One of the weird things about growing up in fundamentalist church with a deliberately stifled education is that some concepts kinda just get thrown around and you never really learn what they are. This meant I had to teach myself a bunch of this stuff, and I realise, there are some people similarly uncertain as to where the heck the idea of Shares come from.
The basic idea of what a share is is that it’s a portion of something. The place it got its start – more or less, there are always earlier versions of things, but the place it sort of got its modern kick-off – was during the (absolutely god-awful) trading history of large fleets of vessels, things like the Dutch East India company.
The way these things worked was, buying a boat – like, a whole boat – and managing an expedition over to do trading was, as an up-front cost, totally ridiculous. Like, we talk about wealth disparity, but it’s kind of hard to translate wha that was like when you’re talking about a period of history when you might not even exchange money for food, because it simply wasn’t affordable. So there’s a striation of wealth between poor and wealthy people that’s like, mindboggling, and I tend to think about ships from the perspective of the poor people. Each one of them represented more than a lifetimes’ worth of wealth, so the idea of rich people owning multiples is kind of impossible.
Anyway, even so, the task of sending a boat to get goods for sale was still a gamble – every time it went out, you didn’t know if it was coming back, and if it didn’t come back, you were out a ton of money, enough to ruin someone. The solution, then, was for people to band together – wealthy people, mind you – and instead of buying one ship, buying one tenth of ten ships. When each ship came in, you got a tenth of its proceeds. If one sank, you were out a tenth of a price of a ship. Then they got really fiddly with the numbers, and bookkeeping got involved and you started to see people making more and more careful subdivisions of the shares, and things you could do to interact with the shares and eventually things got decoupled from ever needing to turn a profit at all, because everything about markets eventually sucks butts.
Still, the thing with this whole system that makes my ears twist is, no matter how I think about it, the more I think it’s kind of inevitable that people will come up with this idea if they have some way of representing it. And then the weirder thing is: We have this idea for buying and owning shares in objects and businesses, but it seems fundamentally inimical to the current mindset of the world to have shares in the government you’re part of. Like, taxes are seen a an imposition, rather than a percentage ownership of the country you’re investing in.