Philanthropy and the Gift Economy

Friday, 25 February 2011, 14:10 | Category : Uncategorized
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There is a myth that we as a species have moved from having an edenic and arcadian gift exchange economy to a cold and corrupt market economy. As a myth it has its uses; as a fact it will not fly. Archeologists and physical anthropologists now find trading practices among the earliest humans nearly 200,000 years ago; we were always buying, selling, hiring, trucking and bartering. And economists tell us that even in today’s advanced industrial economies the amount of value that is transferred by gift is greater than the amount transferred by market exchanges. This may sound counter-intuitive until we reflect that gift includes the free services rendered by parents to their children, husbands and wives to each other, friends to friends, hobbyists to their community, and the bequests of the dying to their heirs.

We have plenty of theory about markets, since Locke and Smith and their ilk. There is some theory about gift exchange in traditional tribal societies (Marcel Mauss, for instance), but very little until now about the economic, moral, social, political, ecological, aesthetic, and spiritual implications of today’s gift economy in advanced societies like the United States.

Until now. An interesting online publication, Conversations on Philanthropy, has just been launched. Take a look.

8 Comments for “Philanthropy and the Gift Economy”

  1. 1Frederick Turner

    This reminds me: David Brin’s blog is always brillant, entertaining, opinionated, witty, and, well… contrarian. Check it out.

  2. 2Internet John

    The idea of a gift economy seems to be counterintuitive in itself, at least for some people. For example, the history textbook I’m teaching with describes the Native American potlach as a big egalitarian love fest.

  3. 3Patrick Dowling

    My hunch about indigenous peoples such as Alaskan natives (that John mentions) is that they don’t work in metaphor. This is just part of the split between native and Western Tradition. Ironic that we (the western analysts) tend to categorize EVERYTHING into neat, tight packages. Politics, economics, biology, art, rocks, people, math, etc. For indigenous people these things are largely one. My point about metaphor is that they don’t see potlach as some sacrifice that they’ll never get back. They don’t think of time like people in New York City do. They don’t look at a rock or a squirrel like people in California do. They are time. They are the rock. They are the squirrel. When they give they actually GET. That’s the cool thing. When you don’t think of the myth as a myth, but rather life as you walk through it then a potlach takes on a whole different meaning.

  4. 4Internet John

    Interesting. The Crees I work with have suggested that the native worldview is focused much more on webs of relationships between intentional actors in the social and natural worlds, while EuroAmericans tend to break apart, compartmentalize and count things. I’m not sure I’d agree that Aboriginals don’t work in metaphor, though–I’ve seen some good research arguing that human linguistic and prelinguistic reasoning are both fundamentally metaphorical , and myths like the Igluik creation story or the Blackfoot story of Napi’s creation of men and women are very elaborate and beautiful metaphors.

    I wonder if the vestiges of the old gift economy haven’t got knotted up with the current social welfare system and made it harder for a market economy to take root out here. The State isn’t exactly a responsible or charismatic giver. But, as House says, “The problem with speculation is you make a speck out of you and some guy named Lation.”

  5. 5Bernie Bell

    “It is in giving that we receive.” St. Francis of Assisi.
    And what do we receive? Strength, to give more, to receive more, and so on, and so on.
    I’m with Patrick Dowling. It’s not even giving and/or receiving, as all are one, and one is all, what we ‘give’ we ‘receive’, what we ‘receive’, we ‘give’.
    I’d say it ‘works’, to, but that’s not the right word. If that’s how we look at it, it doesn’t, work, that is. It ‘works’, when we just do it, for the sake of it.
    ( Where would I be, without the inverted comma?)

  6. 6Troy Camplin

    On Turner’s idea of the gift economy and human action:

  7. 7Michelle Holliday

    Here’s a different take on the history of the gift economy (including indigenous views) and what it will take to build a gift economy today.


  1. 1. Philanthropy: Moving from a Scarcity Economy to a Gift Economy | Contrary Brin

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