The gift economy and socialist theory

by Rocket Finance

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Plonkee wrote about the idea of a gift economy. After reading her take on the idea, I have a couple of ideas and thoughts of my own to add:

Gift economy’s most often exist within the family structure, however, I believe that most gifts given in this framework are given with no thought toward quid pro quo. I believe that gifts given within the family relationship are given with the most altruistic of motives – the desire to cause another human being’s happiness.

Another place where I have seen a type of gift economy at work is within the bounds of a local church. Several of Plonkee’s commenters also mentioned this manifestation of the gift economy. I have been a member of small churches for my whole life and have seen many gifts given within this structure with no chance or expectation of the gift ever being re-payed. In some instances, I have been the recipient of such gifts. I will never be able to repay those who gave to me, but I plan to give to someone else at the first opportunity.

I think that the gift economy is one of the main ideas behind a socialist economy: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In this respect, the socialist economy is a noble ideal, but the reality is that the gift economy does not work on a large scale. Here is why I believe a gift economy works only within small groups:

  • Gifts are only gifts if given freely, not under compulsion. Socialism must always “compel” the giver.
  • Givers want to see their gift appreciated. Federal redistribution robs them of such joy.
  • Givers want to give to something of value and desire to observe the value with their own eyes.
  • Givers give to a person or entity that will appreciate their gift – and desire to observe that appreciation.
  • In a gift economy, if a giver’s gift is wasted, they will stop giving. In a socialist economy, if the gift is wasted, more is demanded from the giver.
  • The gift economy only works when there is solidarity of purpose and accountability between the members of the group. In a large country, neither exists to any great extent.

The gift economy is an admirable part of the human condition, however, I believe that it will only truly exist on the small scale.

  1. One Response to “The gift economy and socialist theory”

  2. By plonkee on Apr 25, 2008 | Reply

    The gift economy isn’t like communism – and I think Marx argued that it was actually in the labour class’ rational best interests to collectivise, rather than being forced (whether he was right being an entirely different matter). One of the most important things about the gift economy is the social capital that you gain through giving things away – it’s like the reverse of classic capitalist status symbols.

    It has been the dominant economic mode in entire societies, although they were all relatively small. If it only ever works on small scales I wouldn’t be very surprised, it relies extensively on trust, and shared history which is hard to build up in groups over about 150 in size (outside specific examples like blood donation). It is really, really good for some sorts of transactions/groups just like tax and gov’t spending is better than strict capitalism at funding say the military.

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