Don’t Follow the Money, Unless You Follow It All the Way

“Never get out of the boat…unless you are going all the way.”
–Capt. Willard from Apocalypse Now

Some people say that if you want to know the truth about something, follow the money. That is actually not bad advice, if followed to its logical conclusion. The problem is that most people stop at the first interesting distraction on the trail. To wit:

  • Don’t take medicine; pharmaceutical companies just want to make more money off things you don’t need.
  • Monsanto makes a lot of money off GMOs, so it must be paying off researchers who say they are safe.
  • Cars would be completely safe if auto manufacturers didn’t put profit ahead of safety.

It is a strain to call these arguments, yet they are passed off uncritically in common discourse as arguments against profit-making. Money = nefarious intent, or something like it.

Let’s break this issue down. First, money is morally neutral. In whatever form it takes, rocks, tree, furs, or that green stuff we carry around, money is simply a store of value. We use it because of an economic problem called “the coincidence of wants.” Bartering, trading one usable thing for another, works well–to a point. The problem is that if I have a blanket and I need a knife, I must find someone who needs a blanket and has a knife and wants to trade at the same time I want to trade.

Money solves this problem by giving traders a way to exchange value for value in a standard denomination that can be held back for future use. Money of this form accumulates in perfectly free economies to the persons who provide the most economic value to others. One who invents, produces, and offers for sale things that benefit others will naturally acquire more money.

Never get off the boat

The values that drive a person to accumulate money are not universally, or even mostly, those that lead to unethical behavior. The pursuit of profit in the above sense is noble, though one might not conclude that from our common discourse. Popular advertising is dominated by themes of conspicuous consumption and is thin on positive portrayals of the industrialists who actually make these consumables possible. Similarly, popular culture reflects a convoluted attitude toward wealth. It is OK to be rich and show it off in myriad shallow ways, but tasteless and base to openly want to become rich, especially through business.*

This near-universal disdain for and misunderstanding of the accumulation of wealth leads us to some strange social and political habits. We assume that if someone made a fortune, it must have been at the expense of someone somewhere who now has less. Wealth allocation through politics is the result, where politicians can appeal to the “no fairsies” element of voters’ psyches in order to take from the productive and give to the unproductive. No harm is done, so the reasoning goes, if one can be convinced that the wealthy somehow took it from the poor. No proof is needed, either, just a tear-inspiring story of someone having a hard time of it.

Our failure to recognize that political pull rather than virtuous production largely determines how wealth is distributed in this country leaves us with bad solutions to big problems. “Too big to fail” really means “politicians depend on us for re-election.” “Leveling the playing field” really means “punish the successful.” And this, my friends, is why we have to go all the way once we get off the boat.

On a tilted poker table, eventually all the money in play slides into the laps of the people on the low side. So, if you want to follow the money, figure out how the table gets tilted. It’s not hard. Businesses alone can’t do it. In a free market, they can only acquire what other people willingly pay them for goods and services. Politicians alone can’t do it. They are powerless without the money businesses make. It is the collusion between these two groups that threatens our very existence as a nation.

Once the problem is clearly seen, the solution suggests itself. Remove the mechanisms by which businesses can collude with government to gain illegitimate wealth. Remove legislators’ ability to game the tax system. Force them to stop delegating regulatory authority to unaccountable bureaucrats. Make them apply the laws they pass to themselves. In short, return government to its rightful limited role in the affairs of its citizens. Then, we will be able to follow the money to the best and brightest among us, not the sleaziest.


*For reasons I cannot fathom, Hollywood celebrities get a pass on this. Apparently it is fine to get rich through acting, but not through making things.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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2 Responses to Don’t Follow the Money, Unless You Follow It All the Way

  1. Great column, Professor!


  2. Diane says:

    Collusion? Seriously?

    A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.


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