Fruits and Labor

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I have very few vivid memories of early childhood. The ones I have come back to me in flash- es, like a movie clip. One of the most vivid is the first time I questioned “authority” — that is, my parents — and realized that those particular authorities didn’t know what they were talking about. The nexus of disillusionment or enlightenment (depending on your POV) was monetary theory.

But let me back up. I was about six years old, in the back seat of our family car with my irritating older brother as we all drove somewhere on a family vacation. My parents had just pulled off the road to buy us a basket of bing cherries to share so we would shut up, stop fighting, and gorge ourselves on fruit instead. I remember asking my mother, who was in the passenger seat, “Why did we pay for this? Why don’t people just take what they want?”

She gave me a stern rebuke about the moral wrong of stealing. But I persisted. That wasn’t what I meant. Why did we need money to get the cherries? Couldn’t we just tell the person at the stand that we wanted them?

As well as a 6-year-old could, I was asking about the function of money in society. When my parents realized that I wasn’t advocating theft, they became utterly unable to answer my question. My mother and father had no communicable sense of why money was necessary or valuable in the economic exchanges of society. Their ultimate response was basically “shut up and eat your cherries.” My ultimate response was to realize, “They do not know what they are talking about.”

How significant is this memory? I don’t know . . . but it is one of the few of early childhood that I have. Was it the seed from which religious and political doubt grew? Maybe. Maybe not. I do remember sitting back and being almost stunned by the realization that my parents did not have all the answers. More than that — they seemed angry because I had asked questions.

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