Have you heard of freecycle? It’s a community run thing that uses the free newsgroup emailer service provided by Yahoo to advertise stuff people are giving away or wanting. It works by someone posting an email offering something in a certain place and people emailing or phoning in reply. It’s a bit of a lottery but hey it’s free and people seem happy with that. sure you get some gripes occasionally about hey I wanted that or why didn’t I get something but generally it seems like a fairly friendly scene.
Let’s face it, getting stuff for free is pretty good. Some of our most cherished institutions in the west are things like free education. Free education isn’t of course free of all financial considerations, but at least by and large it is free for the kids that need it. At least in principle anyway. And then there’s free beer, or free stuff that’s given to you when you do something or buy something else, like the new LED screen that comes with ‘free’ Netfix of Fox TV for 12 months. Finally there’s the internet, the last bastion of freedom, the final frontier of the techno wild west where information roams free on the open source.
Set against the obvious appeal of free is the very sensible notion that the user pays. In sense this really grounds the whole market based approach to free enterprise, if Jane Smith wants something then she jolly well should pay for it, one way or another. This transactional view of how the world works could be viewed in terms of means and ends, with money being the universal numerator of value. This kind of allows ordinary people to discriminate, I would rather a loaf of bread over a pint of beer and so on. But as economies stutter and societies groan under increasingly inequitable distributions of wealth that limit our material wealth, free has become even more appealing, since not only does free mean you can have your cake without paying for it but it also means the evil capitalistic bastards who bought up you favourite chain of cake makers are losing out, bring closer the day when the teetering capitalistic edifice comes crashing down.
The other day a charity rep knocked on my front door and while it was a worthy cause I declined to give him my credit card despite some very persuasive arguments. I mean yes, I do agree that child poverty is appalling and yes I think we should do something about it but part of me is also wondering, if this is such a worthwhile thing to engage with, why should it have to be up to charities to do it? Let me explain.
Say the cause here is a general one, say ending child slave labour. There are some very good arguments from a moral perspective why we should do that and possible some very good economic reasons why we should act, but if those arguments are so good and so persuasive, then why doesn’t Google or GE or Shell or any number of hugely rich multinational companies step up to the plate and chip in. Surely if it is in my interests to do something, then it must also be in the interests of others, since a better world is something that benefits all of us. But no, charities still have to beg and foreign aid budgets are slashed, meanwhile the multinationals still get increasingly rich.Yes Bill Gates might pledge a few million if they use PC’s loaded with his software, but only because it then looks like the rich care about the poor. Let’s be clear, all the problems associated with poverty could be addressed if there wasn’t such a huge discrepancy between ultra rich and dirt poor. However this isn’t about wealth distribution, rather it is about how this state of affairs persists and why it is tied in with the difference between free and user pays, or more precisely how the idea of money overwhelms other human values.
I glossed over an important detail in the earlier example of freecycle, namely just how people decided who to give stuff to. Now there are some guidelines published by the originators of this idea, things like having fun with deciding who should get stuff, do they seem worthy or maybe it’s just first come gets the stuff. Similarly askers are advised to make requests for stuff seem worthwhile, like this will really help me build a cubby house for my economically disadvantaged niece. It actually doesn’t really matter in the end, because the really important criteria is that our usual criteria for deciding such things, how much it costs or what it’s worth, is not present. So not only is the stuff free but people are free to make up whatever rules suit them about how to behave in this recycling environment, provided they keep money out.
Now I’m thinking wouldn’t this be good if we applied this idea, keep money out, to other things and it seems we do have a few areas left where moral or aesthetic values prevail. The problem with these “money free” zones is they are seriously under siege and worse still, it’s seems like the reason and will to contest the invasion of money into our lives is withering. Actually, in the west and in most of the world to varying degrees it seems that rule of money is actually the prevailing order as opposed to the rule of law. I think it’s fair to claim that rather than law and order being the basis for civil society, our societies are now (if they weren’t already) ordered by money. Superficially there is plenty of evidence to support this in terms of economic efficiencies, price signals and “free” markets being the best way to regulate human activity but at a deeper level, money also distorts and even annihilates other value systems.
The argument about whether money is the best way to organise humanity is unfortunately pointless since any theoretical argument crashes into the brick wall of reality but this is exactly where I diverge from the idealistic notion that things like freecycle or free internet or in fact free anything is some sort of counterpoint to a world ruled by money. The idea that free anything is going to bring about a new world order is surely one of the most futile beliefs anyone can have. Here’s why.
We exist collectively, socially in relation to others. My world doesn’t stop where your world starts and the boundaries between us are extremely porous. No one is Robinson Crusoe. I cannot live a money free life if you don’t. Together we might build some fences and try to keep money out of some parts of our lives, but sooner or later the pair of us will have to interact with the wider world, back to money. Alternatively if I had enough money maybe I could rise above the grimy material world and pursue a life based on alternative values but I’m still going to have interact with a world ruled by money. Having enough still doesn’t change the way the world works, and worse my pool of money is working to keep itself going. Maybe I could do a Ghandi but while that might work short term, I suspect it has a limited lifespan and even less appeal to others. The bottom line is that money totally permeates our relationships to each other and the world around us. I think it is tied in with the process of alienation that Marx refered to. It is also a factor in Derrida’s notion of the stranger who is alien to us and definitely underpins our “christian” view of the world as ours to exploit.
It’s simply nowhere near enough to simply say no to money because when we do, we lose our agency in deciding what things we want to have or the way they are ordered. On a macro level, an example of this is the way certain trust funds are divesting out of fossil fuel and into renewable energy companies. But on a personal level, in an age where we are told how powerless we are to change things, the prospects for responsible use of money are almost unlimited. Every choice we make to buy something or spend money is ours to make. We can buy free range eggs, even if they are more expensive because we think keeping chickens in tiny wire cages is totally unacceptable. Not only do we support the alternative, we also deprive the dominant player a sale; it’s sort of reverse price signal to say collectively we don’t think we should do this. Another classic example is music, these days provided almost free by the internet of things. The effect of internet technology on the music industry is documented here but again, we can always choose to buy music other than from iTunes. It seems that most people have accepted they must do as they are told by the media and by whatever prevailing consumer trend is currently in vogue.
But free has another deeper and insidious problem. Free is exceptional since money is the rule and therefore we tend to evaluate something “free” as a bonus the money system provides or more precisely, the value of something “free” isn’t some intrinsic value in the object, rather it is the fact it is free and doesn’t require money which we value. Getting it for free when we might have ordinarily paid for something is a win, a piece of luck or testimony to our persuasive powers. When the thing we get for free has long since been paid for by someone else, in the case of something recycled on freecycle, we can appreciate utility is an important value but in other situations the absence of a price signal blinds us, renders us incapable of appreciating what we are getting for free. We end up taking it for granted, something we deserve. Just like the free music or art on the internet, it’s something we are entitled to. Because we are deserving, or special or important.
Taking something for free when it’s offered might seem like a good thing but it’s just a leftover instinct that’s been cultivated by our consumer culture. Just as buy one get one free encourages you to in fact buy anything, getting free stuff is another way alternative values are sublimated. The creative and cultural forces that might underpin the things we take for granted as “free” are eroded when they have no monetary value, ultimately these forces are simply exploited as a free resource in much the same way as the natural world is seen as an unlimited resource to be exploited. It seems obvious but the slow process of deprivation when meaning and intrinsic value are denied and something is free is part of the inexorable rise in a money only value system.
Perversely, paying for something when you might otherwise be able to get something for free is a way of exercising our agency in the world. It’s the point of transaction or interaction where we can say yes, I choose to pay, not because I have to but because there is something here I value and money is simply the vehicle that brings us together. It may well be preferable to have another system, another rule but the very least we can do is to be aware of our choices and actively engage in the world if we want to change it.