What if cash suddenly disappeared from our lives and everything was free? Sounds fine at first, right- like the perfect solution to all our problems? The class lines between the super-rich and those crippled by extremely low wages would vanish overnight. But how would society react to such a turn-around? Would there be riots at the supermarket? Would wars cease or rage over diminishing resources?
Or would populations evolve into simpler self-sustainable groups like the American Communes of the 1960s and the hunter-gatherers of our ancient past? What is money anyways and why do we need it to help keep society ticking along? That’s what we’ll be exploring today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, What if Everything was Free? Like most predictions, there are two ways to look at a world without money. Could humans evolve into a species where goods and services are bartered with utopian good will?
American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s once wrote, “When can I walk into a supermarket and buy what I want with my good looks?” And shortly after, during those heady days of the American 1960s, groups of individuals did just that and disbanded from common society, forming small sustainable farming communes. They built their own homes and grew their own vegetables and reared animals. They had eggs from their own chickens.
They educated their children and lived pretty much the way humans had lived before both the agricultural and industrial revolution. Before these scientific revolutions, humans lived in small societies in which food was obtained by either foraging for wild plants, roots, grubs and insects, or chasing wild animals with primitive weapons. This way of life was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation to the world around them, and accounts for 90% of human history. Of course, today there still remain some hunter gatherer societies in remote areas of the world, such as the Spinifex people of Western Australia who live in barren, infertile lands.
The Sentinelese people who live in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean also exist totally without money. Areas of Venezuela are home to people who exist totally on wild animals and gathering with a little horticulture, but no money. So while we may think a world without money would be a totally bizarre transformation, it is the way humans have lived for the vast portion of their existence, and some societies still live this way. Before money existed, bartering, AKA the exchange of a good or service for another good or service, was perfectly normal. Joe gives Frank a bag of apples in exchange for a chick, and their transaction was done. However, problems started when disputes arose over what items were actually worth, or perhaps Joe didn’t want Frank’s chick, but wanted something of equal worth, a duck perhaps.
Commodities thus evolved to stabilize these primitive financial systems. Commodities are basic items used by practically everyone (tea, salt, cattle etc), so these were used to set the value of items, becoming the financial vehicle between bartering and money. But then there were more problems. Commodities were difficult to carry around and store, so eventually, around 5000 B.C, someone had the bright idea to use metal objects as money.
By 700 B.C, the Lydians had invented the coin, and other countries were quick to follow, by minting their own coins of varying values. Metal was used because it was durable, and could be easily recycled. Paper money, meanwhile, dates back to ancient China, about AD 960. The United States produced her first paper cash on March 10th 1862, with a $5, $10, and $20 note, and a week later these became legal tender and remain a standard worldwide benchmark for currency exchange. Fast forward another 150 or so years, and today we’ve entered the world of Bitcoin and electronic currencies. Money, relatively speaking, in terms of human history, is quite a new thing.
Homo sapiens has existed for around 100,000 years, and the oldest money is only around 3000 years old. So we’ve done okay without it for 95% of our existence. If we wanted to create a world without trade and debt, it would be possible, but it would not be the type of advanced civilization that most of us are used to.
It would not experience the same kind of economic growth that we see nations experience, but then again, if sustainable, these smaller self-contained societies who did not use money, would not be subject to the crippling poverty seen by millions in the failed post agricultural and industrial worlds where small elites have manipulated commodities at the expense of the people. In a world where everything is free, most people would be, by definition, freer. So let’s take a look at what would happen to an advanced postindustrial city if money disappeared and everything was suddenly free. Demand would increase for all products if the obstacle of affordability was suddenly removed from the purchase equation.
With no prices to hold the object, item or services out of reach of those who couldn’t afford it, almost overnight we would experience shortages of these items. In a world of mass production of products made to appear desirable by clever marketing and manipulative advertising, we would experience a rush to obtain these items. Looting and rioting would no doubt occur.
Perhaps once these desirable items were obtained, people would realize what little worth they actually have in their day to day life. How many cell phones can you talk on? How many cars can you drive? How many items of clothing can you wear at once? Supplies of free stuff would soon be exhausted as nobody would be willing to work for free to produce any more of that stuff. People would wait in lines to receive their free items, and those who were not willing to wait and were not above using violence to get what they want, would resort to using force to obtain the items that they either needed or desired.
We would see items simultaneously decreasing in supply, and going to those who were prepared to use the most force to get them. The early period of a society where everything was free would be chaotic – imagine a zombie apocalypse movie to get an idea. For most people, a day’s free time is worth more to them than spending a day in the workplace.
However, some people would still work for free. Artists would still paint. Musicians would still produce music, and story-tellers would still tell stories as they have throughout history. Carpenters would still make furniture, and naturally curious creative scientists would still invent solutions to problems. But with most people not working traditional jobs, this would not only lead to a decrease in goods, but also in services. Many medical professionals for example might cease to work leading to a rise in disease, starvation, malnourishment, infections and other ailments.
Due to the lack of personal incentive, folks for the most part wouldn’t produce products for other people, likely only producing what they need for themselves personally, and for their immediate social circle. With individuals focused on their own essential needs, mass marketed products would probably disappear from the world. Society as we know it would break up into smaller groups, with each group having members with certain essential skill sets.
We would revert back to the hunter-gatherer societies from our own ancient history. Perhaps though, we would lead happier, simpler lives, and have stronger family and social relationships. So, how do you think you would get along in a world without money? Would this all end in anarchy or utopia? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!