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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Possibility of Life Without Money

The prospect of a “cashless” society is upon us. But could ordinary life be “moneyless” entirely?

A while back, I wrote an article on the decommodification of the toilet. In Europe, people often have to pay to use public toilets. I was surprised on a visit to England when, in a country that offers totally free public healthcare, I had to fumble in my pockets for coins just to take a “wee.” (As the expulsion of urine is known in my home country.) In the United States, this experience is unknown, because there was a successful, unsung social movement to abolish paid toilets. I pointed out in my article how wonderfully freeing it is not to have to think about money when you go to the bathroom. “Decommodifying” the lavatory means your relationship to the lavatory is no longer transactional (I pay money, I am given permission to urinate). You just go. 

Public libraries operate like this, too, and many parks, and fire departments. You do not have to pay per book at the library. You just go and check out what you need. The fire department does not send you a bill. It just comes to your house and puts the fire out. At a good park, you just go to the park, rather than having to purchase a ticket.

Healthcare in the United States, unlike healthcare in Britain, does not operate this way. You do not simply go to your doctor, get treated, and leave. There is money involved. You must pay for what you receive, and often you must spend time negotiating with your insurance company to get them to pay. As a result, a person’s thinking about their medical care is bound up with thinking about their personal finances. They must ask questions like: is it worth going to a doctor over this, or can I afford an ambulance? We take this for granted, but it’s helpful to think about how absurd this would seem if it was how we ran fire protection. If it cost $50,000 to have a housefire put out, people would hesitate to call firefighters. They would probably try very hard to put out fires themselves, and many people without much money would die trying to avoid an expensive bill. This is a good reason why fire departments no longer operate on the private model that they used to, and are now a free-at-point-of-use service.

Conservatives sometimes point out that when we lefties say we want something to be “free,” it is not really free, because it must be paid for by the government. This is correct. It is not free, it is “free at point of use,” meaning that it is funded out of a collective pool of wealth rather than by individuals when they use the service. A good reason for making things free at point of use is that it makes them less stressful, and people can focus on fulfilling their needs and desires rather than on thinking about money. One reason universal free college would be a wonderful thing is that it would let prospective students think about the question “What am I interested in studying?” rather than “What can I afford to study?” Free healthcare lets people’s healthcare decisions be based on their healthcare needs rather than an equation involving both their needs and their bank account. Free public transit means that when you want to get on the subway, all you do is go and get on the subway. We can take out all the turnstiles, forget swiping MetroCards. 

There is something very appealing about not having to stop all day to make micro-level financial decisions that take time and energy away from what we are actually trying to do. (How many times have you missed a bus or train because you were still fiddling with the ticket machine?) The same is true in every relationship of exchange. When I go to a coffee shop, the time I spend having my card swiped and having to enter the tip and sign the thing, and the time the barista spends processing my payment rather than making coffee, is unproductive. It is a “transaction cost.” It is a means to an end. I find restaurants immensely stressful places because of how much time I spend thinking about The Check. Have they brought it yet? Are we going to split it? Oh God, what if my card is rejected? How much of a tip do I leave on this? Sometimes you need to leave, but you can’t leave, because of The Check. In a hypothetical “free restaurant,” you would simply go, eat, and leave. But restaurants are not free at point of use. 

When I wrote my article about decommodifying toilets, I pointed out what a bothersome nuisance it is to constantly be having to undergo the process of exchange. Putting coins in the door of a toilet is absurd, and as the American example shows, unnecessary. You could just let people walk in. But a techno-libertarian type challenged me on this. He (you knew the gender when I said techno-libertarian) said Well, Actually technology is taking us toward a “cashless” society. Payments are getting easier and easier. Yes, fumbling with coins is ridiculous. So is having to swipe a credit card and punch in your PIN. But payments are getting swifter with things like Apple Pay. We can imagine that in the near future, you would simply be able to tap your phone on the bathroom door and be let in, the money deducted from your account. Pay toilets could therefore be convenient to pay for.

Now, my libertarian comrade (they hate when you call them that) did not sell me on the virtues of paid toilets. He did, however, get me thinking about the increasing ease of payments. I got my first smartphone recently, after holding out for many years, and I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to pay for things. I do not have to put in my credit card information every time. I simply look at the phone, it identifies my face (creepy and worrisome, but convenient), and I press “pay.” Use DoorDash or Lyft and you do not have to enter any bank information after the first time. In fact, so long as you know you have plenty of money in your bank account, you just pick what you want and order it. You do not even think about the money. The prices are not changing your decision, because you know can afford whatever you pick. Therefore: for you, the person who can afford any of the various options among which you are choosing, the prices are virtually superfluous information. You need them there to make sure you aren’t being bilked. But they almost cease to matter.

I have a very different relationship with money now that I am not poor. (I was only ever student-poor, meaning I had no money, not poverty-poor.) When I go to the grocery store, I simply pick out the things I want and take them to the checkout. I do not even look at their prices, because even if one yogurt costs $2 and one costs $4, the difference does not make a difference to me, as I can afford either yogurt and prefer to pick the most satisfying one over spending my time doing a mental cost-benefit analysis of whether the extra $2 will bring $2 extra of satisfaction. It won’t, but I also do not care, because what does give me lots of satisfaction is choosing yogurts purely out of desire. 

At the checkout, they ring me up, and I see the price, and they hand me a receipt. I throw away the receipt. I glance at the price, but usually it’s somewhere around what I expected it to be. But I don’t have to think about the specific amount very much, because I know that I am only ever buying “a reasonable amount of groceries” and that my bank account can accommodate “a reasonable amount of groceries,” so there is never going to be an issue. When I had no money, things were different. I was thinking about every additional banana and whether I could afford it. Money was the central thing I thought about at the grocery store, because when you have little of it, you need to make decisions like “is the more expensive yogurt worth it?” Penny-pinching adds up over time, and if you make hundreds of decisions that help you save $1 or $2 on each transaction you may have hundreds more dollars each month, enough to make the difference between being able to pay a bill and not being able to pay it.

Personally, I am lucky. I have a steady job that covers my bills. So they are all on auto-pay. I don’t think about my bills. I try to conserve electricity and to keep the air conditioner at a reasonable temperature and not amass a giant data bill on the phone, but so long as I am reasonable and prudent I don’t need to think very much. I’m noticing more and more that, given cashless transfer technology, money is playing a smaller and smaller role in my everyday life. When I order things online, the price is helpful to tell me that they’re not unreasonably expensive. There are $800 table lamps and I don’t want to order one of those by accident. But if I turn on a filter that says “only show me table lamps under $150,” the variations within the category don’t necessarily matter to me. If it’s in my budget, I can have it.

I think a big part of the dream that many socialists have is to be released from having a life that is ruled by money. The first priority, of course, is the abolition of class and making sure every person is free. But there is a certain dislike for exchange relationships generally. We want a world where you give someone something because you would like them to have it, not because you are looking to get something out of them. William Morris, in News from Nowhere, depicts a utopia in which an artisan spends months crafting a gorgeously painted smoking pipe, only to give it away to someone who saw it and admired it. For Morris, there was something beautiful in this. If you want it, it’s yours, no questions asked.

The interesting thing is that for people who are wealthy, it is already almost possible to be released from a life in which thoughts about money play a significant part. Of course, the rich actually think constantly about money. But it’s not because they have to. You can pay people to think about your money and just go and enjoy your life. They “never have to worry about money again.”

Let me describe to you an imagined place where money has virtually disappeared from people’s lives:

Pleasant Acres is one of those awful Florida retirement villages full of Trump supporters where everyone plays pickleball and does salsa dancing. We are not here interested in the cultural vibrancy of Pleasant Acres or the politics of its residents. Instead, we are concerned with the internal economy. Residents pay $100,000 per year to live in Pleasant Acres. That price secures them access to the following:

  • A condo
  • A golf cart  
  • Golf equipment, if they do not have it already
  • Access to the tennis courts, swimming pool, and gymnasium
  • Dance classes
  • Academic classes at the “university” (unaccredited but with excellent instructors)
  • 3 meals a day at any one of the 6 “restaurants” in the village, plus unlimited snacks
  • 2 baskets of groceries per week at the community “store” 
  • Rental of whatever art they would like from the art warehouse, to put in their condo
  • Art supplies if they want to make art at the studio
  • Medical care at the clinic and on-call nursing
  • Use of the library
  • Unlimited cocktails
  • Protection by a private security firm
  • As many plants as they would like for their condo, from the nursery
  • Up to 3 pets from the pet repository (residents may also bring their own pets. If they would like to leave Pleasant Acres and keep a repository pet they must pay $500). 
  • Maintenance of their condo
  • Water, electricity, and internet for their condo
  • Participation in the full social life of the village including game nights, film screenings, visiting lecturers, community hoedowns, speed-dating
  • Up to 10 subscriptions to newspapers and magazines of their choice
  • A certain number of guest passes for many amenities

I am sure you see already where I am going with this. It is possible to live in Pleasant Acres, have your $100,000 deducted annually from your bank account, and go through your day to day life without thinking about money at all. I do not mean “not thinking about money because you have so much that the cost of each transaction doesn’t matter to you.” I mean that there are no internal transactions taking place between the residents and the management. Getting a newspaper isn’t deducted from your $100,000. It’s inclusive. The facility might track internal usage of the amenities, or it might not. It might have an internal pricing system, deducting the cost of a pet or newspaper from a person’s $100,000, but it also might not, and could just look at the income coming in versus the total expenses going out in each category. 

The system here is not communism, because there is private property. The residents do not own the facility, which is run by a private company. The “means of production” are in private hands. But within Pleasant Acres, there is no “market.” Now, the case of art supplies is quite interesting, because what happens if a person makes a painting that they then want to sell? Of course, Pleasant Acres could say that use of their art supplies means they own any paintings that are produced, but they don’t say that. The gentle seniors of the village may sell each other whatever they wish. In practice, however, nobody has ever sold a painting to another resident. Usually they just give them to someone who seems to want it. This is because getting money for your painting would not have much of a point. All of your needs are taken care of. You are satisfied. You want for nothing. What would you buy with the money? A big television? They have those at the Electronics Station, and if you call, one will be brought to your condo. 

Now, some people drink more than their fair share of the unlimited cocktails, so that if everyone guzzled as many mimosas as Norma, or as many martinis as Walt, the place would swiftly have to start cutting costs elsewhere or face ruin. But some residents don’t drink, so it averages out, and the facility adjusts its annual fee to make sure that its total income covers the total amount of its expenditures. Within a single institution, then, market relationships and commodification have been functionally eliminated as part of day to day life. Yes, there is the $100,000 coming annually from people’s bank accounts. But people who come here know they have enough to cover the rest of their lives. The $100,000 is something they thought about once, for ten seconds, before signing up. 

Institutions like this exist. In fact, the funny thing is, many modern corporations are kind of like this internally. In People’s Republic of Walmart, Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski talk about how giant corporations are actually “market-free” zones on the inside. If I am an employee and I need office supplies, I go to the supply closet, not the supply store. If a department needs resources, it puts in a request for them. Of course, the upper levels will often evaluate the cost of those things in determining whether to grant the request, depending on what those things are. But we have something much closer in structure to a centralized “command economy” than a marketplace. In fact, Phillips and Rozworski note that when Sears tried to introduce an “internal market” whereby different departments had to compete with each other rather than simply taking from the communal resource pool and working for the collective good, the project was a disaster. A corporation instead works more like a military, supplying people on the basis of need. You can think about these Silicon Valley “campuses,” where amenities and even food are supplied gratis. Here’s a description of the “Googleplex”:

One of the most often cited perks of working at Google is the food. Google feeds its employees well. If you work at the Googleplex, you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner free of charge. There are several cafés located throughout the campus, and employees can eat at any of them. The main café is Charlie’s Place. The café takes its name from Google’s first lead chef, Charlie Ayers. Before creating meals for Googlers, Ayers was the chef for the Grateful Dead. Although Ayers left Google in 2005, the café still bears his name. The café has several stations, each offering different kinds of cuisine. Options range from vegetarian dishes to sushi to ethnic foods from around the world. Google’s culture promotes the use of fresh, organic foods and healthy meals. But when everything is free and you can eat whenever you want, it’s easy to go overboard. That’s where the Google 15 comes in. It refers to the 15 pounds many new Google employees put on once they start taking advantage of all the meals and snacks.

You can eat whatever you want! For free! Of course it’s not free at all, because you’re a servant of an evil corporate behemoth. But it’s free at the point of use, and for good reason. It’s nice to just be able to go and eat without having to think about money. Google could pay its employees extra by the average amount that each costs them in food, and then charge them at the point of use. But they have decided that there is no point to this. And employees seem to like this a lot, judging by how much they use it.

Now, the “Google 15” actually usefully brings us to a serious objection to free-at-point-of-use goods and services. When people don’t have to make cost-benefit calculations, they tend to use more of a thing. Mainstream economics often assumes we have “unlimited wants” and that the things we want are scarce, meaning there’s not enough of them to satisfy our wants. Pricing things helps keep us from having to “ration” them. Thus the British NHS has to decide how to give out scarce healthcare through having a central body decide how resources are apportioned, whereas the American “free market” healthcare system uses the magic of prices to decide who gets what. One fear about Medicare For All is that it will lead people to consume “too much” healthcare, because there won’t be any cost to them for doing so. The Google 15 shows that if food is free, people will eat more of it.

But the fact that “free at point of use” makes people use more of something is not actually a bad thing. I talked about how if fire departments charged people, homeowners would be disincentivized from calling the fire department, which would actually be very bad. In healthcare, it’s bad that people are discouraged from calling ambulances. If the public library charged to check out books, fewer people would read and learn. And in Pleasant Acres, the whole point is that seniors are liberated from the bother of having to think about transactions and get to simply enjoy things.

A funny thing happened at Pleasant Acres after a few years. First, management realized that full-time workers in the facility were costing about $110,000 each. So a program was introduced whereby you could have all the amenities of the facility, plus $10,000 annually, if you were willing to work full time. Many seniors therefore did not even engage with any direct financial transactions with the facility. They gave according to their ability, and took according to their need, in addition to having a “Basic Income.” A greater and greater percentage of residents started to do this to the point where the entire workforce, other than the company’s management, was composed of residents. Eventually, Pleasant Acres was so pleasant that it attracted many visitors, who liked to take its classes and attend the movie nights. The visitors were charged money (unless they were from elsewhere in the Pleasant Acres Network), and eventually the intake from visitors became substantial. At this point, Pleasant Acres did something interesting: it cut the workweek in half, and it entirely eliminated the $100,000 annual fee, instead simply requiring 20 hours a week of work from all residents. Supplies the facility needed to purchase from outside (new lawnmowers, electronics, food, medical equipment) were paid for with the tourist revenue. But much was made inside the village, and all the work was simply done by the village residents. Performing the work guaranteed that when you eventually became unable to do work, you were still allowed to live and use all the amenities as before.

There was, of course, eventually a labor uprising, because the seniors of the village realized at a certain point that upper management was extraneous. They refused any longer to let extra tourist revenue go to the company’s profits, and insisted it be split among the workers equally. Because the company had made the mistake of becoming dependent on the village residents, it was forced to democratize. 

And thus was Socialism In One Retirement Village achieved. 

This is a silly story, with many implausible aspects, and I am not asking you to believe that rich old Trump voters are going to become syndicalists and make a little socialist utopia. Instead, I am only trying to show that eliminating markets, money, and exchange within certain spheres is quite readily conceivable. There is an empirical question about whether, in any given sphere, it is possible to do so without unacceptable rationing. But free market economists tend to cast doubt on the possibilities for market-free resource allocation, because they start with the assumption that people have “infinite wants” and are selfish rational maximizers. This is plainly false, or at least true only in the aggregate (if you have one person who does have “infinite wants,” such as Jeff Bezos, then you might say “humanity as a whole” has infinite wants even if most of us could be satisfied with a modest amount). The assumption is that if you give endless free cocktails, you will swiftly run out of cocktails. But that is not always true. Google did not run out of food by offering free food. People got a bit heavier, but they didn’t gorge themselves to death. Yes, you may have to establish a theoretical upper bound of what people can take, which is a form of rationing. (Pleasant Acres rationed newspapers and magazines, by limiting subscriptions to 10.) But if that boundary is higher than what any individual person will want, then in practice you will never have to “enforce” any rationing. (In practice, if your limit is set too low, i.e. it turns out many people want 12 magazines and nobody wants pets, you might alter your resource allocation so that you still aren’t actually depriving anyone of anything they desire.)

There is an old criticism of “socialist” planning called the “economic calculation problem” developed by right-wing economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The idea is that “rational” allocations of resources cannot occur without market prices, which are used to give information about how much people prefer what, and thus direct production. “Central planners” simply do not have the information necessary to decide what to produce. Centrally planned economies have been seen to vindicate this idea. Now, as we have seen, centrally planned institutions without “internal markets” are plainly possible; a library’s acquisitions and distributions are centrally planned based on the information given by what books people ask for, not by the prices they pay. But the whole problem was posed 100 years ago, and we live in a very different world now. The assumptions need to be reevaluated. What was true for the industrializing Soviet Union is not necessarily true of a world with near-instantaneous means of conveying giant quantities of information across the world. Technology and material abundance might actually massively alter the feasibility of non-market means of producing and distributing goods and services. Even at the time, capitalist economist Joseph Schumpeter said Mises was flat wrong to say planned, non-market economies “could not” work, and Schumpeter concluded that “there is nothing wrong with the pure logic of socialism.” (Schumpeter used socialism to mean central planning, which is a bad definition, but nonetheless the point remains that even this free market economist thought the free marketers’ critique was unsound.) In a society of abundance, or at least a society where individuals’ desires can all in principle be satisfied because there is more than enough to go around, it may be possible to operate without prices, or to have prices operating silently in the background for the benefit of planners but never seen by individuals, who do not have to think about money. (A technical treatment of the implications of today’s “Big Data” for the “calculation debate” can be found in a long article by Evgeny Morozov for the Monthly Review.)

  Now, of course, Pleasant Acres was a very limited kind of place. It did not have to allocate giant amounts of industrial capital, it did not have to invent new products. All of that was “imported.” I am not here commenting on the need for money and exchange relationships within the wider economy. I do not know how large are the domains that can be sealed off from the market without negative consequences. What I am asking us to do is think about how we now live in a very different world from the one of a hundred years ago, and Karl Marx may have been completely correct that capitalism is actually creating the conditions that make socialism more and more possible. We know that decommodification is possible, because it has happened and worked well. What we do not know, and what can be found out only through experimentation, is just how far it can go. Perhaps our imaginary retirement village, with its 20-hour work week, Universal Basic Income, vibrant social life, and free-at-point-of-use access to all of life’s essentials, is not so far from the realm of the possible as we are told. 

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