St Paul's Institute

Is it the Love of Money That's the 'Root of All Evil' - or the Fear of It?

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 30 Jul 2013

"Here's some money to cover your meals and taxi fares while you're here." The official from the British Embassy in Tashkent, himself an Uzbek, had been asked to make me welcome and ensure that my needs were met during my stay, and he certainly did his job well. I was in Uzbekistan in order to inform officials from their Ministry of the Interior and other government agencies and NGOs about the way in which we subject places of custody to independent monitoring, and specifically to share what I had learned from my five years with the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards. My visit was only to last three days, and so I didn't expect to need too much money.

So I was amazed when he put on the table four thick bundles of currency notes. The unit of currency in Uzbekistan is the soum and the exchange rate at present is roughly 3,500 soums to the pound sterling. But that wasn't in itself what amazed me - after all it is not really very important whether it is 3,500 soums or (which it might be one day) 35 or even 3.5 soums to the pound. What was extra-ordinary was that the only banknotes in existence were for 1000 soums - each one therefore being worth less than thirty pence. I asked if there were any bigger denominations, to be told that the launch of a 5000 soum note was imminent, but nothing larger. How, I asked, could I put that money in my wallet? "We don't use wallets," my minder said; we use carrier bags."

I had occasion to revert to this conversation later on in my visit, having noticed that market stall owners were as quick at counting 1000 soum notes as any bank telling machine. I now realised why the travel advice said that while there ATMs in Tashkent they didn't have any money in them! I wondered why the convenience of much larger denominations had not been attractive to the public.

The problem, I was told, was that producing banknotes of larger denominations would advertise the reality of inflation, and that was the reality that could not be named, even though everyone knew that it was happening. Anyone who has seen Weimar republic banknotes overprinted with extra zeros as inflation got out of hand would recognise the point. Even though a transaction might need more of the 1000-soum notes this year than last, they were still using the same notes, and that meant a less brutal display of the reality that their money was losing its value.

Those of us brought up on the text, The love of money is the root of all evil, can easily forget that the root of some of the evil is the fears associated with money. Other forms of wealth can decay, or course, or be stolen: Moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal. But money is volatile and easily disposed of, engendering the powerful fear that you won't have it when you need it or, in the case of hyperinflation, that it won't have the value you had relied on.

So in the introduction to our second Dome debate there was reference to the fact that we were more accustomed to thinking about whether money was sound than whether it was good. Built into the European consciousness, especially the northern European consciousness, is the link between hyperinflation, money turning worthless, and unemployment, social unrest, right wing coups and ultimately war. We try not to be troubled by this fear: when Harold Wilson's government devalued sterling he was at pains to say that this would not affect 'the pound in your pocket' - though if anyone was taken in by that statement they weren't for long.

But try as we might, the fact is that this commodity which is supposed to mediate security and assurance engenders whenever we have to handle it the sense that it might have crumbled to nothing between our hands and the till. Immune from moth and rust our notes and coins may be; but not from the shocks and turbulences of the financial set up, and the possibility that the confidence on which our money depends may turn out not to be there when it needs to be. What is the point of carrier bags full of it if in the end it is worth more as scrap paper? (Older readers may recall that when sterling was decimalised in 1971 there was debate about whether to keep the pound at its current value and just divide it differently or halve its value, which would have made decimalisation easier; the decision was to go for keeping the pound's value the same for fear that the doubling of the number of pounds would make people fearful of inflation).

So it's worth remembering while money may arouse envy and 'love' in a bad sense, it certainly arouses fear. It is of course fear that is idols' stock in trade more than love: they pretend to offer security, but actually create the opposite.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.