Monday, October 18, 2010

Mark Boyle's World Without Money

There's something initally Waldenesque and seductive about Mark Boyle's vision of a world without money, but I'm not sure that it stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Boyle decided to test himself by living for a year without cash, and decided to keep on keepin' on after the year came and went.

What makes the whole endeavour seem a bit of a swindle, frankly, is that while he didn't himself use cash, his existence is made very possible by piggybacking off a world that does, in fact, use money as a way to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.

Boyle lives in rural England in a trailer he spotted on He feeds himself by growing everything from barley to potatoes, foraging wild edibles like berries and nettles, and occasionally dumpster-diving for luxuries like margarine and bread. He cooks with a wood stove fashioned from large restaurant olive cans; brushes his teeth with his own mixture of cuttlefish bones and fennel seed; and makes paper and ink from mushrooms. He barters labor for rent, Internet service, and whatever else he can't find, grow, or make.

I don't begrudge anybody who wants to escape the rat race, and more power to Boyle for making it happen for himself. But let him try his experiment in some part of the world where the people and the land are poor -- something actually closer to the moneyless society he favors. Guess I'm dubious that such an experiment would be successful; it's cash-based commerce that made Boyle's survival possible.

And it seems plain that, even allowing for the piggybacking on the existing cash economy, Boyle is still very much engaged in acts of commerce. I don't think he'd deny that; he apparently was an economics student at one point. But money is just a way of making the whole business of commerce more efficient. What's wrong with that?

Maybe this:

We couldn't move from what we are today to—even in 10 years' time—living completely moneyless. It's about moving away from complete dependency on money, which is a very insecure position to be in, anyway. You can't have all your eggs in one basket. As more and more people move away from one economic model to another economic model, then the market reacts to that in certain ways and people produce less. It's more about slow evolutionary process than a revolutionary process. And that's quite key to the whole thing. Our whole agricultural system is based on fossil fuels. Each gallon of fossil fuel is the same as 40 man-hours per week. That's a lot of extra man hours. And so if we're going to get back to a way of agriculture that doesn't involve oil, then people are going to have to transition away from some of the jobs that aren't necessary.

The problem, if I'm reading correctly, is that money is efficient. It makes it possible (in a roundabout way) accomplish a whole workweek's worth of tasks in the span of minutes. Sounds good, but as Boyle points out, that has some ripple effects that maybe aren't good for the environment.

Understood. And I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Boyle, however, is unlikely to convince many people that they should return to the Age of Bartering, where existence becomes more difficult and work more arduous. Who wants to live that way? Ascetics like Mark Boyle, I suppose. But environmentalists are never going to win the big fights if the rest of us think that Mark Boyle's vision is the one the rest of us should live by. There's a lot about the modern world to like. We just need to make it work better.


Andrew said...

Yeah, this seems a little confused. He's clearly not just concerned about 'money.' There's also this worry about the agricultural system. But really, why roll back the agricultural system and stop just pre-fossil fuels? How many man hours does a bull represent? How about a steel farming tool? I think, when you scratch the surface here, like all the anti-money wackos, there's really an anti-government wacko and those people are Any Rand libertarian fantasists.

KhabaLox said...

If you're going to roll it back, you might as well roll it all the way back to before the Agricultural Revolution.