Opting out of the money economy

By Philip Brewer on 3 August 2007 (Updated 2 May 2011) 15 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

It's a quirk of mine that I've always found the idea of opting out of the money economy to be interesting.

I've got a bunch of books on the topic. Books like Possum living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money and How to Survive Without a Salary: Learning How to Live the Conserver Lifestyle.

It's mostly the idea that I find appealing. When I look at the details—the hard trade-offs involved—I find that I come up short of wanting to live that way. But there's a lot to learn from these people, their books, and their lifestyle.

Alternative Economies

The money economy is the default in the western world, but it's hardly the only economy out there.

Bartering

Bartering predates money and has never gone completely out of style. It has resurgences now and then, especially during times of inflation and deflation.

In a severe inflation the money becomes worthless, forcing people into a barter economy, but even in a more modest inflation barter becomes attractive—when prices are changing quickly, it's a lot of extra work just to stay informed about what's a fair price. Inflation also produces phantom profits with the attendant taxes due. As far as the IRS is concerned the taxes are still due even if the transaction is by barter, but the barterers are in a much better position to avoid the phantom parts of their profits.

In times of deflation the money has value, it's just that most people don't have any. Again, people fall back on barter as a way to get what they need when they can't just go to the store and buy it.

The gift economy

In the gift economy, instead of exchanging money for goods and services, people just give one another what they need and help one another out.

To someone used to the money economy it sounds preposterous, but in fact almost everyone has experienced a gift economy—their family. Parents give their children what they need to survive. Many families are an almost pure gift economy, with every member of the household contributing to the extent that they can—doing chores and helping out in other ways. Other families begin to monetize that sort of work, but most of them do so as a way to teach younger members about how the money economy works and not because each family member is trying to maximize the economic value of his labor.

Outside the family the gift economy becomes less common, but it still exists in various restricted forms. The classic "barn raising" is a gift economy thing—everybody helps their neighbors out. There's an expectation of general reciprocity to the community as a whole, but no expectation of specific reciprocity to the people who showed up to help. In the more modern context, lots of young people rely on the gift economy for help when they need to move.

The gift economy works well when resources are abundant so that everyone can contribute without seriously depriving themselves. They also work best when everyone knows everyone else and a reputation as being generous or stingy can make a difference in how people view you.

Open-source software is often viewed as a gift economy, as is the creative commons.

Self-sufficiency

If you can produce everything you need, you can opt out of all the economies. Virtually no one is in this situation today, but just a couple hundred years ago it was common for frontier families to be largely self-sufficient: through a mixture of gardening, hunting, fishing, and gathering they produced their own food. They made their house out of local materials. They spun fiber into yarn and wove their own fabric for clothing. They might need to go to the money economy to get specialty items like spinning wheels or cast iron pots, but with a modest amount of capital in the form of such items, they could be self-sufficient (albeit at a fairly low standard of living).

Others

There are plenty of other economic forms. The command economy, where some central authority tells everyone what to produce and how to produce it. (Corporations and armies tend to be command economies internally. Some have mock-market economic structures internally, but even when they go through the motions the command structure is lurking in the background.) In the feudal economy, strong tradition dictated who made what and who got it.

Opting Out in the Modern World

Opting out of the money economy really comes down to a few strategies that are simple to describe however hard they may be to actually do.

Reduce and reuse

If you can get by without something, or you can repurpose something you've already got, then you don't need to buy it.

Localize

If you get something from a giant corporation, then you're pretty much stuck paying for it with money. The more of your needs you can satisfy locally, the better your chance of satisfying them in other ways. Your neighbors are much more likely to engage in barter. Your neighbors are much more likely to share the bounty of their garden. Your neighbors are much more likely to let you borrow (or have) things they aren't using.

Produce

Anything you can make yourself, you don't need to buy. Garden. Learn a craft. If you can make things that are useful or beautiful, you can give them away or use them for barter.

It's worth noting the similarity between these strategies and those for greener living: reduce, reuse, recycle. Producing locally can be either low-impact or not, depending on what you do, but at least it's up to you and not up to some corporation whose impact on the environment is a dark secret.

Avoid debt

There are a few things that absolutely trap you in the money economy; things like debt, taxes, and utilities. They make completely opting out impossible, but they can be managed.

Taxes, at least in the US, are not much of a problem. If you're not in the money economy (i.e. you're earning little or no money), then you won't owe any income taxes and will owe little or nothing in payroll taxes. If you own land, there's no avoiding property taxes.

Avoiding utilities completely can be tough, but living "off the grid" is possible for some people in some situations. Even when that's not possible, the use of utilities can be kept to a minimum, and most utilities are regulated in ways that make basic services available at a fair price for people with low incomes (which people outside the money economy usually are).

Debt is the killer that forces you into the money economy. You really can't opt out while you're in debt, which is just another reason why debt should be avoided.

Opting out for the short term

It used to be quite common for people to opt out of the money economy temporarily.

In the days before student loans were ubiquitous, a new college grad might well have nothing but a new diploma and the clothes on his or her back--but had enormous flexibility. Many authors and artists were able to start their careers by living in the gift economy—sleeping on a friend's couch or staying at someone's vacation home for a few months in the off-season, making do with whatever clothes and tools they already had. That level of generosity was pretty easy to come by, at least for long enough to produce, for example, a first novel.

Now that all but the wealthy graduate with student loans, very few new grads have the choice of trying to make it on their art. (A friend who'll let you live in their RV from Halloween until Arbor Day is a lot more common than one who'll make your student loan payments for six months.) They have no choice but to enter the money economy long enough to pay off their debt. By the time that's done, they usually have spouses, kids, a work history that would lose substantial value if they put it aside for a year or two. They're trapped in the money economy.

It makes me mad every time I think about the great art and literature that our student loan system has cost our society.

Opting out for the long term

Now we finally come back to those books that I mentioned at the beginning. If opting out of the money economy appeals to you, track down those books and others like them.

Opting out for the short term is pretty easy, if you have no debt and you already own the basic goods of a functioning household. Opting out for the long term is much harder. It's not what I want to do, and it's probably not the right choice for most people. But bits and pieces of the strategies that work for opting out of the money economy can make it much easier to live well on small budget.

If you know you can get by with little or no money, then you have the flexibility to follow your own path, to take risks, to refuse to knuckle under to people who don't have your interests at heart. That's why it has always fascinated me.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

It really is great not to have to jump for someone else's agenda, and worth all the sacrifices. Personally, we don't do it by giving up the money economy. We just get creative and particularly focused on alternative revenue streams for passive income.

Neat post.

Philip Brewer's picture

Actually opting out of the money economy is an extreme choice that's probably not right for most people. The tactics used, though--making do, doing without, pooling resources with family, friends, and neighbors, producing things that you (and others) need--also work for people who stay in the money economy.

Economists will point out that producing your own stuff is not as efficient as letting some more-efficient (or lesser-paid) person produce it while you work at a job to earn the money to buy it. Even if you're quite poorly paid, you still have a higher standard of living that way. But the more the money economy has its hooks into you, the more it circumscribes your choices.

Guest's picture
Subhendu Das

Please see the technical details of money-less economy at the following site:

https://createmoneylesseconomy.wordpress.com/

Julie Rains's picture

We all may be opting in to a moneyless economy rather than opting out of it. I've been reading Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler and they suggest that the moneyless economy is the wave of the future, with the nearly cashless economy being a precursor to a moneyless economy. Okay, I use cash but most of my transactions are cashless.

Anyway, I haven't finished the book and am just getting to the moneyless part but one of the ways even us modern/post-modern folks participate in the moneyless economy is through rewards programs. You might participate through a credit card or debit card, or throuigh a store program (your grocery store or Staples or Dick's Sporting Goods for example) when you receive merchandise or travel in exchange for being a loyal customer and spending money of course.

The Tofflers also suggest that global trade is/can be enabled through barter, which also has the possibility of eliminating currency risk.

And real estate exchanges are fairly common and there's a subindustry of sorts in 1031 like-kind exchanges of real estate.

Philip Brewer's picture

I've been a big Toffler fan since Future Shock came out. I especially liked his book Powershift that came out in, I think, 1990.

I must admit, though, that I'm pretty dubious about "rewards" programs supplanting cash. Even the huge ones, like frequent flier miles, only replace a small fraction of the money-based transactions.

Guest's picture
TJ

As economic depression sets in, more and more people are waking up and printing money like lawless governments do. Now this may lead to hyperinflation but in reality quickens the pace toward money obsolesce.

What are you waiting for?
PRINT MONEY and be merry.

http://groups.google.com/group/the-venus-project

Guest's picture
Robyn

Related - here is an article that was going around some time ago about a guy in Moab, UT living without money: http://men.style.com/details/features/landing?id=content_9817

And here is Suelo's personal blog:
http://zerocurrency.blogspot.com/

His life in interesting but he's taking a lot of heat for his choices, which is apparently threatening to others.

Guest's picture
Subhendu Das

Buddha and Gandhi have established a method of austerity and the self control of mind, body, and soul to reduce the need for money. This is a solution at the individual level.

But the money-less economy is not an austerity program. It gives you whatever you want and all for free. In return you give your services for free.

So, you work free and get everything free. No money in the society. The economy runs juts the way it is doing now.

Guest's picture
Alex

Congrats. I've noticed pages load a lot faster.

Guest's picture
Subhendu Das

We know that the money is free for the Fed. It is a private bank and only it can print money without any restrictions, at anytime and by any amount. Since the money is free for the Fed, it should be free for everybody. We should not have to pay it back; there should not therefore be any debt or deficit. Thus the Fed has artificially created the taxation, periodic payment, interest rate etc. At the core of capitalism then we really have a free or moneyless economy now.

Let us examine the status of money today. We are all dealing with electronic money these days. Our employment checks are deposited electronically by our employers in our banks. We buy things using our credit cards. We pay the bills using our computers. Very soon we will authorize our credit card companies to directly deduct their money from our accounts automatically. Thus the money is just a number in some database on some computers. That number goes up and down and controls our life styles. Now we ask do we need that number to control us.

Instead of trusting that number on a computer why not we all trust ourselves and work for free? We go to our work places and work just like we are doing it now. The only difference is that we do not get paid. The computer number changes to 40 hours. Government tracks this number. We all become slaves for the society, for the people, for the government, and finally for the god for 40 hours per week every week. In return we get everything free. We go to a store and buy everything we want for free. If we want to live in a big house, we hire a contractor; he builds it for us and for free. If we want to travel; we book the flight, and travel free, stay in a hotel free. Everything will be free because everybody is working free. People will still be forced to work otherwise there will be no food or shelter.

Buddha and Gandhi have established a method of austerity and the self control of mind, body, and soul to reduce the need for money. This is a solution at the individual level. Milton Friedman has proposed the elimination of the central bank. President Jefferson proposed printing money by the government. Both Friedman and Jefferson essentially said the same thing; and their approach gives a global solution to our poverty. But our approach of moneyless economy is more profound and provides cleaner solution to all our problems.

This moneyless economy will eliminate environmental pollution and the wars. It will eventually kill the pollution of our souls by removing greed, corruption, violence, cheating, and lying. This will eliminate poverty from the world permanently. The moneyless economy will allow us to create products that we really need and nothing, like cigarettes, can be imposed on us by the investors. In fact the whole financial system including the central banks will not be required any more. We will have more people working for real benefits of the society.

Guest's picture
cucumber

@Subhendu Das (mostly)

I agree that the money concept is a figment created by people and can exist in whatever form we ultimately all agree to participate in. I've been saying this for years to as many as will listen/discuss when the conversation can be appropriately positive and creative. It's refreshing to have read this here today!

But one thing with regard to the 40 hour log you mention is this - right now, some people's 40 hours are perceived and valued as "worth more exchange value" than that of others. Example: the physician's 40 hours is credited with more value than the cleaning person's or the person who cooks food, or the person who collects trash and recycling. In essence we say right now that some people's contribution is "worth more" than others and those people then "get more" in exchange systems. This "worth" is subjective and let me just present the analogy that while you can function minus a finger or a toe it is not quite the same as having them intact and no matter how small the contribution may seem you may only feel the impact of its loss when it isn't present in the whole.

I believe humans need to let go of the ego for the "relative worth" of what each contributes to finally be a non-issue. In your heart you truly need to be unconcerned with such things and do what must be done that you have the talent, ability, wisdom, training, education, or gift for and you do it "because". Certainly we have all had moments where we have put forth effort at some task or thing and experienced joy in it, selflessness in it, bliss in it. some of us experience this more than others, it's liberating really. That's got to spread as the norm in consciousness the not the exception.

Lastly, I also think that 40 hrs labor/service/production per week is outmoded due to technology. One reason why we have an imbalance in economic distribution again is because we have machines and technologies that have greatly reduced the need for each of us to labor as much as in the past. Unfortunately what we have done is completely eliminated the need for entire bodies working rather than everyone benefitting by working less (for the same credit value) as we became more efficient. Or alternatively you might say we continue to produce ever-more bodies but we are unwilling to construct a system that permits them to live after we've created them. We sally forth blindly creating bodies without contemplating the whether resources are adequate to ensure broad comfort as well.

Getting back to 40 hours, the credit-excess of the efficiency we've made is being polarized to a small group of bodies which is leaving large numbers of people with "no credits to exchange". We are just cutting entire lives out of the picture. It simply does not make sense that with the amazing computer and machine technologies we have created that in the US for example most households have to have two wage earners to make ends meet, and more and more frequently both (or all) wage earners are working in excess of 40 hours many weeks of the year. It was only 50 years ago in most materially developed nations that a household could have an adult who functioned to meet the home-and-care needs of the household (the downside then was that this was gender-restricted) and one who contributed labor to the general society. Now we have households where the adult members are frequently overworked, overstressed, have no time for exercise, contemplation,art, preparing healthy meals, spending caring time with the young, with the elderly, etc. etc. etc. Add to this ridiculuosly long commute times and you have a recipe for misery and poor health, impulsiveness, selfishness, escapism, egoism, non-creativity - and those are the things that hamper "prosperity, production, and progress" in us. Surely, too, seeing to the chores and needs of the household is a valuble contribution in itself is it not? This could be seen as "a job" in itself and accrue its own credit. However if we refuse to acknowledge it as creditworthy, unless "outside the home" work experiences the benefits of efficiency in the form of reduced hours, we will continue to be on a path in developed nations of devaluing and neglecting "home work".

Lastly, what to do with those who will not participate or contribute even in this type of exchange system? There will be some who expect to and try to receive without giving back. What to do?

So three important realizations have yet to occurr across masses of people (besides the fact that "duh" we create the exchange system): letting go of overvaluation/undervaluation of contribution, sharing the benefits of efficiencies, and willingness to contribute in earnest in a large majority of people.

Hey the good news is we could do all of this, if we'd just do it. I will start with myself and my own attitudes and I will share the idea so others may decide.

Guest's picture
Subhendu Das

For CUCUMBER on Nov 17, 2011,

You said – “some people's 40 hours are perceived and valued as "worth more exchange value" than that of others.”

It is very difficult to measure the worth of a person. Just because someone is getting paid more now, does not mean he has higher worth. It is quite possible that the free money is abusing the society, people, and our values. Let me take an example. Suppose two persons are working in same company, one is an electrical engineer (EE) and the other one is a graphic arts (GA) designer. Let us that EE gets paid lot more than GA in that company. But I can argue that GA job is lot more complicated than the EE job. What an EE has learned is a cook book method of doing things. He has a specific technology, you have to do it in exactly the way it is written in the manuals. You follow the step by step process and your work will be done. Thus EE job is a mechanical job. On the other hand GA job is a very creative work. He has to produce new concept every day. There is no cook book approach for creation of artistic and appealing work. So this GA is significantly more gifted than the EE. But the society did not recognize him. The moneyless economy (MLE) will eliminate that discrimination.

It can be shown that every job is different and requires different skills. None of them can be compared, and arguments can be given in both directions. Can you compare apples and oranges? You cannot. You cannot say apple is better than orange or cat is better than dog. Why then you say Mr. X is better than Mr. Y?

Yes, the philosophy should be as you mentioned – “In your heart you truly need to be unconcerned with such things and do what must be done that you have the talent, ability, wisdom, training, education, or gift for and you do it ‘because’ ".

The number 40 hours will evolve with the evolution of MLE. At this time keeping it is probably a better way to make the transition from capitalism to MLE without causing a serious problem. In MLE people will love their work, because they will be working on the subjects they want. Today in capitalism we are forced to work on jobs that we do not like. All of us are waiting for Fridays to come, we feel tired and frustrated on Mondays. That will not happen in MLE. When you love your work, you will find that you will be working lot more hours than 40.

The MLE has the capability to run the exact same economy that we have now and in exactly the same way. It can be implemented very secretly without even telling anyone that we have made the transition. That is another reason why the number 40 will be required. All our credit cards will show 40, all the nation’s computers will change them overnight. It will remain 40 all the week. It will become zero if you do not work for a week. All you will notice is that there will be lot of jobs. Anyone applying for a job will get the job, because the companies will not have to pay. Slowly people will know, and the transition will be very smooth.

For more details please visit the site at - https://createmoneylesseconomy.wordpress.com/

Guest's picture
cucumber

I did read your page.

I'm still going to advocate for 30 hours. Or less, 20 hours even, eventually with technological advances over time.

40 hours does not give people enough time to care for their health, homes, communities and nuture others such as children, disabled, the elderly. 40 hours and all adults in a household having to perform those duties 40 hours per week means household needs such as time to prepare healthy meals, grow some of your own food, care for the household in general (chores), exercise in fun ways (not just pounding a 30 minute cardio on the elliptical trainer), contribute to a community event or project, get a good night's sleep even - the time to do this is not there.

Either go 30 hours of work for all or you need to count "domestic care and duties" as legitimate work and every household gets a domestic care and duties employee or more depending on the care needs of the home/size of the household re: elderly, disabled, children members.

I think the reason people especially in developed countries are overweight, stressed out, undernourished despite abundant food, and generally unhappy is because most households have no one in them any more who cares for these needs. People work 40 hours a week but also have 5-10 hours of additional time spent commuting, then all get home and share the chores. This takes away from exercise time, rest time, prepare healthy food time, spend time with others time etc. overall and is an imbalance. This doesn't even account for the fact that in the U.S. the average worker puts in about 3 hours of overtime per week (paid or unpaid as in the case of salaried workers exceeding 40 hours).

Furthermore, and humans are in denial that this is the case, the current global unemployement problem is a direct result of 1. the benefits of technology not "trickling down" to the majority of people and 2. increase in size of the workforce from population growth and women's acceptance in the workforce in many nations, at a time when fewer and fewer workers are needed because many work duties have been eliminated by technology.

No I am NOT saying that women should not be in the workforce. What I am saying is that we have lost the value of having an adult perform the work and care duties essential to a relaxing and healthy home and this trend is spreading globally. Who does what in a household does not have to be gender specific.

As a simple case in point look at the U.S. - even without the elimination of currency the U.S. could end its unemployment problem now and for the forseeable future if it created a mandatory reduction of full time labor hours and placed sharp restrictions on admissable overtime but with a mandatory upkeep of current wages and benefits - meaning you have to adjust pay and benefits so net income remains the same per worker despite fewer hours worked.
Example: go to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website and review the October 2011 workforce size, employment, & unemployment statistics http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.a.htm

Subtract the 18.3 million part time by choice workers from the total employed to get 122 mil. employed full time. Add the number of unemployed full time plus the number of "under employed" (those working part time only and not by choice) and you have about 23.1 mil unemployed/underemployed.

Multiply the number of FT employed by 40 hours per week and you have 4,880,080,000 hours worked per week.
To reach 100% employment the U.S. needs an additional 926,680,000 labor hours to become available or be created per week if all unemployed who want 40 hours would get them.

Now multiply 122 mil. by 32 hours and subtract this from the total labor hours currently filled (4,880,080,000). You have a deficit of 976,000,000 hours approximately.
Take the 23.1 million unemployed and give them all 32 hours out of this deficit (741,344,000 hours used).
The U.S. would still have 234,672,000 labor hours UNFILLED weekly - that's about 7.3 million full time jobs if full time is re-defined as 32 hours per week.
Note the data only include those currently receiving unemployment as unemployed. The real number is probably higher that that, but not likely to be more than 7.3 million.

Put the numbers into your own spreadsheet and you will see that it works.

What holds the U.S. back from doing this?
Purely the fact that the PRIMARY way companies improved efficiency over the past 40 years and showed "growth" (meaning profits, preferably in the double digits as that is what is now defined as a strong balance sheet) is by cutting labor and benefits. In a money economy these simple changes on a national level would cause a massive redistribution of monetary wealth from the stockpiles it is currently sitting in. And yes, the cash is sitting in stockpiles, concentrated, creating a giant drainclog in the U.S. economic pipeline and a phony and unecessary government deficit. Nevermind that this monetary wealth should have been going to people all along. That is why such a change right now would be massive and painful - what has gone on for 40 years has to be undone and those few that benefitted are going to be in a state of shock.

But getting back to the moneyless economy, the above numbers in the example also demonstrate that we just don't need to work as much as we do, especially if we keep creating more people AND have technological advances that eliminate the need for many types of labor.

40 hours is a made up number that is no longer necessary or healthy, just like money is a made up exchange medium.

Guest's picture
cucumber

Oh and one other thing re: redefinition of full time labor hours. A phase-in plan would need to be developed to protect small and medium businesses during the change over. These businesses would need some sort of subsidy/temporary tax exemption or the like so that they could weather the change given many will not have the immediate capital to add the 25% more workers to their payroll the plan necessitates. To not protect these companies during a phase-in would reduce market diversity at a time when if capitalism is going to be clung to, market diversity is an essential protection that when robust serves as a protection from the kind of economic collapse we are experiencing due to the concentration of capital in organizations "too big to fail".

It is practically a guarantee though that this need to cushion the blow for some will be twisted and remodled so as to become a thing despised - another "entitlement" if you will, all to protect the status quo.

And perhaps the largest barrier of all - human patience and compassion are needed!

Guest's picture
Subhendu Das

For CUCUMBER, on Nov 29 and Dec 07

I see that you are opposed to 40 hours. I have found many people have same opinion but may be for different reasons. I list you reasons as I found - (1) not enough time to care for home (2) Women are also in the work force (3) have technological advances that eliminate the need for many types of labor.

In the following site that you have reviewed,
http://createmoneylesseconomy.wordpress.com/
I have said - “The work is defined as any meaningful effort desired or required for the benefit of the society.” Thus home care and child care are included as meaningful work. So in a single parent family, taking care of the kids will be considered as full time work worth 40 hours and in return they will get free food and shelter. Family is the vital part of every society. Anyone, male or female, who takes care of the family, is part of the labor force.

In fact, an artist just painting every day, at his choice of site, and people are taking his art work home, is also a very meaningful employment. This type of work has been included in the above site.

I do not think technological advances will eliminate the need for labor, in fact opposite may happen. However we should not extrapolate the concepts in capitalism to moneyless economy (MLE). Technology may become completely different in MLE. We have wrong technology now; it pollutes the natural environment, and destroys human values and health.

You also said - “A phase-in plan would need to be developed to protect small and medium businesses during the changeover”. I am not sure what you mean by this. The phase-in begins without any kind of money in the economy, so no tax benefits are required.

I have said - you can run the same economy, we have now, in the exact same way, without any kind of money. If government has courage against the threat from money power then the MLE can begin at any moment, without any phase-in plan.