Why We Pay Our Bills?

On money, debt, violence, and trust

Wei Xiang

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Photo by Van Tay Media on Unsplash

One of the things that always boggles me is why we follow certain laws and norms of society. For instance, when we dine out, we could always walk straight out of the restaurant, hoping none of the staff notices that we haven’t paid our bills. If by the slim chance they did notice, we could just play dumb, excusing ourselves for forgetting to pay and then paying. No one in their right minds dares do this. But there’s a big chance you’ll be able to walk away with a free meal. Chances are, you won’t even be prosecuted since your patronage wouldn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. All you have to do is to carry a guilty conscience with you.

And that’s the interesting phenomenon when it comes to paying our bills: if you don’t, you feel guilty. But what are should we be guilty of? This is a very important question that glues societies together. The answer, though obvious, is often considered taboo in contemporary society. It’s debt.

Everyday transactions and social negotiations are a complex web of promises and debts. Let’s consider the simplest example: buying. When I “buy” something from someone, I am actually in debt to them. That’s because someone is literary giving me something of their possession. Of course, we normally write off that debt with a piece of paper we call money. Nowadays, we even dispense with the paper. What’s interesting here is that notice that in no way would this be a fair exchange. I’m exchanging something for a piece of paper.

Of course, we all know that that piece of paper does contain some value. It’s money, after all. The interesting and important question is how something lacking intrinsic value can have so much authority over everyday transactions. To put it crudely, why does a $5 bill worth infinitely more than a page of my philosophy notebook?

Anthropologist David Graeber in his book Debt, suggests that the $5 bill has so much authority over our transactions (and behaviour in general) because it is essentially an IOU (“I owe you”). Graeber observes that before the invention of paper money, societies used relatively advanced debt-accounting systems to keep track of transactions. That means if I wanted something from you, I’d ask politely. You’d kindly give it to me without asking anything in…

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Wei Xiang

I was once asked about the origins of the universe. So, here I am doing philosophy. Ethics | Intellectual History | Chinese Comparative Philosophy