Sacred Money

In many important areas of life like medicine, law, counseling, education, journalism, charity, governance, etc. we rely on giving great discretion to prestigious professionals, who tell us we can trust them due their professional ethics, internal professional review, and deep devotion to these sacred causes. No need for incentives, transparency, outcome tracking, or legal liability, really; you can just trust them. We usually pay extra for this prestige, validated by prestigious schools.

Some of us suspect we might do better in such areas to instead give strong results-based financial incentives to for-profit organizations. But alas many see this as sacrilegious. Such sacred ends are instead to be pursued “for themselves”, not selfishly. Using money is seen as encouraging selfishness. In addition, money uses numbers when sacred things aren’t supposed to be measurable, and money highlights tradeoffs, when sacred things are said to not conflict; we can have them all.

Now many of these rules of the sacred are rules of delusion; while our priests in each area are well aware that tradeoffs exist, numbers are relevant, selfishness is rampant, and money deeply involved, the veneer of priestly devotion can hide all this from those who don’t want to see.

To try to break through this wall of denial, or at least to reveal its contours, I suggest a provocation: sacred money. Create a kind of money that can only be spent on sacred things. People and orgs could convert ordinary money into sacred money, but not vice versa, and then spend sacred money on sacred activities and outcomes. With sacred money, people and orgs could create sacred property, sacred debt, and sell shares in sacred ventures.

Importantly, if someone offered sacred money as an incentive to others to produce measurable sacred outcomes (as with social impact bonds), it would become harder to object that doing so was profane. After all, it would be harder to complain that people seeking to win sacred money were doing so for selfish reasons, as such money could only be spent on more sacred things.

There are many details to work out here, and I expect efforts here to expose many delusions and disagreements on what should count as how sacred. For example, a famous “Taboo Tradeoffs” study found that many are irate to hear of a hospital administrator who spent money on hospital maintenance and salaries instead of saving the life of a particular patient. And they were almost as irate if that administrator thought a lot about the decision before choosing instead to save the life. Is hospital maintenance and salary spending really profane? Are efforts spent on deciding what to do profane? And is money spent on salaries to produce sacred outcomes still sacred if recipients spend some of those salaries on luxuries rather than necessities?

I don’t have answers to offer here. The point of this exercise would be to force people to make such choices, so as to come up with a more coherent and less delusional way to manage the sacred. One that might allow for more sensible mechanisms and institutions. Such as paying for results.

Added: A relevant SMBC comic.

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