Money is paper: The mystical power of stories

You probably already knew that it’s illegal to destroy paper or coin currency in the US, but have you ever wondered why?

The law originates from the earlier days of currency when coins actually contained valuable metals. Perpetrators would shave just enough material off of a coin to collect precious metal, but not enough to where the coin would be unusable. They would go on to spend the coins as usual, while slowly building up a small fortune of precious metal slivers. Clever, right?

Well, precious metals may be largely absent from coins today, but the law is still in place. Of course, the law is not often enforced. After all, it’s hard to find a theme park without one of those penny smashing machines. Granted, I haven’t tried very hard to find a theme park without one.

Funny enough, one of President Obama’s presidential pardons was used on a man who was convicted of shaving pennies down to the size of dimes to use for a vending machine in 1963. Thank heavens for the executive branch.

If I were to take a piece of paper, write “$100” on it, and present it to a grocery store clerk to pay for my groceries, I would likely get turned down. Yet, if I presented a $100 bill from the treasury, endorsed by the US government, I would be able to get my groceries. Why is that? Why is it that real life value is ascribed to one of those pieces of paper and not the other? Neither holds any intrinsic value.

It’s because of stories.

Our society has collectively bought into the story that ascribes value to US backed currency and not to Derek Walker created currency (unfortunately). In order for these stories to effectively shape society, the right stories need to be in place and enough people need to buy into them.

Think about how funny that is. Society says the paper bill has value because the government has its back. Well, what gives the government authority? We do. Again, we have bought into the story that government is the ruling body. We have bought into the story that we must live by rules or we suffer consequences. These are not tangible stories. They are made up. But these stories we buy in to don’t just restrict us, they empower us. Why is it that humans rule the world and not, say… ants–whose combined biomass is larger than that of humans? Again, its because of stories. Fictional stories. It’s because we, as humans, can collectively create stories out of thin air–and live by them.

This is the premise of an article on Ted Ideas by Yuval Noah Harari titled “Why humans rule the world.”

If you were to put one man and one ape on a deserted island, who would have a better chance of survival? I can tell you, if I was that one man, my chance of survival would be in the low number range. The ape would be the one to survive, right?

Well, what if you put 100 men and 100 apes on a deserted island? Then who would have the better chance of survival? In this scenario, the humans win. And it is simply because of the fact that we are able to collectively create and adhere to these stories. Now, animals do some pretty amazing things on both the individual and collective levels. Beavers build amazingly efficient dams and ants build incredibly intricate ant hills. But they create things together in a rigid fashion. Humans have the advantage in that our cooperative creativity takes place in a flexible fashion. Harari explains:

Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you?

You’ll notice that we only accomplish great things when everyone (or at least the overwhelming majority of people) buys into the same stories. You can, of course, decide to not buy into the story of paper currency and start shoplifting, but because you live in a world surrounded by people who DO buy into the story that currency is real and that shoplifting is punishable under the “story of the law,” you will likely be punished. At the most basic level, these stories are often enforced through physical coercion, i.e. prison, handcuffs, guns, eviction, repossession, time-out.

It’s a fun exercise to pay attention to what sort of fictional stories we live by. Try paying attention to it and see what you learn. And, oh yeah, next time you are creative, remember, it’s because you are human!

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