Respect and trust are commonly referred to as being earned. Other aspects of human interaction are sometimes included but only these two are held in quite this regard. We speak of both, in a sense, as social commodities.
When doing so, it is often part of a critique of someone’s behavior being insufficient to warrant such credits. We also take this stance as a reminder to those who demand admiration or belief.
Imagine if society had a literal system of accounting for behavior and personal qualities. If human interaction were directly comparable to an economy, what currency buys respect and trust? What can they in turn be used to purchase? Imagine this Confidence Exchange.
Desire would drive this market just as it does real financial systems. Reputation plays a role in these hypothetical stocks in the same way real investments are effected. Given that forms of monetary transactions predate recorded history, the idea that we’ve been participating in the Confidence Exchange (and without knowing it as such) all along may not be far-fetched.
Although coin and paper currency would come later, money existed before most early legal codes. Both Hammurabi and Ur-Nammu dealt with the role of money in civil society (among other matters, of course).
The scales of the market were borrowed to serve as the near-universal representation of justice. There is then, still, an implied pessimism in the symbol – from back in the traders’ stalls where proof of a good deal was required by real measurement.
Spoken language predates barter but for the entire course of recorded history our thinking has been driven by market-based factors we don’t spend much time considering. Case in point, how we spend our time, not to mention the idea that time is money, may have grown up with the economy more than any other aspect of civilization.
There is no symbol for the intrinsic value of a person or society. There are no signs for loyalty or honor. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandic systems of weregild may have provided small, financial comfort in the aftermath of loss but the cost in coin could not reflect the nature of the person(s) lost.
Religious symbols represent institutions, tenets, and adherents but rarely (if at all) any specific virtue. Where are these signs?
It won’t catch on but I have an idea for a symbol for Hope and Optimism.
On April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia stood on Launch Pad 39A. I was in my last year of high school and four generations of my family sat in relative silence listening to journalists and scientists trade jargon and speculation. They too fell silent when the shuttle began to rumble. With seven seconds to go, the hydrogen burn-off igniters made it look like they sparked the launch into being.
For several minutes we sat without a word. My siblings and I hadn’t seen the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs; everyone else in the room had. To them this launch seemed different. Human desires that had survived on little more than hope for 15,000 years were arcing into the sky.
Finally, the eldest person in the room, my great grandmother, spoke. “When I was a little girl they brought milk to my house in a horse-drawn cart.”
I was then and remain truly awestruck by that observation. It’s probably the only aspect of my point of view that has a timestamp. If the space shuttle is a horse-drawn cart how astonishing will the future be?
So, I offer the space shuttle as a symbol of the value and virtue of hope.
While I am far from a blind devotee (“Graeberite?”), I do think Graber’s _Debt: The First Five Thousand Years_ develops this theme quite a lot. At the risk of attempting amateur philology, I do think it’s telling that “con” in “con-game” and “con-man” is short for “confidence.”