Money vs Wealth


Eliyahu Neiman-Jan 23, 2017

Do the wealthy accumulate their riches at the expense of the poor? Some believe that wealth inequality means that the poor must be losing out – because, after all, there is only so much money to go around. However, this is not exactly true. To see why, it is important to understand the difference between money and wealth.

Consider a case focusing on only two people: a tool manufacturer and a contractor. Say that the manufacturer pays the contractor $100,000 to build a production facility. Over the course of a year, the contractor buys $100,000 in tools from the manufacturer. Having paid off his initial investment, the manufacturer now pays $100,000 to the contractor to expand his facility.

How much money has changed hands? Apparently, only $100,000 – three times. But how much wealth has been created? The tool manufacturer has produced $100,000 worth of tools for the contractor. The contractor has built $200,000 worth of construction for the manufacturer. Our two-person economy now contains $400,000 in wealth. It is richer by $300,000. In fact, that would be its GDP if it were a country.

How is it possible that only $100,000 of money has created $300,000 of wealth? The secret is that money is not actually worth anything – other than as a means of exchange. Money represents a collective IOU that can be collected from anyone at all. This allows anyone to use their skill set to create wealth on behalf of anyone else,  requiring nothing in return but an anonymous IOU. Those who find ways to create wealth for consumers accumulate money, which they can exchange for other forms of wealth. This is the reward that the free market delivers for serving consumers. If Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have more money than anyone else, it is because they have created real wealth for consumers, and used their initial profits to create more wealth for consumers to purchase.

Two government activities are particularly harmful to this process:

1. High taxes. By confiscating the IOUs, government becomes the new recipient of the wealth owed in exchange for creative activity. This reduces the reward for wealth creation. (Equivalently, it diminishes the purchasing power of consumers). If government then spends this money on activities which don’t create wealth (i.e. goods or services that don’t improve people’s lives), then it has wasted resources, making them unavailable for real wealth creation.

2. Overregulation. If a small business owner cannot afford to spend the time and energy, or to purchase the additional equipment, required by government regulations, they may not have enough remaining resources to create wealth at a price that consumers are willing to pay. Overregulation can shut down the means of wealth production entirely.

In short, money is just an IOU, or stand-in for real wealth. Anyone, rich or poor, who can sell their services to a consumer has not only earned a share of their own wealth – they have contributed more wealth to the whole economy. Taxing the creation of wealth harms everyone; this is because everyone benefits from being able to purchase the goods and services that wealth creators produce. Policies that benefit poor people most are those that encourage and enable them to create valuable goods and services. When more people are able to create and contribute to the economy, we all become richer.


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