Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


June 19, 2012

WE THE PEOPLE: The wisdom of giving

CROSSVILLE — Several years ago a lifelong resident of Cumberland County taught me a lesson in economics. He offered me some seeds at the end of the selling day at the Farmers Market. I tried to pay him. He said, “Up here, when someone gives you something, you don’t offer to pay. Just take it.” That farmer was telling me that a gift economy is very much a part of Cumberland County culture.

For thousands of years, economics (the exchange of goods and services) did not involve money. People who knew each other well (members of a family, or clan, or small society) often gave gifts. They understood that the receiver of these gifts might not return something of equal value, but would probably respond as they were able.

A gift transfers a good or a service. It also strengthens social bonds. To refuse a gift (or try to turn it into another type of economic activity) is to refuse the social relationship as well as the offered item. It is an insult.

There are, or course, other economic models. For thousands of years, goods were exchanged between people who were suspicious of each other using a barter system. They met and haggled until a deal was struck. The necessary personal negotiation enhanced social bonds a bit, although to a far lesser extent than a gift.

The most sterile economy of all, however, is the money economy. There is no evidence for money (coinage) before 600 BC, so the money economy is a Johnny-come-lately.

Money allows exchanges between people who don’t communicate directly. You never meet the Chinese worker who made your shirt. Since no interaction between giver and receiver is needed, no social bonds are necessary and, thus, immoral behavior becomes far easier to justify by all economic players.

It comes as no surprise, then, that societies with economies based on money have, historically, been the most violent. Jesus warned us about such societies when he banished the money-changers but welcomed gift-givers. Many seem to have forgotten that lesson.

There are those, of course, who will say that a money economy is much more “efficient,” but I’m not so sure. First, I might ask, “Efficient for whom?” Empires spend enormous resources protecting trade routes, and, as I said, violence increases. Some individuals win, but many lose.

Secondly, history provides a clear demonstration of extraordinary efficiency created in a gift economy. “Natural philosophers” (scientists) began freely exchanging ideas (intellectual property) in refereed journals in the 18th century. There followed a period of technical innovation in Western society which left more secretive and protective cultures in the dust.

So, I thank that farmer who reminded me about the many faces of economics. His seeds and his lesson were gifts to me, and this column is a gift to him. True value (for humans) involves social ties. Any “economic system” that weakens social ties is, by definition, immoral.


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