"British sociologist Mike Savage makes a passing remark in a recent book that puts a twist on the question of whether money makes the man. “Precisely because money is impersonal,” he writes, “it is possible for people to be differentiated on the basis of how much money they have without this being deemed to undermine their individual, human qualities” (p. 224). Other distinctions between people, Savage says, impugn a person’s character or morality, but money is impersonal. He quotes a working-class Brit who says, perhaps defensively, “There’s no difference between me and Lord Clare; he’s got the money and I haven’t. . . . Even a roadsweeper’s equal to me; I earn twice as much as he does, but it doesn’t make much difference to me, he’s my equal.”
From this perspective, distinctions of money can, odd as it may seem, be democratic and even egalitarian. Each person is, in his or her essence, as good, has the same claim to respect, is as valued as much as anyone else. The money you have, by this logic, is as incidental as the color of shirt you wear for determining your moral worth. Distinctions of character — being honest, hard-working, family-loving, reverent, and so on — and not money determine how much respect one gets. In that way, Savage’s interviewee could say he felt equal to a lord; any differences were only about money.
By this logic, the Americans who foreigners thought were so money-oriented were more egalitarian than the visitors with their gentleman and gentlelady airs.
This moral rehabilitation of money brings us to the work of sociologist Viviana Zelizer. In a couple of her books (such as this and that), Zelizer examines how contemporary Americans cope with the “taint” of money, their feeling that it soils what it touches. Most Americans feel, for example, that gifts should be personalized things, not crude cash (while in other cultures, newly-weds, for instance, expect to get showered with crisp bills). Americans try to camouflage cash exchanges in various ways — in gifts that can be returned, in “earmarking” (this bank account is for Susie’s college; that account is for Christmas presents), or if need be, with checks placed in tasteful gift cards. In the end, Zelizer writes, “across a wide range of intimate relations, people manage to integrate monetary transfers into larger webs of mutual obligations without destroying the social ties involved. Money cohabits regularly with intimacy, and even sustains it.”
What appears to have changed historically is the growing distaste for open cash or crude materialism. It seems that, as Americans became more affluent over the last two centuries, as the middle class expanded, and as bourgeois sentimentality developed (see this earlier post), Americans became more uncomfortable with naked money, especially with mixing cold cash and warm relations. Confounding friendship and business, for example, was increasingly thought impolite. Some scholars have written about a “post-materialist” sensibility. As people became wealthier over several generations, they shifted their focus to “higher” things, like environmentalism, self-expression, and nurturing relationships. (One need not admire money, in seems, if one has lots of it to spare.)"