Civilising money

I’m enjoying William Goetzmann’s . So far I’ve gone through pre-history and early Chinese financial innovation and am embarking on mediaeval and early modern Europe. The book’s general theme is that financial innovations enabled civilisation to progress, starting with the origins of writing in ancient Mesopotamia because of the need to record financial transactions including the payment of tribute to the temple. It is stuffed full of the kinds of new information I love to accumulate. For example, in 386 BCE a group of Athenian grain traders were put on trial for price fixing and hoarding. They faced the death penalty, rather stiffer than the fines facing cartels these days. Who knew the Athenians had competition policy?

[amazon_image id=”B017MVYMSA” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible[/amazon_image]

The book argues that ancient Greece also originated the mentality that wealth could be intangible, abstract. Finance was decoupled from physical assets such as land or grain. What’s more, because hundreds of Athenian citizens acted as jurors in trials, often concerning financial matters such as compound interest or cost-benefit calculations, financial literacy was widespread: “Athenian numeracy was not simply a skill required for a successful business. It was a trait on which the democratic process fundamentally relied. …. The monetization of Athens was not only important to the emergence of democracy, it was also a factor in the development of Greek philosophy. … Monetization led to abstract thought.”

Sadly, we now seem to have the financialization without the widespread numeracy and capacty for abstract thought. Seems like the ancient Greeks were ahead of 21st century democracies on that front. For new technologies – including financial innovations – to bring progress, surely they need to be widely understood. A populace that doesn’t understand can’t ensure they share in the benefits.

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