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Gifts Suck

Gifts are the original sin of commerce. My theory is that this is why “the gift economy” is so cherished by critics of anonymous, ephemeral, market exchange. Market exchanges allow us to free ourselves from the power that our families and others exercise over us. The wider the extent of market competition, the less we are susceptible to powerful firms jamming high prices and low quality down our throats, and the less we are susceptible to thuggish and bullying tactics of cartels, unions, and other connected agencies (check out the story of Steve Hindy trying to get his Brooklyn Brewery started when he was paid a visit by the NYC trade unions).

Thus, the asserted softening of social cohesion that is created by market transactions is in fact liberating.

Indeed, for the longest time, I have been reading articles and sitting through talks that suggest that “even if” there are “good” aspects of the market, it is inferior to other ways of securing the things we want and need. For the longest time, I have just accepted that too. But think about the gift economy. By using the word “gift”, scholars have stacked the deck in favor of thinking of it as good. But I see no fundamental reason why the world of gifts is good. Indeed, I suggest it is high time to turn the tables on it.

The gift economy sucks.

Do you enjoy the idea of Christmas time (or whatever holiday we want to speak of) because of the obligation that you go out and buy a bunch of shit for everyone close to you? Do you relish the anticipation of getting “gifts” from all of these people. At best, it’s a giant version of splitting the check. But it’s worse than that. Wouldn’t you rather spend time playing, singing, reading, sharing stories, hiking, cooking, with those you are close to?

Moreover, and here is why the gift economy really sucks, do you really want things hanging over your head? The gift economy is the original sin of commerce. Much like many of us today can never ever ever ever escape the bad doings of people who lived before us, no matter how decently you may live your life or treat people you encounter, those who support the gift economy are suggesting that we should live in a world where we are always indebted to someone else. That sounds quite perverse coming from critics of debt financed consumption. I do not see how constantly being in the good graces of other gift givers is any different than borrowing dollars from someone else and being expected, contractually, to pay it back.

Ultimately, the gift world is a world of power imbalances and dependency. The giver of gifts is superior to the receiver, and it seems to me that what looks to the outsider like generosity is actually just a papered over version of violence. Seriously, have you ever wanted to turn down a gift from someone? Why? I suspect it’s because you don’t want it lorded over you. I’d rather be poorer and free of mind and obligation than to have a gift and be expected to “kiss the ring.” One thing I have very much tried to do as a parent is not “lord it over” my kids when I need to take care of them … they had no choice in the matter, and cannot sustain themselves yet. I chose to bring them into this world.

In the same way, many social bonds are restrictive and suffocating. Have you ever had to “fake it” just to remain in the good graces of polite company? That is not just uncomfortable, it can grind the wheels of progress to a halt. The market on the other hand allows us to extend our sphere of interactions, and it will do that insofar as we can establish trust and reputation.

I’ve been in many seminars offered by neo-Marxists, who view the entire history of human relations as imbalanced power-relationships. It is nothing short of stunning that none of the talks I have been to seem to recognize that the gift economy and the communitarian ideals that seem to be what is needed to replace the injustices of market power imbalances are themselves institutions that very likely emerged due to the very same forces the Marxists are arguing against. If ALL of human history is characterized by oppressors and oppressed, by power imbalances, what exactly permits the intellectual swindle of exempting the gift economy from being viewed under that same lens? Our own experiences with gifts would seem to be an easy starting point.

6 Responses to “Gifts Suck”

  1. Christopher Cistrone says:

    This is reminiscent of Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” and a sentiment with which I increasingly agree. If you haven’t read it, it is a fun read and a challenge to reconcile with some undergrad “facts” of economics.

    • wintercow20 says:

      Thanks for reference, didn’t know about that book. The “problem” gets even worse when universities charge $70,000 for their product. Heck, if I were paying $70,000 for something I’d probably expect that it purchased me good grades and an automatic path to something …

  2. Omri Cohen says:

    Reminds me of some sentiments from the Minimalists, and would love to hear your thoughts.

    Similar to your point of spending your time and doing meaningful activities with those you are close to, rather than buying them gifts, the Minimalists say that “gifting your time” or “gifting experiences” is a way to show your love to others.

    Do the power imbalances and the “world where we are always indebted to someone else” still apply to gift-giving in the form of doing good deeds for others, or giving others experiences they can enjoy, rather than possibly unwanted physical gifts they need to hang on to? (e.g. If I cook dinner for a friend sometime as a gift of my time and of an experience for them – not expecting anything in return, but just because I want to – does that mean they are indebted to me to return the favor? What if they don’t like the food and pretend they do?)


    Have a great beginning of the school year!


    • wintercow20 says:

      It probably goes without saying that emphasis on power imbalances are overdone. There is always going to be some power imbalance on some dimension, and that is just a scientific tautology. We are different along zillions of dimensions, and the underlying point of my post is that we probably should focus and worry less on power imbalances and worry and focus more on expanding the range of choices that people have in their lives, and some of that actually comes down to individuals freeing their own minds from the perception that they “owe” anything to others.

      But I’d argue that services are no different than gifts in this regard, …

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