The Gift Economy

The Gift Economy

A friend recently recommended a book to me—Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. I am passing this recommendation on—read it. It is about what Hyde calls a gift economy, which is the economic environment for the vast majority of human civilization. Hyde estimates that well over 90% of people in human history have lived in a gift economy.  Ours is a commodity economy. When I want food, I go to Stop and Shop and give them money and they give me food—quid pro quo. When I want a car, I take out a loan from the bank, buy the car, then pay the loan back on my own. Families are isolated economic units. Adam Smith said the defining principle for a commodity economy is self-interest: I do things that please me, and indirectly some benefit may trickle down to others. Every family on my street owns its own vehicles, snow blowers, and lawnmowers. They build fences around their yards. If they need an addition built on their house, they take out a home equity loan and hire contractors, or build it themselves. The most envied person is my neighbor Joe, who has accumulated the most money. This allows him to buy the nicest vehicles and travel to Cancun during Christmas break.

In a gift economy, the most powerful person is the one who gives the most. If someone needs food, the fingers in the village point to the house of the person who is most likely to feed him. If I am building a house, the other men of the village arrive with their hammers and materials to help me build. There are always strings attached to the gift. I need to pay the gift back—not to the person who gave the gift, but to others. I need to show up at someone else’s house and help that person build when the time comes. This is not a barter economy, which is another version of a 2-way relationship, where I make a trade of a donkey for a cow. In a gift economy, things travel in circles, not back and forth. Person A gives me a pipe. I don’t add it to my pipe collection, nor do I give it back to Person A when I am through with it. I pass it on to Person B. Person B must keep the gift moving, passes it on to Person C. Eventually, it or some other object may find its way back to Person A, and the circle is complete. This process has defined a community—a community built on mutual sacrifice, mutual gifting of objects and energies. If a person in a gift economy has a windfall—kills a mastodon or stumbles on a gold mine, very quickly he shares it with others in the community and is soon left as poor as before. But he has gained status and respect in the process. If I see my insurance payments in terms of commodity, I am protecting my family in the event that I become sick or die. If I see my insurance payments as part of a gift economy, I am contributing to a large fund for the good of the community. I may never need to draw from that fund if my life is lucky, but I contribute willingly to the common good.

Lewis Hyde refers to the “strings” attached to the gift as “obligation”, but I don’t see it that way. If I have received a gift from someone, I have been changed in subtle ways by that action. I have been softened from gratitude, softened by my receiving caring and attention that I didn’t earn. It is not out of guilt or from fear of violating some unwritten social rules that I pay the gift forward. It actually seems to flow from me naturally. I may describe it as feeling more open, more giving. If I am able to receive with an open heart, I may be able to give my gold through that same new openness.

Mission is a commitment to a gift economy. It’s a commitment to do a giveaway without any expectation of immediate reward, no quid pro quo. I know a man who was volunteering in his work with veterans, and was eventually offered a job by the institution to continue his work. This seems like a good deal—continue the same work, and get money besides. But he decided to reject the offer. He decided that, if he took money for doing the work, something would get compromised. He would no longer know if he was doing the work out of commitment, or for the intrinsic value of the work, or for the paycheck. He was committed to remaining in the gift economy.

Often, I hear a man say that he must first serve himself and his family before he devotes mission energy to the wider world. It is as if he needs to build up a reservoir of power, energy, happiness and love. When he and his family have had enough, then he will consider acts of service in the world. Once we gorge ourselves on the turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, we will wrap up the leftovers and bones and offer them to the hungry people in the world.

In my opinion, mission isn’t about giving what I don’t need. It’s not spare change. It’s not giving the books away that I no longer want. Mission is about giving what I can’t live without–my blood, my essence, my best. It’s giving what I can’t have enough of myself. It’s not something that happens last, when all my other needs are satisfied. It happens first–it’s what I can’t wait to do when I get out of bed in the morning.

Strangely, this doesn’t lead to depletion. Happiness can’t be saved up in tanks, like oil. Happiness radiates, and spreads naturally to others. It’s not a zero-sum game, with only so much happiness to divide between humans. Happiness actually increases when I share it with others. Service to others or to a cause greater than oneself results in a more durable happiness than the pursuit of egocentric pleasure.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”  The friend who recommended Lewis Hyde’s book to me was not made poorer by this gift.  It deepened our bond, enriched our conversations.  Similarly, other acts of service and sacrifice create connection and enrich our sense of community.

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