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Economy of Exchange

Gifts often come with the expectation of reciprocation, writes Timothy deVries. A true gift is hard to come by in our culture and economy of exchange. 

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Topics: Culture, Economics, Money, Charity
Economy of Exchange July 9, 2019  |  By Timothy deVries
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It is seldom that people give without the expectation of a return. With a birthday or Christmas gift, we expect “thank-you,” a positive reaction, the feeling of satisfaction in knowing that a gift is wanted or appreciated. Research suggests that philanthropists experience a high when they give a gift to an organization; further, they typically expect the organization is accountable for such a gift, by putting it to good use.

The potlatch in west coast indigenous culture is an example of giving at the extreme. A community essentially would bankrupt themselves in an effort to overwhelm another community with a large gift of food, weapons, crafts and other desirable items. The objective there was to give so generously that the possibility of a return – or exchange – was effectively eliminated. This practice was of interest to mid-century anthropologists and others since it removed the practice of giving from the economy of exchange.

Conversely, there are those whose wells of generosity have dried up – they have neither the motive nor resource for giving gifts. Those who simply take and do not give: it is commonly understood that such behaviour is selfish.

But people who are incapable of giving gifts may simply be unable to accept them without placing them within an economy of exchange. In this economy, the received gift creates a sense of obligation or guilt and the perception that it requires reciprocation.

The equality inherent to an exchange seems like a promising notion until it becomes clear that such exchanges are antithetical to the gift. Gifts, by definition, are not subject to the laws of exchange: gifts are given, not exchanged. Exchanges are transactional, since a value in one category has an exchangeable value in another category. Conversely, gifts generate asymmetry, since there’s nothing that can be exchanged for a gift fairly given.

What this suggests is that true gifts are actually quite rare. And the research bears this out: statistics suggest that less than 25 per cent of Canadians make charitable gifts on an annual basis. It would be interesting to speculate on why this might be the case. But the organizations who have done some thinking on this would suggest that giving is actually a learned behaviour.

Those who give do so because they were taught how to do so.

Is the answer, then, that we lack a culture of giving? If it is true that we cannot give unless we are taught how to do so; if it is true we cannot give unless we learn how to do so; and if it is true that we cannot receive gifts unless we learn how to graciously do so; then we should not be surprised that true gifts are quite rare.

What might be more common, then, are gifts that are neither wanted nor accepted, given in the spirit of exchange. In short, gifts given in bad faith or not at all.

It is not a matter of exceeding expectations. In fact, a well-given gift can and should satisfy expectations entirely. A well-given gift lacks nothing. It does not lead to disappointment – for either party. And it certainly should not be understood, as some would have it, as an occasion to levy an impossible obligation or accomplish some kind of scheme. The Trojan Horse is not a worthy model. If we are to beware the gift, it is because the gift is transparent, contaminated as it were with interest and expectation – that of our own or of another person.

When we expect to profit from a gift, either given or received, it is no longer a gift. Profit belongs to the economy of exchange: we exchange to get more of what we want. The gift interrupts this economy, not by denying expectations, but by alluding to realm where there are things that we do not and cannot expect – things that are, nevertheless, good and good for us.

These are things we do not and cannot control; things we do not and cannot predict; things that require something of us – something like a gift. There is something marvelous about this realm, about learning that generosity is, quite simply, the practice of passing along good things which never belonged to us in the first place.


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