On my birthday each year, I receive money, or possessions having monetary value, from others. I have done nothing to earn this money; it is given to me as a result of something as random and as fundamental as my birth.
I receive money for nothing from others not as reward for being a good son (etc.) but because of a sense of social obligation. By that I don’t mean the cultural pressure to reciprocate or keep up with expectations – things that drive people into debt. Rather, I mean the recognition that we belong to one another.
One of the mantras we hear in our society is that ‘some people seem to want money [or those things money can buy] for nothing.’ As a mantra, it is used to pass negative judgement on people. But a society in which I receive nothing that I have not earned by my own effort is one in which we are truly the poorer. And conversely, a society in which I give nothing that has not been earned is one in which we are truly the poorer.
The ability to receive certain things for nothing is as important to human flourishing as is the ability to provide certain things for ourselves and others by the work of our hands.
But here is a problem: I am wealthy enough that if I need or even want something, I can buy it myself – whether with money to hand, or after saving, or by taking on debt that I will hopefully be able to manage. And this makes it far harder for other people to give me something as a gift. Each year as my birthday approaches, enquiries are made as to what I might like, and I increasingly struggle to make any suggestion. The consequence is that I am harder to be obligated to – I am harder to belong to (not that belonging is about material things, primarily; but it is about the acts of giving and receiving). My material wealth can leave me poorer in more fundamental ways.
Money is a gift which can be used to build up that sense of social obligation that enables us to see other people – not just our own family – as those with whom we share a common belonging. But it can be misused to break down that sense of social obligation and deceive ourselves that we are obligated to ourselves alone.
We need to rethink – and continuously reflect on – what money is for.