What Do You Know About Gift Economy?

You come home to a package on your door. You haven’t ordered anything, and see your name hand-written.

It’s a gift.

You bring it inside. No matter what is in it, you know you’ll be pleased. It could be something you need, something you want, something you haven’t thought of, or a mixture.

You open it up to see your surprises and a note from a friend. It warms your heart that she’s been thinking of you and knows you well enough to gather these items.

Naturally, you think of what you can send to her. What can she use that you may have or need? What have you found out about that may delight her too?

She hasn’t expected a return- but you now have the desire. You may not have much spare money to purchase something for her. You may have to give up something for yourself to pay back her favor. Or you could craft something creatively.

You think of other people who could use an unexpected package. You stay up late to make things, work an extra shift to help with shipping costs. You give an extra product to someone random because you can. You’re known as the inspired friend.


You come home to a package on your door. You’ve ordered something online and it has come in. You waited to order it when the arbitrary price the seller agreed to went down. You waited to order it when you worked enough hours at a set wage to get paid and put that money in a bank account you can draw from.

You chose exactly what you wanted. You worked for it, and it feels good to buy yourself what you craved. At the end of this day, you owe no one anything.


The term gift economy was a new one to me. After a lifetime of trading work for value and cashing that value in for goods and services, the concept is foreign.

In a gift economy, there is no currency. It is different from a barter system because valuables are given without expectation of reward.

People who wax poetic about gift economy will tell you there are many plusses. People are all equals since the hierarchy of net worth is missing. Everyone must work as a community, and jobs are given in a democratic way. The government does not need to spend so much time taxing and punishing people but instead focuses on assessing and meeting their needs. The community does not have to overproduce. With time freed by not needing to overproduce or spend time counting beans, people can “selfishly” pursue their own interests. The results can lead to breakthroughs that benefit everyone instead of being hoarded by a few. Resources are held in commons.

The act of gift giving creates bonds instead of receipts. It triggers reciprocity instead of debt. People might return the favor even bigger because people seek a sense of contribution. The only way to be “rich” is to work hard to amass things to give so you can have gift-giving prestige. Psychologists might tell you the connections made from gift economy lead to happiness and our traditional economy isolates us into depression.

There are examples of this around us already. Freecycle, Buy Nothing, Impossible, Open Source. To gain notice, artists and business people might offer free things.

Gift economy can be used in conjunction with barter, but that might not solve all the potential problems. It seems to depend on people being selfless as a whole. It requires faith that common needs like roads and special welfare for the unable will be taken care of.

Decommodification takes the things we’re used to paying for, and turns them into entitlements for all. If you’re interesting in switching our economy, how would you do so?

  1. nationalizing- the government buys up stock in private organizations
  2. revolution-perhaps after a feud between two political parties a liberal leader can draw people over to a separate economy
  3. unions- can be strengthened enough to rise from the oppression

We know that machines can do so much for us, and sometimes better than humans. Some of us fear this. We could be replaced and we require an income so what job would we have to take instead? In a gift economy machines free us from work so we can focus on the interests of our choice.

If you hear about gift economy, or live through it at something like Burning Man, you may be convinced. Or you may think it’s unfeasible. Would people with money want to give up their status and power over others? If they think gift economy will fail, they might focus on defending themselves from potential thieves from the gift economy who aren’t getting as much as they want. (How large of a wall would they need?) Would the media be honest about the successes of gift economy or focus on confirming the “chaos”?

Even if you aren’t affluent, you still might not find gift economy appealing. Collectively we might be able to survive as a species. Giving up creature comforts might be too big of a sacrifice. If you like working hard to collect unique resources, you might not like being held back by the community.

Capitalism might not always being an option. Automation risks jobs. The economy is unpredictable and difficult to study because it may be based on equilibrium theory and assume people will act rationally and in their best interest to maximize return. We don’t.

Some would be happy to see capitalism in the rear view. Gone would be the days where we are convinced we need to be controlled with money. Instead we could be civil just because we’re human. We could be driven for others instead of just ourselves. Gone would be the social stratification, seeing money as a means to an end, competing against each other for the opportunity to work. Gone would be the scarcity mindset and focusing on what you lack. Those hoarding wealth and depression could be set free.

 

This is how I’ve come to understand it, at least. What do you know about gift economy? What ideas does it inspire?

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