A couple of postscripts to the last post, to try to answer the question why it would be such a bad thing for money to lose part of its meaning as naming the difference between the benefits provided to the public by the possessor of the money, and the benefits received by the possessor from the public at large.
Going back to Steve Jobs, it is clear to me that when I bought his products (with the exception of the Newton!) I was getting very much the better of the deal. I didn’t exactly cheat him, but the extent to which they have transformed my life in a mostly beneficial way far outweighs whatever benefits in terms of teaching, writing, and so on that my money names. Part of the reason why this imbalance didn’t impoverish him (and reduce back to peasant famine conditions the Chinese urban workers he employed) is the use of money itself, with all its necessary adjuncts such as banks, fraud laws, and so on. If my iPhone used the technology of ENIAC,IBM’s early computer, it would weigh around five million tons, take up around 300 million square feet of floor space, and cost about 67 billion dollars, by my estimate, for its memory and processor alone. The change this represents, the staggering increase in human welfare, was driven by the fungibility and stability of money and its role of naming and providing knowledge to the marketplace.
If money were to lose its meaning–by widespread theft, corruption, state or private currency manipulation, sumptuary laws, legally-permitted rent-seeking, or high levels of taxation–then that benefit would be lost. And the wealth that Piketty hopes would be shared would simply go elsewhere, to a sounder currency–as it does in any country where vendors at borders buy and sell hard currency. And if all national currencies would lose their naming value, then the wealth would go into something else, far less fungible and available for use by the many–airline miles, precious metals, real estate, bitcoin, works of art from Sotheby’s, or class markers like the accent one gets in a finishing school. Wealth would then become sequestered and the velocity of its exchange would be slowed, resulting in ossified sociopolitical structures. Arguably, the feudal systems of Europe, and its present persistent class systems, were precisely the result of a flight from the Roman Denarius because of its misuse.
A sensible international inheritance tax would avoid many of these problems, it seems to me. The only bad effect might be to diminish the sense of duty one has to one’s ancestors, and to render less reliable the extent to which any person could represent, stand for, or be the agent of another.