Alternative Economic Paradigms: The Gift Economy

By Shae Hadden | Bio

I’ve been glancing in shop windows recently as I wander my new neighborhood. There seem to be more sales and discounts now at the retail outlets than ever before, as if lowering a ticketed price will lure consumers in to buy when the prevailing mood is one of restraint and caution. Experts argue over whether our market economy is going to limp along in its current form or be remade or redefined. Scarcity thinking seems to predominate consumer behavior. Meanwhile, what I don’t want us to lose sight of are the barter and gift economies that co-exist (and continue to evolve) alongside the regular buying and selling of goods.

A ‘gift economy’ is one in which people give away products and services without any expectation of compensation. In a way, bartering is a reciprocal form of ‘gifting’, in which two parties exchange what they need with each other and eliminate the transfer of money. In a gift economy, simultaneous giving to others (and not just a back and forth between two people) is looked on favorably, as it circulates and more widely redistributes resources within a community. In some societies, the person who ‘gifts’ is seen as being altruistic and is accorded some social status for being the ‘giver’. In others, gifting is simply seen as an expression of a genuine concern for others.

Thinking of the world in terms of limited resources and little time left to save the planet can easily lead us into thinking along the lines of “There’s not going to be enough…”. Conversely, the gift economy rests on a belief in ‘abundance’. In early human societies (before the existence of currency), the sharing of food and other perishables ensured the continuity of the group and the ‘abundant living’ of all. Native American potlatches allowed leaders to strengthen the community by sharing their accumulated wealth with their followers. In Tonga, Samoa and some of the outer Cook Islands, reciprocal gifting is still part of their culture today.

In North America, we still practice this at the family level (when we share our time, money, food, shelter and wisdom with relatives). What I find interesting is that the concept of ‘gifting’ has expanded to include things like:

  • Open source software (free access to software code for developers)
  • The blood bank system
  • The organ donor system
  • Gift exchanges
  • Regiving networks
  • Creative Commons Licences (free access to other people’s creative works)
  • Wikipedia (a free online encyclopedia)
  • Free schools
  • Give-away shops

I see a connection between this movement and Eldering: a common commitment to sustainability and a shared future for all. And I’m reminded of the wisdom of my grandparents and my parents in dealing with troubled times in their lives. I’ll be writing more about these and other ways in which the gift economy is showing up in our lives today in the coming weeks. 

© 2009 Shae Hadden. All rights reserved.

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