Gift economy explained, justified, and defended

Gift Economy Explained

1. Suppose A gives B a gift wholeheartedly. (By “wholeheartedly,” I mean without reserve or hesitation, without holding back or misgivings. Positively, I mean: “giving forth freely or receiving plentifully.”)

2. Then B receives the gift wholeheartedly.

3. It follows that B is goodly indebted to A. The debt is lighter, not onerous, because of being indebted for having received well and fitting.

4. It is now B’s turn. In order to discharge the debt, B can explore 1 of 2 options (or both separately or at once).

(a) In due course, B can give a gift wholeheartedly to person C or entity D (an organization, e.g.).

(b) In due course, B can give a gift wholeheartedly to A.


1. B must avoid the common misconception of taking the discharge of debt to be thoroughgoing and final. To the question, “What am I giving a gift for?” B must keep the answer hopelessly vague, “For the purpose of discharging (some of) my debt.” It is not, however, a final discharge because once B gives a gift to A, A is then more deeply entangled with A than ever before. The paradox is that the more A and B give to each other, the more they’re entwined with each other. The more B gives to a third, the more the third is entwined with A and B both. (This is but one articulation of the expansive feature of a gift economy. Giving can also be inviting.) The more entwined, the more they come to rely upon each other. Oh, goodly messy social life!

2. B mustn’t regard his gift as being equivalent in value to the gift originally received. The rule, “Always find an equivalence such that X=Y,” is not the worst definition of justice, to be sure, and yet it cannot hold court in a gift economy. It cannot have a place outside of market exchange (money for good, money for service, etc.). “How much should I give?” is a question that is so poorly formulated that it cannot find purchase in a gift economy proper, only in donor models such as NPR. So the directive that B might follow could be: “Give in the right spirit with the greatest lightness! Give to meet A’s or C’s life needs!”

3. B has to learn not to be in a rush to offload his debt. This is not easy; we are often impatient and believe that we mustn’t be “under another’s thumb.” (NB: a gift economy gets rid of thumbs, having no use for them.) On the other hand, B cannot “hold out” without also removing himself from the gift economy proper. The gift economy gives B the opportunity to exercise phronesis (what gift to whom in which way at what time).

4. A, a mutually dependent creature, must learn patience, since it is not exactly clear where the next gift will come from. I like to say that A must learn to receive blindly, the gift being “just around the corner.” Of course, B could, in his turn, turn and give a gift to A, but then B may also give a gift to C instead. (Is the “instead” warranted here?) Clearly, a gift economy builds in uncertainty (who to whom when?), yet it also works to establish a network of ground level trust. A may not know from whom the gift will come, but A, through experience, has found subsequent gifts to be “just around the bend.”


1. A gift economy models good givings and receivings: good givings and receivings of words, gestures, actions, objects, and money. Accordingly, it is an ongoing exercise in friendship and love. (For more on this line of thought, see my short post on material inferences. It’s a good, short piece. If you live according to good material inferences, your life will be changed for good.)

2. A gift economy acknowledges, more openly than other financial models, the extent to which human animals are dependent upon each other. P’s claim to Robinson Crusoe-esque self-sufficiency is contradicted any time P swipes a credit card or uses the subway. A gift economy points us in the direction of analyzing how mutual dependency can be made good, as opposed to exploitative, miserly, sweet dealing, winner takes all, and so on.

3. A gift economy can let us accept money as one kind of gift among others, and it does not rule out the idea that A and B may give each other the same sort of gifts (a gift amount on a regular basis, say) time and again. The hope is that, through active participation in a gift economy, we will learn how to defetishize commodities.

One of Marx’s greatest insights remains his claim that commodities have become “fetishes” in the sense that an economic exchange foregrounds the objective relation between items (my money for your mangoes) at the same time that it obscures the subjective relation between persons. When I go in search of the “sweet deal,” I reduce my considerations to the simple calculation of getting the most while giving the least. In so doing, I have lost sight of the history of making, of the creative agent who made the product or who made the product possible. (The factory model points us to Marx’s other great thesis about social alienation: the estrangement of the agent from her work.)

The fetishization of commodities, Marx held, has become near universal (below, however, I consider “nook” and “cranny” exceptions) with the consequence that we no longer look, when we consider the objects that make up our everyday world, to the human powers behind and within them. An iPhone is “ghostly,” therefore, because it seems to have no past, no history, seems to arrive in our hands and work as if by magic.

A gift economy tries to “wind back the clock,” showing what hands and minds were necessary for me to receive this check from you. To this extent, the gifts I receive are “aestheticized” through and through. The stamp and the wave across the stamp; the envelope; the writing on the check; the card marked up with flowing pen; the labor you had to undertake to put this check in my hand: all of these are parts of the gift, all parts that I must acknowledge as fully as possible.

4. A gift economy invokes phronesis as a virtue of justice, not justice according to which each receives exactly the same. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of a muscular man needing more food than a scrawny man. He says that the “mean,” which amounts to a rule of thumb, should guide our apportioning of food. It is a gross mistake in justice to believe that each can be given the “exact same” in all things; humans start off in diversity and become more diverse with age and experience. Instead, phronesis tells us to use good judgment in giving to each person in the right way for the right reason toward the right end. A gift economy is great practice in this: lots of oopses, a few errant passes, and just enough adjustments and amends-makings.

5. As already implied, a gift economy establishes a moral-economic order based on trust and trustworthiness. As she becomes an adept in a gift economy, the agent signals that she is trustworthy. Conversely, a moral-economic order breaks down when a sense of social trust is shaken to the core. “When trustworthiness is lacking, then there is lack of trust” (Daodejing 17).

Objections and Replies

1. It has been said that a gift economy is Pollyannaism. To begin with, one can’t possibly live like this, unless one is being financially supported by some other means. In addition, it assumes that people are angels rather than devils: self-interest, not other regard, trumps all other considerations.

I reply: The implication seems to be that I am going “high-minded” because I couldn’t cut it “low-minded.” This implication is not warranted: in the past, I’ve charged as much as $250/hr. Without blinking, except to consider whether it wouldn’t be more prudent to charge more. This the first riposte. Now a second: insofar as I am able to make a decent living within a gift economy and without resorting to some other means, I embody the counterexample. Third, I assume that people are neither angels nor devils. I assume only that, qua mutually dependent beings, human animals are capable of giving and receiving. The solution to Pollyannaism is actually fairly simple: surround yourself with virtuous and friendly kindred spirits. By my lights, a gift economy in the modern world is “esoteric,” not “exoteric.” The gates to entry are high, yet the life within is good. Within are friends whom one can–and must–learn to trust.

2. It has been argued that the one bestowing gifts (say, the philosopher as gift-giver) is merely giving something for nothing. And everyone knows that anything that is free isn’t worth valuing. Simply look at content on the Internet. Why pay when writers are giving it away for free?

I reply: A gift is given freely (=wholeheartedly) but is not free in terms of content or obligation. A gift, as already noted, entails a debt. The recipient owes a gift, which is to be given to the same or to another. Far from being “something for nothing,” the recipient-cum-giver is in the strange position of having to give, as it were, infinitely: infinitely because wholeheartedly.

3. I grant that gift economies do manifest themselves but then only under extraordinary circumstances. When every house on the block is on fire, then everyone grabs a pail of water and chips in without hesitation or a moment’s notice. That is, a crisis that affects all requires heroic efforts from all. This spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together, however, is the exception that in no way proves the rule.

I reply: We have grown quite cold, haven’t we?, if we don’t see the “extraordinary circumstances” mentioned as longing to be ordinary. It takes no heroic exertion of the will to act beside one’s neighbors habitually, no great strain on the imagination to perceive that without the subway or highway or railway one cannot get to work. Without potable water, one would die of thirst. Without shopkeepers and farmers (now but 1% of the workforce!), we would starve. We are living in a unique period in history when the thought that we are not in this together has led to an economic order that is looking shabbier by the day. Some have too much, most not enough. The Daodejing speaks of having enough as being the basis for being generous. I have found this to be true in my life. As I have come to have just enough, my generosity has grown  infinitely. Having too much or too little uproots generosity.

 4. It has been said that it would be overly optimistic to believe that, in the current economic order, everyone could live in a gift economy. Men have children to feed, and mothers have bills to pay. What of them? Surely, you don’t claim that they too would do well to embrace a gift economy.

I reply: I concede the point, though I don’t recall advocating or recommending a gift economy as a one size fits all model for healing our economic woes. In fact, I would advise a freelancer to sharpen her elbows when she goes to negotiate contracts with corporate entities. I would counsel the project manager to heed the call of prudence. Now, the purpose of this post is to be an apologia for a way of life. It implies that there are nooks and crannies within the economy we have inherited. These nooks and crannies are small in scale, “invisible” in relation to a wider gaze, and open to friends. A gift economy is a small scale experiment, a worthy adventure. I doubt that it is scalable.

When I was reading Chris Bertram’s excellent review of David Graeber’s book on debt, I was struck by the fact that he had reached a similar conclusion: “We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.”

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Life as Gift Economy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gift (a Year in Funding Review)”


3 thoughts on “Gift economy explained, justified, and defended

  1. The talk of discharging a debt never being final reminds me of a simultaneously absurd and delightful Turkish custom. If I bring you food, it’s expected that you will return the container, but never empty. Then because you’ve brought me food, I’m expected to return you the container, but again with something delicious in it. Ultimately the container ends up effectively being shared property that facilitates a continual back-and-forth of gifts.

    1. I love that story. Thank you. And it’s so apropros. Actually, I was thinking of this good-debt-never-being-final as exactly the opposite of the Greek revenge tragedy (or the Italian vendetta). In the latter case, A kills B, B’s kin seek revenge against A’s kin, and the justice sought–blood for blood–can never be fulfilled. In this moral universe, there’s bad debt that can never be paid back. (Huck Finn also points up the ridiculous nature of this conceit.)

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