day has made a piece of paper marked TEN SHILLINGS mean a hundred-weight of wheat may to-morrow make it mean one pound of wheat. [N.B. -- I do not understand how this is done. I and my readers who have followed the recent startling fluctuations in currency values throughout the world only know that it is done]. Hence the real value of a TEN SHILLING note may veer from a hundredweight to a pound of wheat. But the real value of a hundredweight or of a pound of wheat never veers.

How great the plight must sooner or later befall a people that has lost the art of giving things their real value, and has entrusted the commonweal to the muddled judgement of men who are experts only in money value.

Domine! Salve nos; perimus

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