What If Money Was No Object?

“What would you like to do if money was no object?”

This is the question asked in a trending Youtube video narrated by the late philosopher Alan Watts. It encourages young people to live and dream as if money didn’t matter—as if money was no object.

Inspiring, to say the least. The notion of dreaming and living without regard for financial reality can open the imagination to entire worlds that money had rendered unrealistic.

But profound narrative, dizzying imagery and hypnotic music aside, this video reveals an attitude about money that is hostile to economic prosperity and, more importantly, living a moral life. For despite what Alan Watts, Hollywood and Occupy Wall Street might say, money is a vitally important feature of the social world that we simply cannot do without, and using it is a moral issue.

First, money is simply a medium of exchange, and recognizing its usefulness is a good practice.

Whereas some activists might cite money as the root of evil and social injustice, that is simply not true. As every student learns in Economics 101, money is purchasing power. It represents the ability to acquire material ends. Those who most efficiently supply the needs of their fellow human beings will earn the most money.

For example, consider money’s origins. In the ancient world, barter trade was man’s primary means of exchange. If John wanted apples but produced only oranges, he traded oranges for apples. If, however, no one with apples wanted his oranges, he was out of luck. But instead of simply going without, John would trade his oranges for something the apple-growers wanted—like grapes—and then trade those grapes for apples.

After a while, others caught on to this means of barter, and different media of exchange arose. All members of John’s society began to accept gold coins in exchange for their goods, knowing that these coins could then be exchanged for anything. Gold became money.

Money, then, is both a media of exchange and a means of calculation. It allows individuals to acquire things they want and to more precisely determine the value of their goods and services.

In that light, why ignore money? Why pretend like money doesn’t exist when choosing a career? Yes, money restricts options and makes some dreams impossible. But without money, there would be very few dreams whatsoever.

While pursuing a life in which money doesn’t matter may be exciting, it is a total fantasy.

Second, God has much to say about money, and none of it involves pretending it doesn’t exist.

Both the Old and New Testaments are littered with hundreds of verses about money. Common to all of these verses is the idea that the creation and use of money is a moral exercise. Whether it is God’s command to “use honest scales and honest weights” (Leviticus 19:36), His rejection of “diverse weights” and “false balances” (Proverbs 20:23) or his lament that Israel’s “silver has become dross” (Isaiah 1:22), it is clear that money is significant to God’s law and human life.

One particularly revealing issue is debt. Unfortunately, debt is all-too-common among American young people. According to the Federal Reserve, 37 million young people have outstanding student loans. What is not so common, however, is seriousness about making debt payments. According to a recent uSamp survey, the vast majority of those who have not paid off their student loans want those loans forgiven. While those answering the survey may never consider the ethical issues involved, repaying debt is a moral imperative.

In Romans 13, Paul writes that Christians should “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another.” David writes in Psalm 37,”The wicked borrows and does not repay.” In short, the importance of repaying loans cannot be more explicit. If one contracts to borrow money from another, that contract should be upheld. Defaulters should be penalized.

Undeniably, money matters to God. Debts should be repaid. Budgets should be kept. Forced loan forgiveness and dishonest inflation should be rejected and condemned. These are moral imperatives. To live as if “money was no object” is a dereliction of moral duty.

Finally, while living as if money doesn’t matter may be exciting, such a life is available only to those with money to spare.

Try telling a single mother of two that money doesn’t matter—that her career path shouldn’t be determined her ability to provide for her family. Or consider an unemployed graduate with no means to finance his college debt payments. For them, of course, money matters.

But perhaps the absence of want is why today’s young people are so repulsed by money. Generation Y is the most materially blessed generation in recorded history. When it’s a given that there will be food on the table every day of the year, it is easy to forget the importance of money as a necessary means to sustain life and cultivate a healthy society. But that doesn’t change the fact that money is important.

Like it or not, money is dinner. Money is education. Money is life-saving medical technology. Of course, there are more important things in the world than being rich. But the existence of money is an unavoidable feature of social life that everyone should consider—especially when making career decisions.

For further reading on this issue, see my article Where Money Meets Morality.

  • It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil. You needed to say that in this article :). The love of money is what is causing so much pain in the economic system. Everyone needs forgiveness from time to time. Even if it’s debt. I encourage you to have more compassion on this issue. The top 1% make 99% of the income in this nation. That’s completely unfair. To say the ones who add the most value to the system receive the most pay is not true in our quasi free market. Your statement would be true in a complete free market. But – that would be fantasy my friend. You know it and I know it. Money is not dinner, money is not education, Money is not life-saving medical technology. Dinner is dinner. Education is education. Life saving medical technology is life saving medical technology. Don’t get it twisted and stop twisting others.

  • Thomas Roberts

    “Those who most efficiently supply the needs of their fellow human beings will earn the most money.” Bullshit. I agree with a lot of the points in this article, but starting off with this statement practically degrades all the rest. People who make money by moving money around and manipulating markets that are founded upon basic needs is generally what pays the most in today’s capitalist society–that being one of a financial market rather than a goods market. It doesn’t really serve anyone except the few who are at the helm. The financial economy is the part that needs to go away for real economic prosperity to prevail. Second, bringing religion into the moral argument can’t be effectively used to justify your points. Although I agree that money was supposed to have a “moral” facet to it, someone could argue that their set of beliefs are in direct conflict with yours and be easily justified. Anyway, I know it’s an old post, but…beer cares not while it’s late and you feel like being a bit passionate! Cheers 🙂

  • Gregory Scott

    As far as I can tell, Watts never suggested anything remotely like “pretend money doesn’t exist”. To translate his words that way is to distort them entirely, creating an absurd strawman that is easily knocked down.

    What Watts *does* suggest is that, as a thought experiment, people pretend for a moment that ‘money is no object’ (in other words, it is not the primary or controlling factor in their thinking) in order to clear a mental space within which they can intuitively determine what they *want* to do with their precious and finite life moments. And he then recommends that they do this thing that is calling them, because to ignore those core desires is to live a life that denies their purpose on earth.

    They can still have a job doing something else entirely, they can still earn and use and respect the money they earn, and they can be fully awake and ethical in all of their financial decisions and actions. The payoff is that they will be living a life that honors their spirit and (if you believe in it) God’s will, because in that belief system God is the source of the inspiration people feel to live a life of purpose rather than a life simply committed to earning the next paycheck.

    I would also posit that while money is currently necessary for life in modern society, it is not necessary for life in general as most life does very well without money. Capitalism is neither sacred nor essential to the cosmic order, it is simply an evolutionary convenience, and it is likely only a matter of time before some other system of social organization and valuation evolves to replace it and advance our species and our cultures in the process.

    Or not, we may not make it that far. Fingers crossed!

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