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Money and character

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 23, 2011

One of the criticisms that foreigners (and many of us, too) have long had about Americans, going back to the earliest years, is how materialist and money-grubbing we are. Tocqueville was gentler than most when he wrote that “the desire to acquire the good things of this world is the dominant passion among Americans. . . . .”

In the early 20th century, an Egyptian civil servant visiting the U.S. wrote that “Americans measure man by his income, according to his bank balance, and this wave of idolatry is spreading from America to the rest of the world.” (Sayyid Qutb would later be the major intellectual source of the Moslem Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.)

U.S. currencySuch valuing of money would seem to contradict the American principle that people ought to be valued for their character, not by what they have.

The tension between money and character, between money and human relationships, has bothered Americans for a long time. We don’t know whether to celebrate money or hide it.

Money and  equality

British sociologist Mike Savage makes a passing remark in a recent book that puts a twist on the question of whether money makes the man. “Precisely because money is impersonal,” he writes, “it is possible for people to be differentiated on the basis of how much money they have without this being deemed to undermine their individual, human qualities” (p. 224). Other distinctions between people, Savage says, impugn a person’s character or morality, but money is impersonal. He quotes a working-class Brit who says, perhaps defensively, “There’s no difference between me and Lord Clare; he’s got the money and I haven’t. . . . Even a roadsweeper’s equal to me; I earn twice as much as he does, but it doesn’t make much difference to me, he’s my equal.”

From this perspective, distinctions of money can, odd as it may seem, be democratic and even egalitarian. Each person is, in his or her essence, as good, has the same claim to respect, is as valued as much as anyone else. The money you have, by this logic, is as incidental as the color of shirt you wear for determining your moral worth. Distinctions of character — being honest, hard-working, family-loving, reverent, and so on — and not money determine how much respect one gets. In that way, Savage’s interviewee could say he felt equal to a lord; any differences were only about money.

By this logic, the Americans who foreigners thought were so money-oriented were more egalitarian than the visitors with their gentleman and gentlelady airs.

Good money

This moral rehabilitation of money brings us to the work of sociologist Viviana Zelizer. In a couple of her books (such as this and that), Zelizer examines how contemporary Americans cope with the “taint” of money, their feeling that it soils what it touches. Most Americans feel, for example, that gifts should be personalized things, not crude cash (while in other cultures, newly-weds, for instance, expect to get showered with crisp bills). Americans try to camouflage cash exchanges in various ways — in gifts that can be returned, in “earmarking” (this bank account is for Susie’s college; that account is for Christmas presents), or if need be, with checks placed in tasteful gift cards. In the end, Zelizer writes, “across a wide range of intimate relations, people manage to integrate monetary transfers into larger webs of mutual obligations without destroying the social ties involved. Money cohabits regularly with intimacy, and even sustains it.”

What appears to have changed historically is the growing distaste for open cash or crude materialism. It seems that, as Americans became more affluent over the last two centuries, as the middle class expanded, and as bourgeois sentimentality developed (see this earlier post), Americans became more uncomfortable with naked money, especially with mixing cold cash and warm relations. Confounding friendship and business, for example, was increasingly thought impolite. Some scholars have written about a “post-materialist” sensibility. As people became wealthier over several generations, they shifted their focus to “higher” things, like environmentalism, self-expression, and nurturing relationships. (One need not admire money, in seems, if one has lots of it to spare.)

More money

Monopoly character

source: quite peculiar via flickr

Some observers suggest, however, that this post-materialist trend may have recently stalled or reversed. There are survey data indicating that American adults and American college students, in particular, have increasingly focused on money and material things since around 1970. One explanation — assuming that this change is real — is the increasingly visible widening of economic inequality since the ‘70s. Economist Robert Frank, for instance, argues (e.g., here and here) that as extreme wealth has become more common, more flaunted, and more visible, it has made middle class Americans feel more deprived and more obsessed about money and about what money can buy. Another explanation is that growing economic insecurity among middle class (and poorer) Americans since the 1970s — requiring, for example, more work hours from mothers — has necessarily and pragmatically re-focused Americans’ attention to money matters. “Higher” things may have to wait.

This to-ing and fro-ing reflects the complex relationships Americans have had (and Zelizer has documented) with money. Is it “the root of all evil”; or is it a means to engage in philanthropy — for example, supporting religion (a tension even among the Puritans — see here); or is it Americans’ way of measure of talent and motivation; or is it corruption? Or is it all these things some of the time?

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.