For a story I'm writing, there will be an industrial-revolution type city, with mildly powerful technology. They will be just discovering electricity, using steam power, and making all of their currency coins. However, this is a supposedly "Backwards" place, since their money is Negative. As an example: If Bob were to sell a piano to Jill, Jill would not give Bob money. Bob would give Jill the money, as well as the piano. Salaries would take away money, and taxes would require you to receive money. I am wondering how this would work. Here are a few ideas of mine:

  • The land is considered a very trusting, kind place. You can take an infinite amount of money, meaning that there is no limitation on kindness

  • People can buy an infinite amount of food as much food as they need (though limited by economic factors like famine), meaning that nobody would ever starve

  • The money is required to be kept with you at all times, and the weight discourages one from having too much money. Thus, you want to get rid of your money

So, in other words, How could this work?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Aug 21 at 5:37
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    Maybe it could be seen as debt – Mathijs Segers Aug 21 at 6:59
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    Have Money = Bad Karma. You get a great reward in the afterlife if you have good karma. That means no body wants bad karma/money. – B540Glenn Aug 30 at 14:23

27 Answers 27

This couldn't work at all.

The reason why money needs to be "positive" is that the one with the incentive to have it is the one who has control over having it. If money is negative, you can just throw it away or simply never show anyone. The government 'requiring' you to keep it with you isn't gonna help because that's A) impossible to enforce and B) extremely fascistoid.

If you sell a good, you want money as a proof that you have given someone else something, and you want to use that proof to acquire another product from a third person. Money is an abstraction of barter, so that you don't have to find the perfect combination of trade partners and goods at the same time.

Imagine giving a person a loan. Would you want a paper with their signature to prove they owe you? Or would they want a paper with your signature to prove that they owe you?

People can buy an infinite amount of food, meaning that nobody would ever starve

Food doesn't just magically appear because someone made up the rule that you can always buy it. Law doesn't determine what's true, only what's not allowed. You can make it illegal for someone to not give you food (pretty totalitarian), but that's not gonna help you if they simply have no food.

The land is considered a very trusting, kind place. You can take an infinite amount of money, meaning that there is no limitation on kindness

I'm sorry, but this is just social romanticism. You can't build an economic system based on "Everyone's gonna be totally nice", because then you'd not need an economic system in the first place. The whole point of economics is allocating resources between people when there is more demand than can be met. If everyone is just "nice" and has no problem giving their stuff away, you don't need to come up with any system at all - people can just do that.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – L.Dutch Aug 20 at 19:03
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    How can a non-answer get 73 up 'useful answer' votes? A non-answer is not at all useful to the OP. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 4:01
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    @JustinThyme Because it's not a non-answer: the question was "How could this work", and the answer was "Unfortunately - as nice an idea as it is - even with the copious amounts of handwavium we usually throw around in Worldbuilding, it can't" All it takes is one person who isn't "perfectly kind", just mildly selfish, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. – Chronocidal Aug 21 at 7:33
  • @Chronocidal That was hand-waving if anything. The claim that it only takes one deviant person to bring down a whole system... that requires a little bit more explaining than just one single comment or some bare assertions. Especially considering that there are many — successful — fictions and even fiction franchises that do not employ plain old money and/or free market capitalism. Star Trek would be one. So no... that little hand-waving does not sufficiently warrant claiming "No, your setting is impossible". – MichaelK Aug 21 at 9:57
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    @MichaelK Excellent, I am glad that you are so familiar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which - combined with the fact that humans are lazy - explains why if the population of the society work in the way that the OP wants, someone will eventually recommend that the "un-currency" be abolished as superfluous – Chronocidal Aug 21 at 11:54

I remember reading a sci-fi story many, many decades ago about a similar theme. I completely forget the title, or the author, it was so long ago, but I remember the theme, since it was so unique. It absolutely challenged all current economic theories at the time. It was written when resources were still considered infinite, and automation and computer control was just being introduced. A utopia that could only have been imagined in the zeitgeist of the 70's and 80's. It was written at a time when human labor costs were considered as the main determinant of economic cost.

EDIT As suggested by @berendi, I think it was The Midas Plague by Frederik Pohl, written in 1954.

It was a post-scarcity society, with infinite resources, and a perfected agricultural system world-wide. Automated manufacturing was able to produce every imaginable good, at quantities beyond need. Everything, from extraction to processing to production, was automated. Farming was all automated. Extraction and mining were all automated. At no place in the process were humans needed. Since production did not require human intervention, it was completely labor free, and thus had no input labor cost. All management was done by AI. Computers serviced by other computers co-ordinated everything and made all corporate decisions. There were no humans even in upper management. With a limitless surplus of everything, there was no need for any mechanism for rationing goods - the primary purpose for currency. Since there was absolutely no labor, there were no wages paid. No need for any human to work for a living. No need for 'jobs' as we perceive them. Money, in the purest sense, is just a mechanism for balancing supply and demand. If there is infinite supply, that far exceeds demand, then there is no need for 'pricing' to limit demand. Everything was given away for free. (Our modern Western concept equates the purpose for money with the concept of profit, a completely erroneous proposition.)

In fact, there was such a surplus of everything, that in order to keep production going, the population had to CONSUME as much as possible. The class structure was reversed. Since everyone could have as much as they wanted, without limit, the lower in the economic ladder you were, the more you had to consume. The higher up, the less you had to consume. The top tier 1% had to consume almost nothing.

Money, of course, did not exist in the story. You did not BUY anything, you HAD to take the goods. It was your societal obligation to take them. But if money did exist, the one who died with the least money, won. The consumer would be given a specified income that they HAD to spend, that they had to dispose of. The lower on the scale they were, the more money they got every year. They had to spend this money. If they didn't, they got even more next year. Those who spent all of their money, went up the ladder and they had to spend less the next year. Their 'income' was less. But the catch is, they had to wear out or consume their 'purchases', they could not just hoard them. After all, even though resources were infinite, living space wasn't. The lower on the rung you were, the smaller your living space. They had to demonstrate that the goods they purchased were worn out. Their 'job' was to wear things out. Clothes, appliances, sports equipment, everything. They would have to spend all of their waking hours USING things. Their vacations and 'down time' consisted of periods when they did not have to consume, in which they could just relax and do nothing. I can see how this scenario could possibly be construed as 'negative' money.

But the money still followed the traditional buy-sell model.

To have the money follow the goods, instead of the other way around, then it could be used as a measure of consumption. Everything you consumed, you got a certain amount of money for. The more you consumed, the more money you got. Your 'wealth' would be negative wealth. That is, you were 'paid' to consume. Those who acquired the most money, were the best consumers, and therefore they would go up in economic stature. At the next level up, you had to acquire LESS money, and so on up the ladder. (Or, perhaps, you got MORE money for each item consumed? This might match your scenario better.) At the top of the pyramid, you only had to 'earn' (by consuming) a very small yearly 'income' (or, alternately, you got a huge amount of money for consuming very little). Most of your time would be leisure time, free from the necessity to do your job, to consume.

As I mentioned, it was a unique story line, and it was a concept that was fascinating to explore. It totally redefined our concept of 'rich' and 'poor', and it was totally based on input labor costs as the only determinant of 'cost'. The idea of 'profit' from production, and as a determinant of wealth, was completely negated.

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    'How was your day at the office, dear?" "It was a rat race. I wore out three shirts, two pair of pants, 20 note pads and 50 pens. But Smith wore out five suits, so he made (spent) more money than I did and he got the promotion." – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 17:52
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    Might have been The Midas Plague by Frederik Pohl. It actually had a money system similar to the one proposed in the question. People received some stamps along with the goods or services they purchased, but they had to turn their stamps in at the end of the month. And their used stuff too, to prove that they were not just throwing away unused goods. The higher status one had, the less stamps to collect and send in. – berendi Aug 18 at 19:45
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    @berendi Yes, thank you, I am pretty sure that is the one. If not, it is very, very similar. I am thinking that the one I read could have been a re-make, as the 1954 date seems to be way off. I would have been much too young to have read it then. But the ending I remember, was that the protagonist designed a robot to do the consuming for him. Perhaps a very close match to what the OP is looking for, except for the robots and the robot economy. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 20:30
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    @JustinThyme it has appeared in a few anthologies and collections since 1954. – berendi Aug 18 at 20:49
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    @JustinThyme Comments are neither the place for witty repartee nor for veiled insults. I thought you may want to clarify what you mean (for the plebeians, you know). The article I linked is both comprehensive and critical of orthodox neoclassical theory; I encourage you to read it. Especially since you seem to have, shall we say, a certain social revolutionary attitude, you may like it. – Solar Bear Aug 21 at 22:48

Suppose as tax, the citizens pay their government with their time and labor. It is a reasonable idea - working on the government farm, serving in the military, washing dishes, etc.

On my necklace I have tokens - coins if you will - that depict what I owe the government. The government has given me these coins as tax. If the government needs dishwashers I will eventually be drafted and my coins will be reclaimed as I put in my dishwashing time. I might be required to give my time shoveling dog poop; hopefully that will claim coins faster than dishwashing.

When Jill wants my piano, I give her my coins as well. She adds these to her necklace. She has paid me by taking part of my obligation as represented with the coins.

The problem is that people who did not want to honor their obligations would destroy the coins or hide them or claim that they went down the toilet. One could work around this with some method of chain of custody of the coins, each one of which is identifiable with a serial number as a bill is identifiable. When Jill takes my coins, it is known that these coins are with Jill. If she loses one she must get a replacement.

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    And so money is seen as an obligation that has to be paid, rather than a reward that is earned? Interesting. It assumes that the default is that everyone has to work a certain amount of time (full employment as the default) instead of unemployment being the default and having to hope for a job. Certainly backwards. As was mentioned in the comments, if this were done using some form of block chain recording system, it would work. However, the technology would have to be accepted by the OP, and written into the world. Otherwise, the record keeping would be burdensome. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 21:52
  • Banks would hold your money (obligation) and require proof of it being 'spent' before they issue it to you from your account. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 21:53
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    @JustinThyme I wouldn't call it backwards. That always has been the default. Work your fair share, or starve to death. – immibis Aug 20 at 3:18
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    @immibis Perhaps 'reversed' is a better term. In our 'modern' economy, you only work if someone is willing to pay you for your time. In a reverse society, you are compelled to work to meet your obligations. Full employment is guaranteed. There is always SOMETHING that has to be done, if money is no impediment. – Justin Thyme Aug 20 at 3:54
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    "it is known that these coins are with Jill" - if this were true, there wouldn't be much point to having physical coins, much like you don't have a physical representation of the money (or lack thereof) in your bank account. – NotThatGuy Aug 20 at 11:47

When we say "money" we mean something. When we change it, we run the risk of it ceasing to be something we call money, which would make this question very broad. As such, I'd like to focus on things which are immediately relatable to money as we know it.

Your system is built around IOUs. Negative currency is really just debt. Its an IOU promising something later. Thus salaries erase IOUs, which is exactly what they do in our world.

Beyond that technical detail, the rest of the extreme approaches (like infinite kindness) are not really an aspect of the monetary system, but of the culture. You can have any culture you like, though some are pre-disposed to imploding faster than others.

  • All money in our economic system is an 'IOU'. Salaries are paid today, as an IOU that you can spend later. When you sell a good, the customer gives you an IOU that the retailer can spend on something else later. Our entire economic system is based on debt. Build it now, pay the wages now, get paid for the product later. Sell it now, use the income later. Benefit ALWAYS comes after production. Isn't that the basic definition of a debt economy? Only a pure non-monetary barter system, goods exchanged for other goods, is there no IOU implied. Money is something that is used for deferred barter. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 16:01
  • @JustinThyme Yes, we have a highly debt-centric economy. That's why I used it as an answer. Its proven that you can indeed think that way. However, many of our transactions are indeed treated as transactions, where goods, services, and currency are transferred "at the same time," or at least close enough to the same time that we can model it as such. – Cort Ammon Aug 18 at 16:07
  • And it is precisely that model, the model wherein money itself takes on wealth and value, that has got us to the very lop-sided society we have today, where status is determined by monetary wealth and monetary wealth alone. I applaud this OP for exploring an alternative to the system we have. It s just not working for the majority of the world population. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 16:31

Money is debt. A bill is essentially an impersonal IOU issued by the government. You can't really reverse that because it is already a negative. You are trying to turn it into a positive and as the other comments show, it is a negative exactly because that doesn't work.

But your core idea was that the place is "backwards". You want the "negative money" to show that things are done differently there.

I'd like to propose a different type of inversal: Instead of the government printing money that people use, everyone can issue currency, even without limit (as you seem to want to be able).

What changes is that when Bob sells a piano to Jill, he receives a token of debt against Jill. That might seem like a small change, but it inverses the entire economy. Previously, Jill would acquire currency first, then spend it. Prior to a big purchase, she would have to accumulate currency first.

Now, however, in the "inverse economy", Jill issues currency when she buys something. But there is now an IOU against her out in the world that she ideally wants to wipe out because if too many people hold too many IOUs against her and then come to redeem them, she is going to be in trouble. To wipe out the IOU, she will want to acquire similar IOUs from other people that she can use to counter, i.e. if Bob comes with his IOU later, the way neighbours come to each other saying "remember the time I helped you? Now I need your help..." and Jill doesn't want to part with whatever Bob is asking in exchange, she can instead give him the IOU from John that she holds. Bob now has an IOU against John and Jill's IOU is destroyed.

Compared to our system, in this system Jill can buy something first and then worry about getting the currency to cancel her debt. Unlike credits, there is no interest, and the system is decentralized.

It probably has its own set of problems, but unlike negative tokens, it just might work.

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    I think this is the best way to directly answer the question as asked. Very clever! – Bobson Aug 20 at 20:25
  • Didn't see this answer before writing mine, but obviously we agree! – wedstrom Aug 20 at 21:55
  • Excellent answer. The biggest problem is likely to be inflation - it also doesn't answer what happens when someone comes to "collect", what do you give them? Do you just write them another IOU? Do they get to take stuff from their house? What if you have no stuff? – Tim B Aug 30 at 13:41

Waste

Expanding on flox's idea of a post scarcity society...

Even if we have infinite (or enough) resources to breathe, eat, and live well, we still have the problem of waste. No matter how you twist and turn, in the end you will always have some kind of waste as a result of human activity. Sure, some of it can be recycled / reused, but not even if you ban the use of everything that is not quickly bio-degradable, you will still have some waste that cannot be easily dealt with, and that requires effort to be rid of.

Problematic waste that we are dealing with today:

So just by living you are racking up a waste debt. And today, most of that debt is entirely unregulated. We have no control over how much waste you and I cause by just living.

But suppose we did. Suppose we managed to catalogue every human activity in regards to waste. In a post scarcity society you do not need to buy things with money to have it. But you will become responsible for the waste that your consumerism has caused.

You want to have food? Sure, you can have food... and depending on how that food was produced, you will either have a small amount of waste tokens (vegetarian, locally produced, reasonable amounts)... or you will have a large amount of tokens (exclusive meat imported from halfway across the globe).

You want a personal transportation vehicle? Sure, but that is going to get you lots and lots of waste tokens that need to be dealt with. Are you sure you do not want to go for public transportation instead, where the monthly waste debt is but a fraction of you what get with a personal vehicle?

You want electricity for your living quarters? Sure... do you want Generation IV nuclear power, where you get some credit instead of tokens, for dealing with historical nuclear waste, but some tokens added for the construction of the Gen IV nuclear power plants and the new type nuclear waste? Or do you want solar power where you get no tokens for nuclear waste, but quite a hefty amount of tokens for the mineral tailings?

One interesting part about this is that there is no such thing as interest or inflation or other things that make money or debt change value over time, since the waste tokens are tied to something tangible and constant. So the "economics" of this would be very different, and — ostensibly — much simpler, since you cannot earn "money" by just owning it, as you can today.

  • So the tokens you get with something, are a permanent record of the waste that went into producing it? Once consumed, for instance, there is no record of the actual item. Interesting. The more money you have, therefore, the more waste you are responsible for. The idea is to have as little waste as possible. This would work, if everyone had a journal,, or 'book', that the tokens were entered in or attached to. Loosing the book or journal would come with a very heavy consequence, perhaps, and without the journal, you could not acquire anything, even food. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 3:10
  • You can only get rid of the tokens when you pass on the object, perhaps at a reduced value, or perhaps it was recycled. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 3:12
  • Suffers from a trivial problem: I'll just not give a damn and die with a mountain of waste tokens. – Tom Aug 21 at 4:59
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    Yes, it is fiction. But it should pass the giggle test. – Tom Aug 21 at 9:16
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    I see you are not familiar with the term. The "giggle test" refers to a part of a story or background being so ridiculous that it breaks the suspension of disbelief because it is just too unbelievable. It has nothing to do with personal or religious feelings or ruffling of feathers. – Tom Aug 21 at 9:26

Your currency is discarded tires. The cost is more than they're worth to recycle. And getting caught dumping them costs more than just recycling them. No body wants them, but they exist in vast numbers and will continue to do so for all reasonably foreseeable futures that we'd still be around to see.

If used tires were 'money', we would all be playing hot potato.

TL;DR: anything where it's non-biodegradable, has a reclamation cost more than its production cost, and most importantly: unable to be reproduced with current technology. Rubber manufacture is a mostly propitiatory process and is done by about five companies in the world at the necessary production levels.

Social status

In the real world, having a lot of money gives you a social status. This is the same, but the other way around. The lower your account is, the more generous you are percieved, which makes you more respectable. All it needs is a way to increase it so that you don't easily go to -infinity.

So the same as the real world, but reversed. Instead of based on greed, it's on compasion, which could also help with your "it's a very trusting world".

  • Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is sort-of an example of this. – fectin Aug 20 at 21:20

I can't see how this would work with physical money (coins or notes). If owning a coin was a liability, people would just start getting rid of them: "forgetting" to the coins with them when accepting a negative payment, throwing them on the street or in a river, etc.

Some industrious individuals would probably start shady businesses to release people from their coins, either out of altruism, or to receive a payment in some usable way.

You mention that people would be "required" to keep their coins with you at all times. While you could have a law that requires this, there'd be no way to enforce it. If a coin is found in the gutter, there's no way to know who's supposed to own it.

The only way it could work, would be either with centralized accounting keeping track of everyone's debt or by a system where it would be physically impossible to remove the antimoney from your person.

With centralized accounting, all transactions would need to take place in front of a city official, who would then record that by bying Bob's piano, Jill's debt is increased, and Bob's debt decreased. This would slow down trade, since you'd need to always find an official to record the transaction. The only way to trade something directly with your neighbour would be via barter, and avoiding that is pretty much the point of money.

Any technological means to force the citizens to keep their antimoney with them at all times would also be quickly circumvented by reverting back to barter.

Some sort of a magical curse enforcing that the antimoney could not be abandoned would be the only way I could see that to work. In that case, the antimoney would not need to be physical either: the curse could manifest as a physical or mental strain, and the only way to get rid of it would be for someone to voluntarily accept part of its weight. Though if someone were to get completely rid of their part of the curse, they couldn't "sell" anything anymore, as they'd have no "debt" to give back. Transactions with such lucky persons would also need to be purely by barter, at least until they picked up part of the curse again by buying something.

(I ignored the part about infinite food, since that's clearly impossible, and would probably change the economy significantly even in a community using normal money.)

  • It's not infinite food since the money limits the amount of sales – Redwolf Programs Aug 18 at 18:48

I really enjoyed reading Justin Thyme's and Willk's responses, and they reminded me of something that's very common among corporate organizations (regardless of being for-profit or not-for-profit): use it or lose is budgeting.

Under this system, if you don't spend all of your money one year:

  • you have no chance to increase your budget
  • you will receive less next year/cycle

On the surface, this answers OP's question "How could this work?" Fear of losing one's allotment would lead people to fulfill their allotment (spending). It's hard to provide a thorough perspective without knowing OP's overall intent, but we can infer several things from it.

  1. If you've seen the movie Brewster's Millions, the main character inherits a large sum with the promise to receive even more if he can spend all of the first award in a month. As a result, he learns to appreciate the simple things in life (rather than money).
  2. OP's society would reward wastefulness and probably lead to overpopulation & littering. As well, it would create very busy and highly contrasted environments where communities are well kept, but due to so much materialism, someone or something (automation) is constantly having to collect garbage and rotate storage.
  3. If there is no automation, this system would also incentivize manual labor, as it's the most wasteful thing you can do. If the society wasn't already described as "very trusting, kind," this model would reduce material greed.
  4. The classes would eventually balance out. The impossibly rich would tire of constant spending. The poor would receive the rich's excess spending until their own budget grows to a similarly "unsustainable" size.

Debt Vouchers

The currency is initially denominated with the person of origin. If I sell you a piano, I give you a certain amount of money, and you commit to giving me something tangible eventually, and my cash along with it. For example, since you have 15 debt vouchers with my name on them for the piano, you later give me a TV and a couch worth 10 and 5 vouchers, respectively.

Eventually, people start selling their debt to one another. You don't have anything that I want, but you have something that someone else wants. Instead of giving me the vouchers and some service, you give someone else my debt vouchers along with some other goods or services. Maybe you sell chickens, so you give my 15 debt vouchers to that person, along with 9 hens and a rooster or something like that. With enough of this passing around vouchers, eventually the originating names are removed from them, and we all are just in debt to the group for goods and services.

Poverty

The system can still work against people in a few ways. Perhaps Bob is known for not producing anything of value. Nobody will give Bob any goods/vouchers, because they know that the value will never make its way back to them. This can only work in a place where the culture is very unified around the idea that everyone must contribute to society. It means that there are no public welfare programs because everyone takes from one another on the honor system, and if someone doesn't work then nobody will feed him.

Tim, on the other hand, produces all the time, and gives out lots of vouchers, but he isn't able to find the materials that he needs to produce efficiently, and so he never gets those vouchers repaid to him. Over time, Tim's output is much less than his intake, and so he develops the same reputation as Bob. Eventually, he is rejected by society, and nobody will give him goods/vouchers.

The Government

The ILS (Internal Loss Service, analogous to IRS) occasionally audits individuals suspected of not contributing. If those people are found to have too many vouchers, then they are a burden on the state. They get in trouble. Accountability in this system can be kept by maintaining a pocket book, where you annotate all of the vouchers you received as you receive them. Maintenance of this pocket book is lawful, policed by individuals during transactions, and enforced by the ILS.

The Culture

On the surface, this starts to look similar to what we already have. In order for me to continue producing, I need to get goods and services from other people. Whenever they give me those goods, they also give me vouchers; whenever I sell my goods, I also give away vouchers. That means I have to maintain a certain quantity of vouchers in my possession all the time. The difference is that it is heavily dependent on a cultural bend toward productivity as a virtue, because a person can theoretically take as much as he needs to get his business going initially. It's only after the business has been running a while that people start to realize it wasn't worth it.

I hope this helps!

  • This seems like a more in-depth version of Tom's answer, but I like the ramifications you add. – Bobson Aug 20 at 20:29
  • @Bobson You're right! My mistake for copying the answer; should have just made an ETA on Tom's answer. Reader, defer to Tom. – boxcartenant Aug 20 at 20:41

The only way for this to work is that what you call "negative money" is actually a sort of "certificate of withdrawal of value".

In your example of Adam selling a piano to Bob, Adam would give Bob the piano and a certificate stating something along the line "the giver of this certificate subtracts from the account of the receiver the sum of X credits".

But still the credits have to be positive. Not even the most hard core theoretical physicist, among anti-neutrinos, anti-protons and anti-anything, has ever dared creating the anti-money. (Do not confuse it with antimony)

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    Isn't this just a debt? Except that the debtor keeps the recipe (which is problematic because he could just destroy it) – Leander Moesinger Aug 19 at 18:24
  • People in a modern economy deal with anti-money every day. For example, many corporate acquisitions involve payment for the corporation mostly in anti-money (i.e. assumption of the corporation's debts). – ohwilleke Aug 20 at 17:04

The way I see this working is if the currency is something that is naturally undesirable to own, something that is a responsibility. This could be a radioactive stone that the society has no other way to deal with than to carry it around, and having a lot of stones could cause health problems or difficulty moving around. It could also be a small animal that needs to be cared for, otherwise the animal becomes dangerous.

  • I.e. a waste product as currency. I imagined human metabolism as the only disposal method, but that causes cumulative health problems. – Spencer Joplin Aug 21 at 16:28

Seeing a lot of these answers saying its impossible.. Well impossible is no fun now is it. So here is my thought on the matter. My best bet to you would be to change the idea on negative money, and more or less call this a debt.

Your world would have to a bit messed up, say by overpopulation maybe? So overpopulated in fact that everyone in the world is now in debt just by being alive. And now they have to work off that debt to be free. Anything you buy or use goes to it, just living in general adds a daily increase.

The more people born, the higher the interest rates and daily increase goes, you can have some decades with worse cases and others with hardly any issues.

If you gain to much debt, say idk, one hundred times the amount of your original debt your given when born. Then you get killed,,, or something??? Up to you.

So life is about getting paid to get this debt tooken away and go into the green. and the government then owes you a debt.

If you want to get really mean and cruel about it, make it only reach zero, so you can never have a profit or gain and have to work forever, or maybe just keep that option for dictatorships and other places like the usa you would have the government or banks or whatever owing you and that would be your profit.

In edition, you may want this to all be like swiping your license to add the debt, that way you cant just throw away your debt. If you want to make people be able to steal or get rid of it you may have to get a bit more creative then on how it is added and removed.

In this society, money limits production and trade to sustainable levels:

  • For every object you produce or acquire and you then intend to sell and for every service you render, you need to pay the purchaser a certain amount, proportional to the value of the item or service.

  • Most human activities are considered services to others and you must pay for rendering them:

    • You visit a shop? The shop gets exposure by promoting their wares to you and by showing other people that they sell something valuable enough to attract potential clients. Hence, you're doing them a service and you must pay them for it.

    • You're a citizen of your country? Great, you pay for taking part in the administrative process by analysing government policy proposals and voting for or against them!

    • You go to work for a company? You've got to pay!

    • You help someone? You pay!

    • You go to a show, leave a review, comment on improving something? Someone benefits, so pay up!

  • For you to do all that paying around, you need to somehow acquire currency. Here's how:

    • You obtain currency whenever you purchase goods or services, also proportional to the value of the items. You got helped, so you need to get paid!

    • The state helps you by offering its administrative framework to every citizen and by rendering a number of services. For this, come tax time, you get paid!

    • Someone helps you out? They also need to pay you!

  • Because people have inherent needs but also practically every move they make is considered a service to others, everyone is interested in accumulating both items and currency, in a certain ratio that allows them to sustain this cycle. You're not interested in discarding your currency; you never know when you might help someone by mistake and you'll have to pay them!

The way you need to operate is to make sure you're constantly both helping others and getting helped, so that you never lack either money or goods.

Let's see an example:

  • You want a bread from the shop: you get the bread and 5 currency units.

  • In the process, you've helped the shop: get rid of part of their stock; get a better understanding of which type of bread sells best; show other potential clients that their merchandise is good enough for people to want it. You've rendered all these services and you need to pay the shop 7 currency units. You need to already have at least 2 extra currency units to be able to cover this.

  • You exit the shop and you take a cab. The ride is valued at 22 currency units and the number of small services you've rendered to the cab company, to the driver and to the city amounts to 20 currency units. You're left with 2 more currency units at the end of your ride.

  • You clock in at work and start helping the company. The bill you'll need to pay at the end of the day is 237 currency units, after deductions for all the ways in which the company helped you back.

  • You'll now have to go shopping, eat at a fancy restaurant, then see a movie, so you could get some extra cash for the next day.

Like any market economy, this system eventually reaches a dynamic equilibrium where people learn to balance how much help they need with how much they need to help others.

Your Economy is not really an Economy, it is a Post Scarcity Civilisation

What you are describing, in which anyone can have 'an infinite amount of food' and no 'limitation on kindness' is describing a Post Scarcity civilisation. The 'negative money' that you are accompanying your goods are really just the goods itself and has little meaning beyond a signifier of who it came from, and perhaps how much you think it is worth (although in this context, 'worth' is actually zero).

I would recommend looking up Isaac Arthur or reading Steven Kotler or researching Post-Capitalism.

If money needs to be 'carried' (presumably because it is heavy) such that it is an encumbrance then people won't carry any, in particular if goods and services are free. Money is in fact now superfluous, and only serves as a record of who-gave-what-to-whom.

Many are arguing we are already on the cusp of 'Post Scarcity'. If we have printers that could print any good, robots that could deliver any service, then we do not have an economy, but instead a social system of interaction of which goods are a just a part.

  • On the contrary, 'money' would represent how much you had consumed. Those who consume more, have more money. Thus, 'consumption' becomes the status symbol. How else would you determine or measure status in a post-scarcity society? If there is an abundance of everything, then what would be the purpose of money? Once you consume something, it is gone. The money would be a token of that consumption. The person who consumes the most, wins. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 17:42
  • @JustinThyme Post-Scarcity means resources are plentiful, and consumption of them is not significant. Money would not serve any purpose here, even as a signifier of consumption. The key word 'infinite' in the Question is the important one here. There may still be ideas/places/rarity in some small regard, but not in any essential sense, but the obtaining of these would likely be through social interactive means (nepotism, hereditarily, for instance) not economic means as a result. – flox Aug 18 at 17:50
  • So what would you propose as the 'status' indicator in such a society? – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 17:56
  • There are plenty of 'status' indicators that are not wealth-based that are already in use in all societies. Age, lineage, educational, political, social or religious hierarchy, even simply proximity. These are not reliant on economical systems, but often are independent and can influence someone's standing more than their wealth. – flox Aug 18 at 17:59
  • not all societies, only those societies that have NOT made 'money' the prime measure of status. In our society, every measure you mentioned is dependent on money, or has money as an indicator. – Justin Thyme Aug 18 at 18:27

Yes this could totally work. But money in that society would be much more like debt in our society. Kindness would be helping someone to remove their debt. Add some religion preaching kindness of removing others debt and the sins of amassing too much debt and you are already halfway there.

I'm adding a second answer because it is thinking in an entirely different direction.

Again, negative currency doesn't work for the reasons other answers have given already.

However, you can have a negative incentive to hoarding. This has been tried in the real world on multiple occasions and seems to actually work.

If there is a cost associated with having money, then everyone would be interested in having as little as possible. Imagine that you paid a 1% tax every month on the money you possess. This requires a centralized banking system, but we are already close to that. So if you own 1000 at the end of the month, 10 are taken as tax. This can apply to only cash holdings (which would dramatically accelerate consumption) or to all possessions (which has never been tried but would have interesting consequences).

This way you don't inverse the way money is handled, but the way it is viewed. People want to not have money in this scenario, because spending is better than hoarding.

Your society is one where people exchange social capital. For us, money is a unit of exchange with an inherent value of its own, but for your society it's a certification of value based on the seller's reputation.

If you "buy" a piano, you are given a certification of quality and the seller stakes their reputation on each piano sold. If a factory worker hands over his wages at the end of each day, he is assuring the factory owner that everything he has done that day is satisfactory. If a thief breaks into your house, he's going to dump a bag full of "money" somewhere, which in effect destroys your reputation and thus your ability to get on in life - which brings up the real caveat, as there also has to be some way for people to know how much you've got for this system to work.

Of course, as others have already said, it's not really money in the proper sense, and the valuable unit of exchange has been abstracted to social consequences. However, to an outsider's glance it would seem as though people are paying each other to take their goods.

Negative money is debt.

When someone gives you a loaf of bread, they give you some coins that represent that debt. In order to "pay off" that debt you need to give something of value to someone else in order to be allowed to give them some coins (pay off your debt).

Interestingly, wealth in this society would be based to some extent on physical strength. The more coins you can carry the more debt you can bear. You must ensure that coins are carefully manufactured so that 100 pennies is the same size and weight as one pound. And make sure no-one invents the banknote!

The system would work absolutely fine if all transactions were also computerised (or otherwise tracked) but if money is purely physical then the first person to think of throwing their "money" down a hole can "spend" at a rate only limited by how much they can carry and how far it is to the hole.

The main differences between your system and ours is that our access to debt (or credit) is (usually, hopefully) based on a proven record of our ability to manage it - and our system allows us to have "negative debt". ie: savings.

In your system no-one can save money (using our definition of money) - everyone has zero money or less. And your access to credit is based on the size of your muscles.

And weirdly, the size of your muscles is based on your tendency to spend!

Below zero

The world you are desrcibing will have a 'richness limit': Since everybody needs to physically carry his coins, one cannot get richer than zero.

If for example one works hard manufacturing pianos and selling them for a high price, he will eventually reach the point where he got rid of all his coins. What now? How can he sell the next piano?

Ok, he could buy luxury goods, which are really expensive, and get back some coins, but you get the point: There is a limit on 'richness'. If one reaches the maximum point, he is forced to buy something in order to stay moveable in the system.

There is no 'poverty limit' though...

Negative money is just another word for debt.

Assuming someone else's debt is equivalent to paying them money.

If almost everyone is in net debt when they start working (e.g. they have to incur student loans not just for college, but also for pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, their share of rent and food costs until they get a job, etc.), then assuming debt in lieu of paying money makes sense.

It would be a sort of ultra-libertarian world where everyone is expected ultimately to pay their own expenses . . . maybe they would pass to one's children at death instead of leaving creditors screwed as well.

In that situation, each person might have personalized coins that they would attempt to get others to assume, or maybe their would only be one uber-creditor, such as the government, to whom all debts were payable so that you could have one kind of coin.

All that would change is the direction in which the debt assumption coins flowed.

This still has problems, because how would you prevent someone from "accidentally" losing their negative money coins. It would probably make sense, instead, for negative money transactions to take place at a branch of a central bank or a post office (which has done payment system class banking since the 18th century or so in many countries), in which the buyer signs a document accepting debt from the seller, rather than using a coin based system. (This would also make income taxation easier to implement.)

Ironically, this system would making "dying broke" a gift to one's children rather than a denial of something that they might expect as a legacy upon death.

In real world, people can't assume debts of another without the creditor's consent. But, if there was one uber-creditor like the government, this could be resolved simply by setting a credit limit for each person just like a credit card company does, although again, this would mean that debt assumptions would have to take place at a branch of a central bank or post office or similar institution, so that the uber-creditor assured that no one's credit limit was exceeded.

This could work if you treat the society's economy like an even worse version of a Company Town, specifically a situation where employees get more and more in debt owing money to the "company store" (as sung in the song "Sixteen Tons" -- "You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt", "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.").

Every year during tax season, the government issues out huge amounts of debt to each citizen. The people are supposed to work off their debt throughout the year, but in practice, they only accumulate more and more debt over time. The government doesn't like the word "debt" though, so they long ago decided to call it just "money" instead, and over time the name has stuck, and everyone just associates cash with chunks of debt that are traded around.

The foolish folks just collect more and more money and don't think about their future, but most people agree that you should get rid of some amount of your paycheck to slowly build down your retirement fund. Some folks who are well off can actually get rid of most of their "money", but only the richest 1% ever manage to get it $0 and declare "bankruptcy", something unfathomable to the average person but a status symbol of the most wealthy.

This "Money" would have to be meticulously tracked and associated with particular people, so there might not be an equivalent of paper currency. There are those folks who try to skip out, but they're erased from society. Without their identity (which is directly related to their debt), they can't purchase anything.

This would work, though as has been noted your assumptions about the effects are a bit off.

The government treasury must operate a ledger. This ledger tracks all of your money, and you must run all transactions through a recognized branch of the treasury, just like a bank*. Rather than the seller giving a note with a value of negative money, the purchaser would sign a certificate** entitling the seller to transfer negative money to his account. The seller would then redeem this at a treasury branch.

Rather than accepting negative money forever, there would be account limits and/or interest charges. If you needed to accept more negative money, you might offer collateral to a private institution which could hold your debt.

In the other direction, you aught to be able to have a positive balance. If this isn't officially allowed, people will need to hold onto debt certificates to have a positive balance. Banks might offer negative-backed notes to make this easier. A privately created, publicly traded certificate from the Bank of unAmerica would be redeemable for the bank taking on X amount of negative dollars from your account. But reall,y that is just so much more convenient, you might not bother with the offical currency directly!

If you haven't caught on already, this is identical to the system we have now. Money only seems like positive money because most major currencies are fiat currencies. If you go back in time, you will see when banks would issue private notes. These were literally IOUs that could be redeemed for silver or gold. It was negative money to the bank, a debt that they owed. National currencies used to be a debt owed by the state (the country issuing the currency), also redeemable for gold or silver. People can use IOUs as currency to, as long as people trust you. You might owe a debt to your neighbor for three pigs. If your
pigs did poorly that year, you might trade five sheep to your neighbor on the promise that they would honor your debt. We still trade debt, in bonds, mortgage backed securities, and from a certain point of view, stocks.

Not only could this work, it already does. Every piece of debt is a negative and a positive at the same time, depending on whether you are the creditor or debtor. Both can be traded, though debt consolidation and other services aren't usually framed that way. The only thing you've done, is that making the currency itself a debt, you've moved the burden of proof from the individuals to the treasury. Just like a traveler running up a big debt under a false name and skipping down to abandon the debt, people can try to cheat the system. And just like modern debt, the treasury must keep track of everyone's balance and make sure transactions follow through without bouncing***.

*In fact, it is far more likely that private banks would absorb this function, and the official treasury would only act as a clearing house.

** They might be called... Checks

*** Watch Catch me if you can. It's an example of how much work a society built around debt would have to do to avoid getting ripped of by people abandoning debt certificates... wait that's a real movie about our own society...

  • You are thinking of money and wealth as a reward. Think of it as an obligation, as in you are obligated to share what you have. Not 'The one who dies with the most toys wins' but 'the one who dies with the fewest toys wins'. But I realize how hard it is for someone raised in the West to even consider this. Everything in this society is reversed. Giving truly is better than receiving. To get something in return for giving would be unheard of - unethical and immoral. So when you receive something, it comes with an obligation, not a benefit. You are obligated to give that money to someone else. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 2:34
  • @JustinThyme I don't think the practical aspects of negative money are as different as the OP thinks and I certainly don't think it is better suited to a more philanthropic society. I think making the financial instruments I describe illegal might make extreme wealth so onerous that you could effectively eliminate it, but I don't think that would change people. If you achieve the kind of sharing culture you hope the particulars of the financial system would only matter to the point that they are effective. – wedstrom Aug 21 at 23:38

A cultural misunderstanding

Your society

Your country has reached a post-scarcity level. So everyone can live happily without ever needing money. Without the stress and strain that normally come from constant worry about ones own survival, all people are selflessly kind to each other. So kind in fact, that they take every opportunity they get to even further improve each others lifes by giving them presents.

In society your reputation depends on how much value you can give to others life and you won't have a high standing if all you do is take presents and accumulate "things" you don't even need. But since there is no scarcity and everyone already has their basic needs fulfilled, you can not just go to your neighbour and litter his house with stuff. It has to be the right amount of value for the right occasion. A gift for a wedding has be more valuable than a gift for your birthday for example. And of course just giving away anything without thought just shows how much more you are concerned about your own standning than about improving someone elses life. If Bob knows that Jill likes to play the piano but currently doesn't have one, he can give it to her at a good occasion, but not "Just because", as this would imply that he only does this for his own good.

How does your society distribute all its wealth though? On demand of course.

People still need food and want to live a comfortable life. That's the point of having all that stuff after all. So they still go to the bakery to get their bread. The baker will be happy to give it to them and even try to make them take a little bit more or a higher quality than what they came for. This way you still have some kind of economic systems (goods need to be produced and distributed). So when Jill wants to play the piano she, knwoing that Bob has a piano he offers to give away, could just go to him and ask him for it, making him happy for the opportunity.

Now adding money

At some point (rather recently) someone finds old records of people using money to trade value, coming from a time before post-scarcity was reached. Amazed about the inventiveness of their ancestors at giving worth to others, they jump right onto the idea of having a currency that carries a certain amount of value that they can use to be even more generous. Kind of as a "token of appreciation" they feel for the other person. So the amount can differ from person to person. But the same way that having more "things" makes you look bad in society, having lots of money of course means you were not as generous as you could have been. So people get a high incentive to give away some money along with their goods. But here too, you need to give an amount that fits the opportunity and the value of the goods you give. Salaries show a companys appreciation for their workers and Taxes are a way of the government to appreciate its citizens.

The central bank manages debt

In short, the central bank is the sole creditor, and the sign on money is flipped. The government constantly monitors peoples balance, which is doable if everything's electronic; you can't just throw away money! If someones creditworthiness (a function of positive money) gets too low the central bank starts blocking transactions.

The answers by Tom and wedstrom discuss this in more detail.

I would contend that this economy is neither "backwards" nor kind at all. You simply have an economy with a virtual universal medium of exchange (a virtual money), where everyone is in debt (presumably to the government) while the government requires people to carry around weights proportional to their debt.

Perception of money

Money as a medium of exchange that takes its value from a universal belief in its ability to retain this value (i.e. in the stability of that belief). If the belief collapses, so does the currency - we call that inflation, hyperinflation etc. Currencies are normally guaranteed by a state, a government, or some kind of institution. (The two exceptions to this that I can think of are modern crypto-currencies and ad-hoc cigarette currencies used in times of economic or political turmoil.)

People are not normally aware of this nature of money, instead they with normally think of money as something with a stable value. Scholars have called this the "fetish character of money" (Marx) and "modern legends" (Harari) and similar.

There are no limits to what people might see as money. So in your system, they might mistakenly identify the weight they are required to carry with (negative) money.

Practical issues

You would have to ensure that people do not just discard the weights they have to carry around. If there is a separate record of what debt people have and a police force to control this, it could plausibly work. Note that governments were able to force people to carry around passports in most countries at some point during the last century or so.

You would have to make sure that people would not be required to carry around negative weights, i.e. the amount of negative "money" they have should not be negative. The most straight forward way for this would be to set 0 as a lower boundary of any one's debt, i.e. once they have no debt left they are not able to collect payment for whatever they sell. In effect that would be an extreme form of a property tax.

You would also have to make sure that people's debt remains positive and that they do not just end up with everyone at debt 0 with 0 weights to carry around. You could do that with a per capita tax that is raised periodically, i.e. every month every ones debt to the government is increased by 100 dollars.

I do not think that in an early industrial society (as you say; i.e. ca. 1700s Europe) the government would have enough social control over its citizens to implement such a system. Slightly later - late 1800s, early 20th century, this is absolutely feasible. Compared to what did actually happen in various 20th century dictatorships, this would not even appear particularly weird.

This is closer to real historical monetary systems than you may think

If you look into how money emerged, it was, contrary to popular belief, most likely not as a universal medium of exchange, but rather as a medium to pay taxes. The government will require every family to pay 10 silver tokens with the governor's face each year. You receive one token for a week of labor on extending the road network (or something). Alternatively you could buy tokens from someone who works on this all year instead of just 10 weeks. Call these tokens denarii and you have more or less the way the Roman empire used to run its provinces.

A different example: When Columbus (yes, that guy we continue to celebrate) arrived in the Americas, he required the natives to wear clay tokens around their necks. They would receive clay tokens for a certain amount of gold they delivered to his officials. If someone was found without clay token, they would chop of his or her hand and have him/her wear that around their neck instead.

Kindness

As other answers have pointed out, this system would be quite fascistoid. If you want kindness, you may (again, as other answers suggested) instead want to look into social attitudes. Many philosophies as well as religions make a major point of requiring people to donate to charity, to the poor, to hospitals, to science etc etc.


Edit to include some references on Columbus. This is a side aspect here but since it was challenged in the comments I feel compelled to defend it.

Some more sources. Here is Columbuses son, Fernando Colón's, biography of Columbus (p.273/4):

Que todos los indios (...) pagase cada uno, que tuviese catorce años, un cascabel lleno de oro, (...) y para saber los que debían pagar este tributo, se ordenó que se hiciese cierta medalla de cobre ó latón, la cual se diese por recibo, á cada uno que pagase el tributo, y este la trajese al cuello para que cualquiera que fuese hallado sin ella, se supiera que no había pagado, y que se le sacase alguna pena;

There is apparently an English translation by by Benjamin Keen, Greenwood Press (1978), but I could not find the full text of it online.

Fernando Colón does not elaborate on the referred punishment but if you read Bartolomé de las Casas' "Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies" you will get a pretty good idea: (amongst other atrocities)

But those they intended to preserve alive, they dismiss'd, their Hands half cut, and still hanging by the Skin (...)

Please note that both Fernando Colón and Bartolomé de las Casas are contemporary accounts and as such are more trustworthy than whatever cheerful semi-fictional accounts have been written about Columbus' heroic exploits in the 19th century or so.

  • I challenge the factual accuracy of your reference to Columbus. The entire account sounds more 'conspiracy theorist' than reality. But aside from that hyperbole interlude, your description of money is limited and leaves a lot to be desired. Originally, the value of money was in its commodity value. The quantity of gold or silver that it was made from. It was not guaranteed by the state, it was guaranteed by the value of the commodity. Good money was a coin whose commodity value equaled its circulation value. Bad money was money whose circulation value was more than its commodity value. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 3:40
  • That is, a 'good money' coin was for example one ounce of gold, and the circulation value or face value of that coin was equal to the commodity value of one ounce of gold. Bad money was money in which the face value or circulation value was one ounce of gold, but the coin itself only contained 0.9 ounce of gold. 'Currency' was 'minted' only so that one did not have to carry scales around all the time, or one did not have to trust skewed balance scales. A coin with a face value of one ounce of gold was minted to be one ounce of gold. One therefore had only to count coins, not weigh them. – Justin Thyme Aug 21 at 3:47
  • @Justin Thyme Do you have evidence to back up what you say? You seem to believe in the barter theory of the emergence of money, which is based on Aristotle and was reproduced time and time again by modern writers, but does not fit the facts. Until the early modern age there were no standardized weights. It would have been impossible to even agree on what an ounce is. Governments made ample use of this by debasing their currencies whenever they were financially strapped. See e.g. here. – Solar Bear Aug 21 at 16:30
  • @Justin Thyme As for your comment on the reference to Columbus: With all due respect, before you "challenge the accuracy of references" that actually cite original sources, you will have to make an effort to follow those sources to the very end. I edited the answer to include the original sources. – Solar Bear Aug 21 at 16:31

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