I wrote a column many years ago about growing up with the distinct impression that there was something unpleasant about money.

Going on holiday as a child, before making for the open road, we’d always stop at my grandfather’s to say our farewells, a brief pause memorable chiefly for the moment when, tilting slightly at my dad’s window, Grandad would slip him an envelope, always slim enough to be empty, I used to think with what I now recognise as disenchanting scepticism.

The envelope, deftly secreted in the cubbyhole, only seemed to be empty because all it contained was a modest bank note or two – modest by today’s standards, anyway, though R20 back then was equivalent to about R1 000 – intended as a loan in extremis for use in an emergency, for petrol, say, or medicine, a breakdown, an overnight stay.

I don’t recall a single envelope ever being hauled out to deal with a crisis, and I can only assume it was always returned, or the cubbyholes of the two cars my father owned in the course of my upbringing would have been as stuffed as a bank vault.

For all its ordinariness, my lasting affection for this ritual arises from the single word written boldly on the envelope – ‘Spondulicks’ – and what it stood for, perhaps rather than what it meant.

Attractive illusion

Superficially, it was a charming precaution against theft, predicated on the attractive illusion that anyone poking about in the cubbyhole and coming across the envelope – on which an idiot might have written ‘Cash, for emergencies’ – would be foiled by the three-syllable oddity. Not that I ever thought a thief would be so dumbstruck as to toss the envelope aside, unopened.

Later, as an adult, I’d winced inwardly at discovering that ‘spondulicks’, far from having the noble origin I’d long believed –  deriving from the Greek spondylikos, for ‘vertebra’, from spondylos, a seashell once used as currency – was more likely a late import from ante-bellum America, first cited in 1857, origin unknown, and appearing in English usage for the first time in 1885.

But there was no wincing at the small annual rite – and what I distinctly remember as a comforting embarrassment in both men.

In childhood, I understood only too well from an occasional grimace or abrupt jam in the conversation that it was vulgar to talk about money, a phrase whose ring of insincere piety is perhaps hard on the ear these days.

But the unpleasantness of money really had more to do with our dependence on it, coupled with a mistrustfulness that’s hard to place, being less about the lucre and more about ourselves.

People who had ‘too much’ money were held in unaccountable suspicion bordering on pity, and, while the poor merited almost unconditional sympathy (whatever good that did them),  able people who never quite had enough were regarded more or less uncharitably. There was an unmistakable assumption of negligence in both the former and the latter, the very poor being excepted on the appealing grounds that compassion always trumped reason.

Good start in life

Such sentiments, I still think, form the basis of a credo that makes for a good start in life, freeing one – as I wrote to my eldest son many years ago when he turned 21 – to join ‘that happy class of people who are not in terror of poverty, and not transfixed by wealth either’, instilled with a sense of responsibility for one’s own fate and well-being, and freed to realise one’s ambitions and define one’s own success.

These things coalesce in the not uncomplicated arena of economic life, and –however eccentric, old-fashioned and high-minded one’s view of the accumulation of wealth might be – they form the core agency on which thriving societies depend.

I have been thinking about these things recently because of the invariably polarising debate about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the phoney proposition that there are two warring arguments, one in favour of money (often dressed up as ‘profit’ or ‘greed’) and the other in favour of lives (implicitly higher in the stakes of all that is ‘moral’ and ‘good’).

It’s a phoney proposition in the first place because, in the real lives of people – even among those who avowedly plumb for one argument or the other – ‘money’ and ‘lives’ are not separable, or capable of being neatly apportioned as distinctive values.

But the effect of the distinction is to detract from what is really amiss, and where the real vulnerability lies: only a minority in our society have the skills or the means to act independently as agents of prosperity, dynamism and choice, while the drift of policy that emphasises greater dependence on state discretion as the answer to the deficiency only succeeds in deepening poverty.

From tomorrow, all of us – even the state – will depend to a greater extent than before on the sound choices of others in limiting our vulnerability as regards both our health and our economic prosperity.

In time, however, our vulnerability to policies that reduce choice and the agency of individuals will prove damaging, and we should contest them.

Rewards of choice unquestionable

International evidence shows that the rewards of expanding individuals’ freedom of choice are unquestionable.

Research by the Fraser Institute of Canada shows that prosperity and freedom go hand in hand.

The poorest 10% of people in the most free countries have a much higher standard of living than their counterparts in the least free countries, where state ownership of land and assets is pervasive and private property rights are tenuous at best.

The Fraser Institute’s study shows that between 1990 and 2010, the annual average growth rate in GDP per head in the least free countries was a mere 1.6%. By contrast, the most free countries clocked up an average growth of 3.6%, or more than double. As a result, the least free countries had GDP per head of $5 200 in 2010, while the most free recorded almost $38 000 – more than seven times as much.

Average income per head for the poorest 10% of the population in the least free countries in 2010 was $1 200, whereas in the most free it was nearly $12 000 – almost ten times as much.

And there are measurable health consequences: The least free showed life expectancy at 62 years in 2010, the most free at 80, a nearly 20-year difference.

These are patterns South Africans will ignore at their peril.

If greed and overweening acquisitiveness are unpleasant, as I was convincingly persuaded in my distant childhood, economic agency is not only a different proposition, but an indispensable one. This is especially so for the poor majority, whose lives and health are best served, as is true for all of us, by their own choices – but only if they are allowed to make them.

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