A Theory of Gift Exchange

25 December 2011

Sunday


There is a tension and a paradox at the heart of gift exchange. The pure gift is given without thought of reciprocity and out of generosity for its own sake, but the very idea of a gift exchange implies that two or more parties will engage in a ritualized and mutual transfer of gifts. Thus in gift exchange, there is an expectation of reciprocity and even of symmetry: gifts are expected to be of roughly equal value, except in special circumstances. And the fact that there are (tacitly acknowledged) exceptions to axiological symmetry is a nod to the fact that gift exchange is a calculation, and nothing is farther from the spirit of a pure gift than the spirit of calculation.

Still, we try, and sometimes we are successful. Moreover, sometimes we are surprised by the unexpected generosity of the other. Sometimes we are presented with a gift completely unexpectedly, from someone we had no expectation of gift exchange. In such circumstances, we are not prepared to give anything in exchange, so we are “forced” to accept the pure gift, for to refuse it would be inexcusable in most circumstances.

Still, unexpected gifts are sometimes refused. It is not uncommon for an individual who looks to another as a potential romantic partner will give an unexpected gift as a way to announce their interest in that person. In a sense, announcing one’s interest in another with a gift is much like announcing one’s intentions and expectations of future exchange. Thus such a gift may well be refused for the implicit contract of future exchange that it suggests. Charitable person will be polite about this and say things like, “Oh, I could never accept such a present, it is much to expensive.” Perhaps they might also add, “I would feel obligated if I accepted a gift like this.”

In this way — and while I have used the example of a gift exchange between potential romantic partners, but it is by no means limited to the romantic dyad — even a forced pure gift, exempt of necessity from immediate exchange, can in fact be part of a gift exchange when understood in a larger context, and therefore fails to constitute a pure gift.

The model of a pure gift is grace, and so the pure gift may be exclusive to theological contexts. While a pure gift may be a rare thing, to what extent can we approximate a pure gift? May be come so close to approximating a pure gift that our gift is, for all practical purposes, a pure gift? I suspect so, as I expect that the more closely a gift approximates the ideal of the pure gift, the more rare it becomes.

Nietzsche wrote the following in his Mixed Opinions and Maxims:

How duty acquires splendor.–The means for changing your iron duty to gold in everyone’s eyes is this: always keep a little more than you promise.

This last suggestion — always keep a little more than you promise — has stayed with me ever since I first read this many years ago. Nietzsche formulates this in the context of duty, and duty is not only a reciprocal and symmetrical relationship, it is usually felt to be a burden. Nietzsche has asked himself, “How can this burden be transformed into something welcome to all?” The surprising answer he gives to this self-posed question is, “Transform duty into a gift” — for when you keep a little more than you promise you go beyond duty in keeping your duty. This is a Nietzschean transvaluation of values of an unexpected sort.

One finds this same idea of Nietzsche’s in the New Testament, in famous admonition, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Nietzsche was, after all, a preacher’s son, and he absorbed some of the radical character of the gospels.) In the Holy Land during classical antiquity, a Roman soldier could legally compel a Jew to carry his pack for one mile. Only one mile was required, after which the Jew impressed into such service was free. Obviously, the Jew felt this law to be a humiliation. The obvious response to such an unjust law would be its repeal. The radical response, the response of the gospels, is not only the go the mile without complaint, but to go an extra mile.

If we can inform our duties, including our duties of gift exchange, with the spirit of keeping a little more than you promise or going the extra mile, our duties are transformed into gifts, and since these gifts grow out of duties, they are unexpected and therefore approximate pure gifts. But there are few who have the moral strength to overcome the feeling of humiliation and moreover to transform this humiliation into what Nietzsche called “golden.” This the world is more marked by impure than pure gifting.

Impure gift exchanges are undertaken with no pretense of being given out of pure generosity. Most gifts are of this kind. When an employer plays an employee more than he strictly has to pay that employee, and the employee works harder than they strictly might be expected to work, economists call this a “gift exchange.” I realized recently that we can narrow this and call it an “economic gift exchange” and contrast it to other forms of gift exchange.

Recently in the Financial Times I read the following in David Pilling’s column, Modern China is yearning for a new moral code:

“Day to day, most Chinese people are able to put aside the broader moral confusion to perform the little acts of kindness and decency that make a society function.”

What Pilling describes here as the little acts that make a society function constitute what we might call a social gift exchange: in a smoothly functioning society individual citizens do more than a narrow interpretation of their social and legal duty would stipulate, and the presumptive exchange for this is to live in a society than is better than that which fulfills the minimum social and legal requirements.

There are many kinds of social gift exchange: a teacher who makes an extra effort to teach and a student to learn, a social worker who goes the extra mile for a client and a client that responds by making an extra effort, and when people yield the right of way for each other in traffic, or when pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles do so mutually and on the large scale (and, just as importantly, the anonymity) of urban population densities.

There are also many instances when social gift exchange fails, and people behave rather badly with each other. I’m sure that anyone reading this can recall many instances from their own experience when others gave only the minimum but demanded an extra measure for themselves in return, or when people engage in conflict over who is and who is not abiding by the minimum social and legal standards.

This idea of social gift exchange can be used to define a healthy and fully functioning society: in a healthy society, social gift exchange is routine and unexceptional; in a pathological society, social gift exchange is mostly absent. In the big picture, it is to be expected that most societies fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum stretching between the pathological and the healthy, though it is also be expected that in smaller, culturally and ethnically homogenous societies that social gift exchange functions more easily because of shared expectations and a shared understanding — what sociologists call normative consensus.

Thus out of the impure giving of gift exchange, even when undertaken in a spirit of reciprocity and axiological symmetry, something truly noble and socially beneficial can emerge. A social gift exchange that is moreover informed by the spirit of capitalism, that prioritizes delayed gratification as the sure way to wealth, is all the more powerful, since one is not looking for an immediate and symmetrical payoff of one’s social gifting.

As I see it, then, what Marx called “callous ‘cash payment’” and “icy water of egotistical calculation” may be in fact the thin edge of the wedge for a more just and even a more human social and moral order. Of course, as we practice it, it is imperfect in the extreme. Whether or not we might perfect social gift exchange brings us to the traditional question of the perfectibility of man. Yet, short of the perfectibility of man, we can still sensibly ask about, say, the betterment of man, even if short of perfection.

This, then, is the challenge for the large and diverse societies of contemporary nation-states (presumptively established on the basis of nationhood, but in fact established on the basis of the territorial principle in law): how can social gift exchange be encouraged to flourish in a context in which shared expectations and shared understanding may be absent?

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