More on the difference between gift and exchange economies

In 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 your post tells me that you realize this: that even in a “real” gift economy or high-trust economy, there still exists an expectation of some type of quid pro quo. Whether you call it status, whuffie, social mores/expectations, karma, honor, or simply a fulfillment of the givers’ desire to bring the world more in line with their own vision, this counterbalancing force exists. If it did not there would be no motivation for the gift in the first place.

Water runs off a cliff. Politicians run for office. Rabbits run away from dogs. That the same word is used doesn’t mean it’s the same action, or has the same consequences.

Consider the recent Rubygems brouhaha. In my reading, the feeling people had of being cheated stems from reasons that would make no sense in a transactional economy.

  • Rubygems users felt their gifts (patches, pull requests) were refused and belittled. That makes sense in a gift economy, in which there’s a continuing obligation and relationship between givers. It makes no sense in transactional or “whuffie-flavored” gift economy: how could my giving you something produce any sort of obligation that I then take from you?

  • Rubygem versions came too often and required committers to other projects to make frequent changes. Again, from a transactional point of view, their feeling of being cheated is unjustified. They got something for free before, graciously given by high whuffie committers to a core part of the Ruby ecosystem. Why are those givers now obligated to work extra hard to make the recipients entirely satisfied with the next gift? Isn’t that presumptuous and grasping on the part of J. Random Committer?

    I’m reminded of Graeber’s comment about a reaction of missionary physicians to African gift societies. If I remember it right, the missionaries were surprised that natives got offended when asked for payment. The missionaries thought of the natives as cheaters, trying to get something for nothing. But the natives had a different view: by saving lives that would otherwise be lost, the physicians demonstrated their great whuffie. By asking for payment, they’re pretending to be lesser than they are, to need gifts that they don’t actually need. That’s cheating.

In sum, gifting produces an expectation of a “quid pro quo” in only the loosest and (I feel) misleading sense. Rather than a “what for what”, gifting produces a social relationship that—like all social relationships—captures expectations about future behavior. But that relationship is not an exchange (even deferred) of things. Rather than “quid pro quo”, the phrase should be whatever the Latin is for “[behaves] how because of how [she or someone else behaved].”

One Response to “More on the difference between gift and exchange economies”

  1. jeremy6d Says:

    Maybe the differentiator here is the duration or depth of the relationship. In a normal clearing transaction, the idea is the relationship can be shallow and only needs to last the amount of time it takes to transact (there certainly, however, is a relationship - especially if you take into account all the societal and cultural conventions that back up the seeming discreteness of the transaction). In a gifting relationship, it’s implied that the relationship desired is both longer lasting and deeper.

    There’s more to it, of course. The transfer of goods is (in a very meaningful way) a signifier for something else, rather than simply a transfer for its own sake or for narrow selfish ends. Just like when most people want to get a drink with somebody, the drink is not really what they’re usually after - it’s just the context for the conversation.

    Gifting emphasizes the establishment of the relationship as the significant phenomenon - the relationship is the thing being sought. Of course this makes no sense to people steeped in traditional economics, who want to do economics as a discipline completely separate from human relationships (or, like the Austrians, treat those relationships as Platonic forms from which to reason rather than as particularities). They cannot conceive of a world where getting stuff is not the primary motivation, and that explains a lot about our system.

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