The Source of Wealth

Alfred Korzybski

Primitive man used natural laws without knowing them or understanding them, but he was able to cause nature to express itself, by finding a way to release nature’s stored up energy. Through the work of his brain and its direction in the use of his muscles, he found that some of his appliances were not good; he made better ones, and thus slowly at first, the progress of humanity went on. I will not enlarge upon the history of the evolution of civilization because it is told in many books.

In the earliest times the religious, philosophical, legal and ethical systems had not been invented. The morale at that time was a natural morale. Humans knew that they did not create nature. They did not feel it “proper” to “expropriate the creator” and legalistically appropriate the earth and its treasure for themselves. They felt, in their unsophisticated morale, that being called into existence they had a natural right to exist and to use freely the gifts of nature in the preservation of their life; and that is what they did.

After the death of a man, some of the objects produced by him still survived, such as weapons, fishing or hunting instruments, or the caves adapted for living; a baby had to be nourished for some years by its parents or it would have died. Those facts had important consequences; objects made by someone for some particular use could be used by someone else, even after the death of one or more successive users; again the experiences acquired by one member of a family or a group of people were taught by example or precept to others of the same generation and to the next generation. Such simple facts are the corner stones of our whole civilization and they are the direct result of the HUMAN CAPACITY OF TIME-BINDING.

The world to-day is full of controversy about wealth, capital, and money, and because humanity, through its peculiar time-binding power, binds this element “time” in an ever larger and larger degree, the controversy becomes more and more acute. Civilization as a process is the process of binding time; progress is made by the fact that each generation adds to the material and spiritual wealth which it inherits. Past achievements-the fruit of bygone time-thus live in the present, are augmented in the present, and transmitted to the future; the process goes on; time, the essential element, is so involved that, though it increases arithmetically, its fruit, civilization, advances geometrically.

But there is another peculiarity in wealth and money: If a wooden or iron “inch” be allowed to rot or rust quietly on some shelf, this “inch” does not represent anything besides this piece of wood or iron. But if we take the MENTAL value of an inch, this unit of one of the measures of space, and use it, with other quantities, in the contemplation of the skies for the solving of an astronomical problem, it gives a prophetic answer that, in a certain place there is a star, this star may be for years looked for in vain. Was it that the calculation was wrong ? No, for after further search with telescopes of greater power, the star is found and the calculation thus verified.

It is obvious that the “unit”-inch-has no value by itself, but is very precious as a unit for measuring the phenomenon of length, which it perfectly represents, and that is why it was introduced.

It is exactly the same with money if the term be rightly understood. Understood aright, money, being the measure and representative of wealth, is in the main, the measure and the representative of dead men’s toil; for, rightly understood, wealth is almost entirely the product of the labor of by-gone generations. This product, we have seen, involves the element of time as the chief factor. And so we discover how money, properly understood, is connected with time-the main function of money is to measure and represent the accumulated products of the labor of past generations. Hoarded money is like an iron “inch” upon a shelf-a useless lump; but when used as a measure and representative of wealth rightly understood, money renders invaluable service, for it then serves to measure and represent the living fruit of dead men’s toil.

For this reason, it is useless to argue who is the more important, the capitalist who has legal possession of most of the material fruit of dead men’s toil, or the laborer who has legal possession of but little of it. In the laborer, we do not now really look for his physical muscular labor ALONE; for this is replaced by mechanical or animal power as soon as it can be. What we do need from labor, and what we will always need, is his BRAIN-HIS TIME-BINDING POWER.

The population of the world may be divided into different classes; if the classes are not here enumerated in the customary way, it is because it is necessary to classify human beings, as nearly as possible, according to their “power-value.” There is no assertion that this is an ideal classification, but if someone is moved to exclaim-“what a foolish, unscientific division!”-I will answer by saying: “I grant that the division is foolish and unscientific; but IT IS THE ONLY DIVISION WHICH CORRESPONDS TO FACTS IN LIFE, and it is not the writer’s fault. By this ‘foolishness’ some good may be accomplished.”

From an engineer’s point of view humanity is apparently to be divided into three classes; (1) the intellectuals; (2) the rich; and (3) the poor. This division would seem to be contrary to all the rules of logic, but it corresponds to facts. Of course some individuals belong to two of the classes or even to all three of them, an after-war product, but essentially, they belong to the one class IN PROPORTION to the characteristic which is the most marked in their life; that is, in the sense of social classes- BASED ON MAGNITUDE OF VALUES.

(1) The intellectuals are the men and women who possess the knowledge produced by the labor of by-gone generations but do not possess the material wealth thus produced. In mastering and using this inheritance of knowledge, they are exercising their time-binding energies and making the labor of the dead live in the present and for the future.

(2) The rich are those who have possession and control of most of the material wealth produced by the toil of bygone generations-wealth that is dead unless animated and transformed by the time-binding labor of the living.

(3) The poor are those who have neither the knowledge possessed by the intellectuals nor the material wealth possessed by the rich and who, moreover, because nearly all their efforts, under present conditions, are limited to the struggle for mere existence, have little or no opportunity to exercise their time-binding capacity.

Let us now try to ascertain the role of the time-binding class of life as a whole. We have by necessity, to go back to the beginning-back to the savage. We have seen what were the conditions of his work and progress; we saw that for each successful achievement he often had to wrestle with a very large number of unsuccessful achievements, and his lifetime being so limited, the total of his successful achievements was very limited, so that he was able to give to his child only a few useful objects and the sum of his experience. Generally speaking, each successor did not start his life at the point where his father started; he started somewhere near where his father left off. His father gave, say, fifty years to discover two truths in nature and succeeded in making two or three simple objects; but the son does not need to give fifty years to discover and create the same achievements, and so he has time to achieve something new. He thus adds his own achievements to those of his father in tools and experience; this is the mathematical equivalent of adding his parent’s years of life to his own. His mother’s work and experience are of course included-the name father and son being only used representatively.

This stupendous fact is the definitive mark of humanity-the power to roll up continuously the ever-increasing achievements of generation after generation endlessly. We have seen that this time-binding power is an exponential power or function of time. Time flows on, increasing in arithmetical progression, adding generation unto generation; but the results of human energies working in time do not go on arithmetically; they pile up or roll up more and more rapidly, augmenting in accordance with the law of a more and more rapidly increasing geometric progression. The typical term of the progression is PRTwhere PR denotes the ending progress made in the generation with which we agree to start our reckoning, R denotes the ratio increase, and T denotes the number of generations after the chosen “start.” The quantity, PRT of progress made in the Tth generation contains T as an exponent, and so the quantity, varying as time T passes, is called an exponential function of the time.

Nature is the source of all energy. Plants, the lowest form of life, have a definite role to perform in the economy of nature. Their function is the forming of albuminoids and other substances for higher purposes. All of their nitrates are high-explosives, or low explosives, but explosives anyway. They are powerful sources of some new energy. Animal life uses these “explosives” as food and is correspondingly more dynamic, but in animal life time does not play the role it plays in human life. Animals are limited by death permanently. If animals make any progress from generation to generation, it is so small as to be negligible. A beaver, for example, is a remarkable builder of dams, but he does not progress in the way of inventions or further development. A beaver dam is always a beaver dam.

Finally humanity, the highest known class of life, has time-binding capacity as its characteristic, its discriminant, its peculiar and definitive mark. It is an unrealized fact that in this higher class of life, the law of organic growth develops into the law of energy-growth-the mind-the time-binding energy- an increasing exponential function of time. That fact is of basic importance for the science and art of Human Engineering. In mechanics we have the well-known formula

(1) = Power
We have seen that, in accordance with the law of geometric progression, PRTrepresents the progress made-the work done in the Tth generation (T being counted from some generation taken as starting point of reckoning); this progress, achievement, or work, being done in one generation, we have by (1)

Work = PRT

(2) = Power,
that is, PRT=Power; this means that the number PRT, which measures the work done in a given generation, is also the measure of the power that does the work. Now, the total work, W, done in the T generations is

(3) W = PR1 + PR2 +PR3 + . + PRT;
that is,

(4) W = (PRTP)
It should be noticed that by (2) this expression for W may also be regarded as the sum of T different powers PR, PR2, etc., each working during one and only one generation; if we divided this sum by T, the quotient would be a power that would have to act through T generations to produce W. The reader should not fail to notice very carefully that the expression (4) for W is an expression for the total progress made the total work done-the total wealth produced-in the course of T generations and he should especially note how the expression involves the exponential function of time (T), namely PRT.

The formula makes mathematically evident the time-binding capacity characteristic of the human class of life. Properly understood, wealth consists of the fruits or products of this time-binding capacity of man. Animals do not produce wealth; it is produced by Man and only Man. The foregoing basic formulation should lead to further similar developments throwing much light upon the process of civilization and serving to eliminate “private opinion” from the conduct of human affairs. (In this writing it is not important to look deeper into these proposed series. The fact remains that P, as well as R, are peculiarly increasing series of a geometrical character-the precise form will be developed in another writing.)

Human achievements and progress, because cumulative, are knocking out the barriers of time. This fact is the vital and dynamic difference between animal life and human life. As plants gather in and store up solar energy into sheaves for the use and growth of animal and man-so humans are gathering and binding the knowledge of past centuries into sheaves for the use and development of generations yet unborn.

We have seen that the term wealth, rightly understood, means the fruit of the time-binding work of humanity. Wealth is of two kinds: one is material; the other is knowledge. Both kinds have use-value. The first kind perishes-the commodities composing it deteriorate and become useless. The other is permanent in character; it is imperishable; it may be lost or forgotten but it does not wear out.

The one is limited in time; the other, unlimited in time; the former I call POTENTIAL USE-VALUE; the latter, KINETIC USE-VALUE. Analysis will justify the names. The energy of a body which is due to its position, is called potential energy. The energy of a body which is due to its motion, is called kinetic energy. Here the material use-value has value through its position, shape and so forth; it is immobile if not used, and has not the capacity to progress. Mental use-values are not static but permanently dynamic; one thought, one discovery, is the impulse to others; they follow the law of an increasing potential function of time. (See app. II.) This is why these names correspond to the two names of the two mentioned classes of energy.

Here I must return to the current conceptions of wealth and capital, before cited. “Wealth,” we are told, “is any useful or agreeable thing which possesses exchangeable value.” And we are told that “Capital is that part of wealth which is devoted to obtaining further wealth.” I have said that such conceptions-such definitions-of wealth and capital are childish-they belong to the period of humanity’s childhood. That they are indeed childish conceptions the reader can not fail to see if he will reflect upon them and especially if he will compare them with the scientific conception according to which wealth consists of those things whether they be material commodities or forms of knowledge and understanding-that have been produced by the time-binding energies of humanity, and according to which nearly all the wealth of the world at any given time is the accumulated fruit of the toil of past generations-the living work of the dead. It seems unnecessary to warn the reader against confusing the “making” of money by hook or crook, by trick or trade, with the creating of wealth, by the product of labor. In calling the old conceptions childish, I do not mean that they contain no element of truth whatever; I mean that they are shallow, scientifically or spiritually meagre, narrow in their vision, wrong in their accent; I especially mean that they are dumb, because they are blind, regarding the central matter that wealth is the natural offspring of Time and Human Toil. The old conceptions do indeed imply that wealth and capital involve both potential and kinetic use-values, and in so far they are right. But how do such use-values arise?

The potential use-values in wealth are created by human work operating in time upon raw material given by nature. The use-values are produced by time-taking transformations of the raw materials; these transformations are wrought by human brain labor and human muscular labor directed by the human brain acting in time. The kinetic use-values of wealth are also created by human toil-mainly by the intellectual labor of observation, experimentation, imagination, deduction and invention, all consuming the precious time of short human lives. It is obvious that in the creation of use-values whether potential or kinetic, the element of time enters as an absolutely essential factor. The fundamental importance of time as a factor in the production of wealth-the fact that wealth and the use-values of wealth are literally the natural offspring of the spiritual union of time with toil-has been completely overlooked, not only by the economics, but by the ethics, the jurisprudence and the other branches of speculative reasoning, throughout the long period of humanity’s childhood. In the course of the ages there has indeed been much “talk” about time, but there has been no recognition of the basic significance of time as essential in the conception and in the very constitution of human values.

It is often said that “Time is Money”; the statement is often false; but the proposition that Money is Time is always true. It is always true in the profound sense that Money is the measure and symbol of Wealth-the product of Time and Toil-the crystallization of the time-binding human capacity. IT IS THUS TRUE THAT MONEY IS A VERY PRECIOUS THING, THE MEASURE AND SYMBOL OF WORK-IN PART THE WORK OF THE LIVING BUT, IN THE MAIN, THE LIVING WORK OF THE DEAD.

Nature’s laws are supreme; we cannot change them; we can deviate from them for a while, but the end is evil. That is the lesson we must learn from the history of Humanity’s childhood. False conceptions of Man-ignorance of the laws of human nature-have given us unscientific economies, unscientific ethics, unscientific law, unscientific politics, unscientific government. These have made human history the history of social cataclysms-insurrections, wars, revolutions-sad tokens not so much of human lust as of human ignorance of the laws of human nature. There is but one remedy, one hope-a science and art of Human Engineering based upon the just conception of humanity as the time-binding class of life and conforming to the laws of nature including the laws of human nature.

Read the full essay taken from Alfred Korzybski‘s Manhood of Humanity (1921)