Money is known technically as “fungible” — that is, it can be exchanged for nearly anything. For instance, a few hundred years ago, prostitutes could exchange money for indulgences, essentially using sex to buy salvation. A criminal can use money gained by theft to pay for food for his or her child.
Not all transfers are this extreme, but as human inventions go, money is one of the most remarkable. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his excellent book, “Sapiens”:
For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
Debt is one expression of money. In recent times, debt has been demonized as unhealthy and worrisome. And, like all things, at a certain intensity or level, this is so. But at a modest or manageable level, it can be beneficial. Because it’s money, debt aligns the interests of people who might otherwise not cooperate. With the musical “Hamilton” bringing the founder of the US banking system to the fore, it’s worth remembering that one of the major steps in unifying the states was to make every state and every citizen responsible for a common federal debt. Not only did this allow the US to borrow at a much higher level than any state or individual could have alone, leading to the rapid emergence of a viable nation, but it aligned the interests of the states in a way no pledge or oath could have.
Trust is the fundamental reason that slip of printed paper in your pocket has value. We believe it to be so, and it is. There is no other reason. Currently, ninety percent of money is intangible, existing only in computers. But more importantly, even in its tangible form, its value is created in the same way as computerized money — by agreement. If we all agree that a currency of a former Eurozone country has no value, it has no value.
This trust system is remarkable on many levels, but it also has a special two-step aspect to it — it’s not that you trust money, but you trust that the other person trusts money, which the other person also assumes, closing the trust loop.
Even events like the hacking of the SWIFT system supporting international banking do little to break this trust system. We distrust the computers and people using them — everything points to a social engineering exploit here — but not money. In fact, the millions stolen from the hack only reinforces the trust in money.
But Sci-Hub and its ilk break our trust in money. Suddenly, rather than a fluid economic system that pays for the work done in the past and for work upcoming, publishers, editors, and professionals supporting book and journal sales can no longer trust that other people will assume their work will be worth anything. While not a breach of trust in money per se, it is a breach of trust in value and a clear disdain for money. The Sci-Hub sympathizers don’t believe that an economic transaction — any economic transaction, even one that provides content for a few cents to users — is defensible when it comes to whatever content or websites they hack.
The damage to the trust system of basic economic value in academic and scholarly publishing may be the most pernicious aspect of the Sci-Hub flap. Again and again, the expenses publishers incur — billions of dollars per year — to manage peer-review, pay editors, pay staff, pay vendors, pay for digital platforms, pay to support archives, and so forth, are pointed at as somehow illegitimate or unworthy of support.
At the same time, Sci-Hub itself has had to raise money to support its stolen cache of content, because of course it has computer, systems, bandwidth, and staff costs.
As I’ve written before, Sci-Hub is a dead end. It makes no economic contribution, and has no economic future. But it represents a fundamental threat to a major human achievement — the ability through money to transform one thing into another. Sci-Hub represents the end of human alchemy. It represents economic death.
In our imaginings of the future, we often envision a world without money. Maybe that will come to pass somehow. But as long as we need to efficiently transform one thing into another through the exchange of common tokens of agreed upon but abstract value, and as long as we seek unity of economic purpose in a way that allows for personal diversity and choice, money in some form will be part of our culture. Those who try to undercut this reality are working against “the apogee of human tolerance.”