A common conception of gift economies (that is wrong)

Gift economies have a place in software lore. Eric Raymond used them to explain how open source works. Corey Doctorow built a non-monetary economy in his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

My reading is that neither one of these are normal gift economies. Doctorow’s “whuffie” has the essential properties of money: it is quantifiable, you can lose it, and you must be concerned about whether the books balance.

Raymond also tames the gift economy by describing the open source hacker’s motivation as reputation, conceptualized as something numerical. By giving away software, the hacker gains reputation—just as the Doctorow character adds to his whuffie. This is perhaps because Raymond (if I recall correctly) takes as his exemplar of the gift economy the potlatches of the Pacific Northwest. However, as David Graeber points out, those examples of extravagant givings-as-status-competitions were taken from a time when the traditional culture was incredibly destabilized by sudden contact with an outside civilization (us) who flooded parts of the economy with wealth. It’s dangerous to assume they represent not-destabilized gift economies.

What both of these authors are doing, it seems to me, is characterizing a post-scarcity economy as one where we’ve just replaced money with something else that follows the same rules. They assume we are all, forever, homo economicus.

A better exemplar of a gift society is a well-functioning neighborhood in a high-trust society. A neighborhood like mine. I help one neighbor fix his bicycle (easy). I help another elderly neighbor chase a bird out of her house (took me forever). After our first zucchini-growing attempt, we gave excess zucchini to as many neighbors as would take it. In what-I-claim-is-not-a-return, one neighbor lights the pilot light for Dawn when I’m away. Another gives us excess pears. Another lends some muscle and advice when our car got iced+snowed in.

The important difference from the Doctorow/Raymond interpretation is that no one keeps track. I don’t have a ledger in which I record the value of my helping-my-neighbor-fix-his-bike and letting-him-extend-his-driveway-across-the-property-line and deduct from his debt to me the value of recommending-a-contractor and lending-me-his-snow-shovel-when-mine-broke. The very idea is absurd.

The assumption of a gift economy is that if you do neighborly things for all your neighbors, all your neighbors will do neighborly things for you. It’ll all balance out in the end, without anyone keeping track.


  • There are people who cheat the system—the neighbor who often takes and rarely gives. That person is excluded from the gift economy to an extent compatible with peace in the neighborhood.

  • This sort of gift economy happens in the egalitarian portion of society. (Graeber has a phrase for this, but I forget what it is, and my copy is thousands and thousands of kilometers away.) The Big Guys may contend under different gift economy rules, but you and I are not Big Guys.

Bruce Sterling wrote a short story that I think captures the difference in attitude between the participant in the gift economy and in the money(like) economy.

4 Responses to “A common conception of gift economies (that is wrong)”

  1. Naresh Says:

    Good point Brian. I like the “no one keeps track” distinction.

    Also, I know a good number of open source developers who contribute code to open source as a gesture of “giving it back to the society”. Their original motive of contributing to open source is not really driven by increasing reputation. May be later it turns into it.

    There are many great examples of gift economy:

    * Wikipedia
    * Some NGOs I work with (for ex: http://freesetglobal.com) [Unfortunately most NGOs and Non-profit bodies I’ve worked with, claim to be in spirit of gift economy, but they are the last things I would associated with Gift Economy.]
    * A good number of temples in India feed hunders of people every day. Its important to note that they are not just feeding homeless people, anyone can go there can have a good meal. They don’t ask anything in return. (Believers donate money to the temple and portion of that money is spent to feed people.)
    * Few hospitals I know in India would redirect their profits to treat people for free. (Slightly lower grade facilities, but still free.) http://www.jindalnaturecure.org/

  2. angelaharms Says:

    I’m so glad to see you posting about these ideas. Looking forward to seeing where you take them. You mention what Doctorow and Raymond say about motivation, and that has me curious about how you see our motivation as we give up keeping track.

    The idea reminds me of the way I see grace, as a turning away from accounting, toward some kind of (fuzzy) bright path. It’s a kind of permission to give up the tally. Release from that compulsion, with trust it won’t be the end of the world, and might actually be better.

    I’d like to suggest another option for dealing with the neighbor-that-takes. It’s possible to respond by giving /more/ rather than by excluding. I like how it feels consistent with the idea of throwing away the accounting books, and in practice, I’ve seen /amazing/ results from that approach.

  3. Brian Marick Says:

    Here’s another essay on the gift economy that’s along the same lines as mine:

  4. Exploration Through Example » Blog Archive » More on the difference between gift and exchange economies Says:

    […] response to my earlier “A common conception of gift economies (that is wrong),” a correspondent writes: The fact that you mention “cheating the system” in […]

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