Kjell (kjellmikal) wrote,

Imagine a society where buying others gifts is the only way to spend money.

Before reading on, let yourself explore the ramifications. Instead of guiding a tour of possible implications, I’ll just offer several clarifications, to close potential loopholes and suggest the bounds of the system:

  1. While trust, reputation, and likelihood of future exchange might be at stake in failures to meet expectations of mutual or alternating exchange, no verbal or written reciprocity contracts could have recourse to legal enforcement, because conditional agreements as such would violate the definition of gift.
  2. The recipient of a gift of money could still only use that money to buy gifts for others.
  3. Likewise, gift cards could only be redeemed to buy gifts for others.
  4. Investment, including employees reinvesting income in their own company, would remain okay.

Now imagine further, that all gifts must be surprises—making or fulfilling explicit gift requests is taboo. Your reliance on those who care about you now extends to how well they know what you might like and with what thoughtfulness they foresee your practical needs.

In both its weaker and stronger versions this thought experiment certainly has a whimsical aspect, but does it not also invite some serious consideration? After all, studies (and firsthand experience) suggest that giving makes us more happy than either saving or spending on ourselves.

By its nature, an all-gift social contract would constitute a soft layer of voluntary behavior atop an existing market economy, that nevertheless carries potential for profound economic, social and moral impact. While a lone individual strictly abiding by all-gift spending logic without community support would obviously struggle, in a sustainably-sized network, the sense of interdependence and care would probably feel great.

Of course, gift-giving isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, but a continuum between two poles. Compare the all-gift meta-economy to its reverse: a prohibition of gifting and sharing, requiring that one must spend their money only on themself. Where between these extremes is our cultural norm?

Our attention and care are the intangible capital we pay to people, information and experiences we truly consider worthwhile (or necessary to rent our time with the worthwhile). How well does the economy of what truly matters to us match up with money? I’d argue that, as a society, the better we can make money function as a proxy for the intangibles that truly matter to us, the more value our floating currency coherently represents and the more it will work for us. If gifts of goods and services to others are a reasonable token of our care for them, then let’s start there.

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