Monday, January 28, 2008

What's Special About Gift Economies?

After the reactions from the private property entry last week, I decided going to draw out one of the hybrid discussions here. Andrew brought up gift economy as an alternative to versions of private and state-owned property paradigms.

There certainly are gift economies. Whether those exchanged goods/services are pure gifts depends on a number of things. For example, by gift economy do we simply mean 'polite barter economy'? What gives me the right to give something away in the first place - doesn't that assume private property? And when I give something away, am I expecting something in return? After all, if the premise of my gift is that I expect future gifts from you, this is really just a system of trade with built in assumptions about private property.

My first point is that gifts don't exist without some broader, underlying notion of what ownership is. How can something be perceived as a gift at all if there is no sense of ownership? My second point is that gift economies cannot be imposed. By virtue of their being gifts, they cannot be imposed. So any gift economy is going to have to be purely voluntary before it could conceivably exchange the "pure gifts". Even when a gift economy exists, and transcends conventional ownership rights, it has to exist within a broader structure, a default structure which allows individuals the opportunity to give gifts or not to give them.

One of the important points of Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia is what happens to the individualist anarchist who does not want to be a part of any society. Murray Rothbard, who is an individualist anarcho-capitalist, said that the minimal state-like entities could under no circumstance coerce the individual to join up with their regime. Nozick said that in subtle ways the regimes could entice the individualist (whatever his or her sympathies) to join, and this wouldn't count as forceful coercion. At any rate, the individualist could have many reasons for not wanting to join. He or she doesn't have to be a greedy capitalist jerk because they want to be politically hermetic. But this poses problems for a pure gift economy that requires institutions of private property to be non-existent, since a non-consensual gift economy is a self-defeating concept.


andrew said...

I in no way claim gift economies are pure, thats what has always been said about them, the ambiguity of encouraging both individualist and social impulses. Look at them from this standpoint: You don't need overarching concepts of ownership or rights (these are just justifications to governments or moral authorities for people bowing to such higher powers, freethinkers need not worry about these), animals don't require them to practice mutualism. I pick up a cool looking shell on the beach, I bring it back and give it to you; none of that requires a structure of ownership, I don't see either me or you have an inalienable right to some random shell. There's nothing wrong with loners going off and not participating. But cheaters (and by this I mean people damaging, overusing, or enclosing the "commons") should be aware that if their actions are to the detriment of others, people will seek their own recourse. I would hope such recourse would be non violent towards persons (except in self-defense) but its not going to respect statist notions of private property. You want to help people fight for freedom? Great. If you don't, thats fine to. But if you're undermining the freedom of others, thats a problem.

Acumensch said...

I admit that there are parts of the puzzle that are missing when talking about property. But in general I think the labor theory of value explains how property can be acquired. If I mix my labor with the shells and make a necklace, I would tend to think the necklace belongs to me at that point, and I can give to you or sell it after that. More complex versions of property I think are basically abstractions from that idea. Of course, if I laboriously mix a can of soup into a lake, the lake doesn't become my property. So there is something I admit that is missing with the labor theory of value.

Without notions of private ownership the "commons" can't restrict the problems you mentioned like overuse. I'm not saying that's always going to happen, but there is no check against it. One check is to make the system voluntary, and that way you can provide better guarantees that those involved are interested in what the system is trying to achieve. And I agree there should be compensation and reclamations if property is unjustly acquired, but I think the justification for any response to that (whether violent or non-violent) can only be just if it based on a coherent explanation about how property can be justly acquired and what rights are involved. But wars are waged over those kinds of disagreements and ultimately it becomes philosophically and physically imperialistic.