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The Gift Economy

Last week Tyler Cowen linked to this profile of lefty anthropologist anarchist David Graeber. There’s actually some good stuff in there, so do read it if you have the chance. In any case, in the profile is a description of two things I find hard to square with one another. First, the piece discusses the role Graeber played in influencing the WTO protests in Seattle a decade or so ago. This seemed to be a major protest against the idea of global trade, largely for what it is thought to do for working conditions both abroad and at home.

Consider the latter – the fear, incorrectly of course, is that trading with foreigners hurts domestic wages and employment opportunities. But later in the piece we learn that Graeber’s influential work in his field surrounds his study of the “gift economy.” In many older societies, trade as we know it and money as we know it did not seem to exist, nor did barter. Rather, people seemed to give gifts for a variety of reasons.

This, of course, strikes me as interesting and romantic and a nice lesson in how we’ve evolved. But from the way that piece was written and from my observation at various seminars I’ve attended, it sounds like many of those studying the gift economy wished our modern world were organized in that same way. And in some places it seems to be. But it is simply ludicrous to believe that we could ever have anything resembling a modern standard of living if we survived on reciprocal altruism.

The reason for the post is the following. I wonder how the folks protesting at the WTO meetings, or anti-traders in general, would feel about a country who decided it wanted to be really generous and provide gifts regularly to Americans? Seriously, imagine if the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens woke up tomorrow feeling a tug in their hearts for the good ol’ Red, White and Blue and feverishly began to make solar panels, wind turbines, clothing, iPods, computers, and other goodies, and just shipped them over here free of charge, and even organized for the random delivery of baskets of goods to every American, day after day, week after week, and year after year.

What would our WTO protesters think of such a stream of gifts? Would they celebrate it as an example of how a true gift economy could work? Or would they condemn the practice as somehow exploitive of the Chinese and damaging to the labor market prospects of Americans who now find themselves unable to compete by working in solar, wind, clothing, etc. sectors here in the US. Inquiring minds want to know!

Indeed, the world of globalization is one that is not too far off from the mythical modern “gift economy.” Motivations for the exchanges aside, when we trade with others, we end up getting stuff really cheaply. That’s not free, but it’s close and it’s awesome in my view of the world. Does it really boil down to motivation mattering? And if not, then what does matter and is there any aspect of commercial society that such gift economy supporters would support? After all, it’s a lot easier to give gifts when a massive worldwide division of labor and application of technology can get stuff produced cheaply and efficiently.

3 Responses to “The Gift Economy”

  1. Rod says:

    Back when Jimmy Carter was president, the news often contained stories lamenting “the twin towers of debt” — the trade deficit and the budget deficit, as if they were similar and equally harmful to American prosperity. At that time, the trade deficit with Japan and the other emerging economies in Asia, like Taiwan and South Korea, were the threat to American jobs, and many economists worried that soon the Japanese would own everything worth owning in the United States, like Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach Golf Club.

    Sadly for the Japanese, they bought American assets at high prices, and they themselves pursued deficit spending and general indebtedness with vigor, and currency values eventually adjusted

    Similarly, the Chinese have been buying American assets — Treasury securities, at high prices (par value for long term bonds). They will get stung when inflation undermines the value of the dollar or when we, like Greece, pay off our debt at 50 cents or less on the dollar.

  2. chuck martel says:

    ” For his part, Graeber doesn’t attribute the success of the occupation to its planners but to luck, timing, and the pervasive mood of anger and disillusionment in the country: There are few jobs, the political process has ground to a halt, and as individuals and as a nation, we’re drowning in debt”

    Why would a supposed anarchist be concerned about any of that? As usual, and as one commenter to the article noted, radical left-wingers are anarchists. Since when? Anarchists should rejoice that the political process has ground to a halt. Anarchists would blame lack of employment on government. Debt assumption is a voluntary act, except in the case of taxes, and, once again, that’s the government.

  3. Harry says:

    I wonder how globalization is somehow a modern problem.

    One could easily go back to the nineteenth century and find Bastiat writing about the negative railroad and free trade, but the problem is far older than that. Global until Gallileo was still global, only smaller, with primitive communication. The king in Marksburg Castle did not have to worry about the Asians displacing his serfs’ jobs making IPhones, but he built a big fortress and fed a lot of knights and their horses to protect against foreign competition from the kingdoms sixty miles away, as the crow flies.

    His big concern was getting killed, not finding serfs from the king in the next valley showing up with gifts of fresh vegetables and fruit in the winter. Nor would his serfs had been unhappy if the serfs bearing the gifts had spared them the effort to bear the king’s portion on the hard walk up the mountain to the top of the castle.

    Suppose they were not gifts, but just relatively cheap, however cheap would be defined in a barter economy. Would not the king, his courtiers, and all of his serfs be free-traders?

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