A Brief History of Money: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Abstraction
In the 13th century, the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan embarked on a bold experiment. China at the time was divided into different regions, many of which issued their own coins, discouraging trade within the empire. So Kublai Khan decreed that henceforth money would take the form of paper.
It was not an entirely original idea. Earlier rulers had sanctioned paper money, but always alongside coins, which had been around for centuries. Kublai’s daring notion was to make paper money (the chao) the dominant form of currency. And when the Italian merchant Marco Polo visited China not long after, he marveled at the spectacle of people exchanging their labor and goods for mere pieces of paper. It was as if value were being created out of thin air.
Kublai Khan was ahead of his time: He recognized that what matters about money is not what it looks like, or even what it’s backed by, but whether people believe in it enough to use it. Today, that concept is the foundation of all modern monetary systems, which are built on nothing more than governments’ support of and people’s faith in them. Money is, in other words, a complete abstraction—one that we are all intimately familiar with but whose growing complexity defies our comprehension.
Today, many people long for simpler times. It’s a natural reaction to a world in which money is becoming not just more abstract but more digital and virtual as well, in which sophisticated computer algorithms execute microsecond market transactions with no human intervention at all, in which below-the-radar economies are springing up around their own alternative currencies, and in which global financial crises are brought on for reasons difficult to parse without a Ph.D. Back in the day, the thinking goes, money stood for something: Gold doubloons and cowrie shells had real value, and so they didn’t need a government to stand behind them.
In fact, though, money has never been that simple. And while its uses and meanings have shifted and evolved throughout history, the fact that it is no longer anchored to any one substance is actually a good thing. Here’s why.