Money seems to enable free societies. The free economies of the world seem to be proof that exchanging some socially agreed-on proxy of value for real things is better than trading real things directly.
But does money really free the individuals of those societies? What's the value of money to one's self?
Modern money (fiat money) itself has no intrinsic value. It only has value to the extent that people imagine it has value.
Money can only be valued on a relative basis. A U.S. dollar will always be worth less (or more) than a euro. Someone with "a lot of money" can only exist if there are those who have a lot less. Manmade currencies are simply social contracts valued on the relative emotions of those who exchange them.
In fact, being a system created by people—for people—money is all emotion. For all the real problems solved by money, it creates at least as many imaginary ones.
At an individual level, once money solves the problems of basic survival, the human mind becomes temporarily starved of problems, so it naturally begins creating new ones with the money left over. I think this is largely because the socially accepted definition of "enough money" is forever pegged at "more than I have now."
Behaviorally, I think a capitalist mindset can lead to a looking-glass reality of true emotional prosperity. Everything is inverted. Going up is really going down. Those chasing heaven are actually barrelling toward hell.
"Ascension" in a capitalist economy is like riding an elevator in an infinitely high Wall Street sky scraper. The catch: demons lurk on all the floors below. The higher you go, the higher you must go. This is the paradox of loss aversion—the beast yet to be slain by the First World. To escape the fear of falling, we perpetually climb higher. Not because we truly want more, but because we're terrified of less.
"If Bill Gates woke up tomorrow with Oprah's money, he'd jump out a fuckin' window. . ." —Chris Rock
To an observer from another world, modern financial systems would probably seem like a twisted game of "heads I win, tails you lose." Winners' highs rapidly melt into progressively worse hangovers, forcing them to play for even higher highs. Losers are cursed with envy of the ostensible winners.
Ultimately, money fails at providing anyone lasting satisfaction because its quantity and value aren't constrained by anything real. It's all in our heads, and the evils of our imaginations know no bounds.
If there's any real currency in the universe it's time.
Time is completely immune from the whims of human emotion, and ignoring the effects of extreme gravity or speed, time's value is constant for all of us. Being independent of our existence and our perceptions, time follows simpler, less emotional rules than manmade money.
First, time can only be spent; it can not be amassed. Second, time must be spent at a fixed rate. Third, time is infinite in total—there's enough for everyone who has been and who will be—but our individual endowment of time is both finite and essentially beyond our control.
Unlike money, we can't choose whether or not we spend time. We can't save it for later. We can only choose what we spend time thinking about right now. There is no currency more equitable and free-flowing in its current state than time.
In any given day, a very rich person has the ability to buy vastly more than a very poor person. But in that same day, they will spend exactly the same amount of time.
In Walden Thoreau said ". . . a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
I've come to the conclusion that freedom is the greatest form of riches anyone can achieve. But being free—truly free—is something that can only be bought from myself. Since manmade money can only be a liability in an economy of one, it's worthless as a medium of exchange for freedom. The only currency that can buy my freedom is the time I spend choosing to be free.
Surprisingly, I've found that freedom can only come from self-discipline and ruthlessly dictating priorities—choosing what to do in advance as much as possible. More importantly, freedom is about choosing what not to do in advance.
And for all the plans that fall apart, freedom is in the Cool Hand Lucan process of accepting, getting up, and planning again.
Only through the consistent practice of planning, self-discipline, and acceptance can I be set free to care as deeply as possible about what I'm doing in any given moment.
This takes a lot of effort, and with practice, it gets easier. But never perfect.
All I know is that when I'm operating at the very highest level across my three most fundamental identities—professional, parent/spouse, and self—I have full awareness not only of how I plan to spend my time, but why I'm spending it that way.
In those moments I am fully aware. I am rich. I am free.