The Iron Law of Money

Have you ever wondered why, generally speaking, there is very little money to be made by enacting our most virtuous, n0ble, generous impulses? Why does it seem that the money is in compromising our ideals, mustering our will, and putting up with tedious or meaningless work?

Why is it, in college, that the “practical” major (from the standpoint of employment) isn’t usually the one we’d choose for the love of it?

Why is there a lot of money to be made by blowing up coral reefs to harvest the tropic fish, and very little money to be made in restoring ecosystems to health? Why is there a lot of money to be made in thinking of a brilliant new marketing strategy to increase junk food consumption, and very little money to be made in teaching people how to cook for themselves again? Why do timber companies make mega-profits by clear-cutting forests, and very little in preserving them for maximum biodiversity?

Looking out upon such a world, no wonder so many of us, especially young people, just aren’t too motivated to find a job and work. Even if scared into it by money anxiety, they often just go through the motions. But why should it be this way? It is not as if the world needs more clear-cutting and less ecological restoration, more junk food and less home cooking. Why is money the enemy of what we want to create in our lives and in the world?

I’ll call the answer the Iron Law of Money: “Money shall go to those who will make even more of it.” It originates in the way that money is created and circulated — it is lent into existence as interest-bearing debt. Imagine you go to the bank and say, “I’d like to borrow ten million dollars to buy a wetlands threatened by development, and turn it into a wildlife preserve. I won’t be able to pay you back, but please give me the money anyway, it is so important for the planet.” Well, the bank is probably going to say no. But if your plan is to buy a forest, cut down the trees, sell the lumber, and build an upscale housing development, then the bank might say yes. If it looks like you will be able to use the money to create even more money, you will get the loan. Such lending is the main way that money enters the economy.

With your ten million dollars, you can now hire workers to execute your plan. Multiply this across society, and you can see why most paid employment in some way contributes to the conversion of the world into money. With slight exaggeration, we might say that every private sector employee in the world has the same job description:help your employer make more money than he is paying you.

The guy who wanted to preserve the wetlands — he isn’t going to have money to pay anyone to help him, unless he receives that money as some form of a gift. If your heart calls you to do something that does not contribute to the conversion of nature into goods and relationships into services, then you will have no choice but to live, directly or indirectly, off gifts. Even if that gift comes in the form of a salary with job requirements, ultimately, if it does not in some way contribute to the growth of the money realm, that paycheck is someone’s financial self-sacrifice. They could have gotten a positive return on that money by lending it at interest to someone who would cut down a forest. This is called “investing”.The gift could also come in the form of a political consensus to spend public money toward non-economic ends.

Today, we are nearing the limits of the expansion of the monetized realm of goods and services, the limits of economic growth. There just aren’t that many more opportunities to convert forests, petroleum, or any other of the earth’s wealth into money. That is the underlying reason why the money system, which depends on such opportunities, isn’t working very well anymore. There are few lending opportunities, and thus no way (except fiscal stimulus or conversion of assets and earning potential into loan collateral, and not much of that left either) to circulate money through the economy. As the breakdown proceeds, we will have more and more opportunities to recreate the money system so that it embodies the principles of the gift. The Iron Law of Money can be annulled, if money no longer originates as interest-bearing debt.

To get ready for such as day, we ca begin orienting ourselves, in thought and in action, away from expanding the realm of paid goods and services, and toward the beautiful and generous things we truly want to do. At its heart, money is a token of society’s appreciation and gratitude for the gifts that we give. Whereas once this appreciation was for our contribution to the growth and dominance of the human species, it is shifting today toward other values. Soon, we will have the opportunity to shift the money system as well, to align with these new values.


About Charles Eisenstein

I am the author of The Ascent of Humanity and Sacred Economics. I am also a public speaker and member of the faculty of Goddard College.
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7 Responses to The Iron Law of Money

  1. Hi Charles,

    Great to see your new blog and the anticipation of Sacred Economics this July !!! Article spot-on, as is the entire blog. Only, please, don’t leave me in suspense… 5.26.11 blog post stops mid-sentence at “The Iron Law of Money, then, is,”… I don’t know what to do? Thanks for all the inspiration you ignite. Hope all is well. xx

  2. Simon says:

    Hi Charles,

    This speaks very eloquently to some of the dilemmas I have faced in the work that I have chosen, but there seems to be a final section missing from the post – and I would very much like to read the rest of your thoughts.



  3. Zach says:

    As an employee of a social services nonprofit that provides a spectrum of services to give homeless youth the means to recover their health, lives, and independence, funded by tax dollars supplemented with donations, this seems an appropriate place to express gratitude for the giftors for their generosity 🙂

    • Right. While one might make a case that such programs eventually benefit the economy, such arguments are essentially dishonest because they fail to acknowledge the real motivation of these programs, which is compassion. The more people in this world that recover their dignity, the less people will be willing to do the dirty work of the Machine.

  4. Bill Fisher says:

    Hi Charles,

    Here are a few ideas that might fit in?

    The iron law of money vs. the laws of social-economic reality

    Perceptions are shifting but what should they shift too?
    Here is an interesting video by Dan Pink, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.

    For me this video shifted my perception on what motivates us and how people love personal mastery: play an instrument, grow a garden make something with your hands.

    A shift in perception

    Wherever you look today you see the needy, people need healthcare, and customers need products and services, and citizens need more from Government. We live in a needs-based society where there are simply not enough resources to fill all the needs: needs create silos – silos divide. The rich have money the poor have needs.

    On the other hand “gifts” or “assets” provide. Treat everything as a gift/asset effectively shifts perception. This raises some questions: Why treating everything as a gift/asset is a good idea? How do you (it’s your responsibility) add value to your gifts/assets? How do I help you increase your gift/asset value?

    Biomimicry studies “gifts” and why it is a good idea to treat everything a gift.

    Perception management is a gift. You want to discover perceptions that make your world a better place to live. Treating everything as a gift/asset was a new worthwhile perception for me. Perception management helps you discover new exciting things you can use to improve personal mastery, have more fun doing things. It changes the dynamic.

    A course in perception management takes ideas like hyperbolic geometry and asks the question: how could this gift improve the quality of your life? It turns out there are several really good ideas/gifts here.


    • I’ve seen that drawing before — love it. One of the themes of the book is what I call “the will to work”. Contrary to economists’ doctrines about the “disutility of work,” people actually have a strong need and desire to express their gifts and achieve excellence. Money, far from encouraging such expression, often rewards us for merely doing something “good enough” — good enough for the boss, the client, the market. Thus we live in a world of mediocrity. Because an artist doesn’t make things merely good enough for any of the above.

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