|The Idea: The Gift Economy is built on generosity, not charity. But we live in such a complex and unnatural world that we really have to pay attention to understand the crucial difference.
Do you cringe when you see those tear-jerker ads for charities? You know, the ones that feature emaciated and destitute children or abused animals, trying to make you feel so guilty you open your wallet? Now, how about the guys in the street with the “please help” signs, the plastic containers, the squeegees, sometimes with dogs or kids in tow?
Charity comes from the Latin word meaning heart, love. Its modern use is steeped in religious convention: Charity was the extension of love of God to love of His subjects. This is a long-standing practice of arm-twisting, benevolent extortion, one step removed from the ‘collection plate’. By contrast, philanthropy is from the Latin words meaning ‘good to man’. The poor and middle-class were coerced to give up their money from fear of God’s wrath. The rich did it voluntarily because they were ‘good peeps’. Nothing much has changed in two thousand years. Charity is not about giving; rather, like any hard sell, like advertising, like the stuff in the previous paragraph, it’s about taking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything morally wrong with what they’re doing — we all have to do what we have to do, and most charities do wonderful, thankless, underfunded and underappreciated work — I’m just describing the pitch for what it is.
Now, the word generosity is interesting. Guess where it comes from? The Latin word meaning to start or give birth. It’s not really about giving or taking, it’s about starting something.
To tie this back to The Gift Economy, when scientists or doctors share information at a colloquium, when technologists collaborate on Open Source projects and give their work-product away, when bloggers and discussion group participants spend hours sharing information and insights with others, this isn’t charity, or philanthropy, it’s generosity — they’re catalyzing change, they’re trying to start something.
In case the tear-jerker examples in the first paragraph didn’t make you uncomfortable enough, here’s a couple more to think about. Consider the pharmaceutical company that has invested a few million in a new drug that works out successfully (many don’t). They know that, because there is no other drug with similar effectiveness, they can charge whatever they want. They decide to charge $100 per pill. The government health plans in many countries pay, and the product is a cash cow for the company. Unfortunately, for those without medical coverage, and for the Third World, the price is out of reach. The company agrees to sell special lots of the drug to the Third World for $20 per pill, if a consortium of governments agrees to cough up another $40 per pill — both the governments and the company are then ‘out’ $40 per pill, in the interest of international good will. How does that strike you? Some may see this as corporate philanthropy, while others will see it as extortion of governments and subsidized charity. It’s not generosity.
Now consider the case of file-sharers. Millions of individuals decide to share their copies of music and videos with those who may not be able to afford them. At the same time they sample some music and videos shared by others that they themselves could afford. In some cases they like what they hear or see enough to buy commercial copies of the artists’ other work, and to pay for tickets to see them live in concert. What category does this fall into, in your mind? To some this is seen as simple theft, while others may see it as generosity — file sharing has certainly started something.
Let’s see how these morally complex situations might have played out in the Gift Economy, rather than the Market Economy that gave rise to the difficulties described above. In a Gift Economy, those with expertise in pharmaceuticals would recognize the need for a new drug. They would self-organize a consortium and ask governments to fund the research in part on a successful efforts basis: If the research fails to produce a useful drug, the governments are out only the out-of-pocket costs of the work plus a subsistence wage for the researchers. If it succeeds, then the consortium members receive a significant bonus — a motivation for diligence and success, but more importantly a thank you for their gift to society — for their generosity. Everyone in the world gets the drug for what it costs to deliver it to the patient, which varies by cost of living from a penny in the Third World to perhaps fifty cents in the West. The governments are ‘out’ the entire cost of the drug’s development — perhaps $1 per pill spread over the many more patients that benefit from it. That’s still much less than they would have paid under the Market Economy scenario. And it’s more than offset by the reduction in treatment costs that the drug prevents. Yes, the governments are out the tax dollars on the profits and executive salaries that no longer exist, but we’ll get to taxes in a minute. And, yes, I know governments are big and corrupt and inefficient, and I’ll get to that in a minute, too.
Back to the file-sharers. In a Gift Economy, musicians and artists and writers would readily gift their work to the public domain, under a Creative Commons license. File-sharing would become the principal way recorded artistic works were distributed. The government (yes, I know, you hate government, just suspend your reservations for a minute) would create a fund for cultural products, and would distribute that fund, up to a certain maximum per artist, to artists in proportion to the volume of their work shared online and through CDs, DVDs and books produced for those who prefer or need the harder media. Want to support your favourite author, musician, playwright or filmmaker? Just download their work and the government will take heed. No one would get rich, but a hell of a lot more artists would be able to make a living this way. And there would be much more breadth, and less formula, in what is produced. The process is inherently generous, it would start a lot more creative ideas and bring them to fruition than the constipated homogeneity and imaginative poverty that comes out of the Market Economy’s version of the ‘entertainment industry’. And Bush’s Private Ownership of Everything Economy (euphemistically shortened to just the Ownership Economy) would make all the failures of the Market Economy a hundred times worse. The so-called ‘Ownership Economy’ is the antithesis of the Gift Economy.
OK. Back to the sticking points: Government and Taxes. We all hate taxes. Why? Because they are charity. They are a means of coercing the poor and middle-class (the rich can hire expensive investment advisors and tax accountants and lawyers, and bribe big governments to give them massive subsidies and kickbacks, so with few exceptions, at least in the US, they pay, net net, little or no tax already) to give money either (a) to the rich, to ‘friends’ of the elite and to big corporations in the form of subsidies, payoffs and war spending [in the US and much of the Third World], or (b) to the less fortunate [in the rest of the West]. The answer in a Gift Economy? Don’t tax income at all, tax ‘bads’ (resource depletion, pollution, waste and hoarding) instead of ‘goods’. Putting disincentives in place for these ‘bads’ demonstrates good stewardship for the Earth and provides a simple and ‘non-charitable’, generous means of raising funds publicly to start something — like finding a drug to solve a major health problem, or encouraging a proliferation of artistic creation.
The reason we cannot today, at least in most countries, trust ‘government’ to manage the Gift Economy in the way I have described in the preceding paragraphs is that it is simply too big, too removed from the people, and has too much of a vested interest in the Market Economy and the political status quo. The solution to this, which will take time, is to break down government from the centralized state level to local self-determined communities. Each community can then decide how much it is prepared to invest in activities (like medical research and artistic creation) that benefit the well-being of its members and the rest of the world. Until then, the best way to curtail the abuses and profligacy of governments is to give them less money to play with (and taxing ‘bads’ will help, since it is likely to produce less revenue than taxing ‘goods’), so that they cannot afford military adventures, massive corporate and agricultural subsidies, and the other market-distorting activities that, ironically, keep the misnamed ‘Market Economy’ in business. We need to make subsidies (the theft of money from taxpayers for political ‘friends’), the waging of war (except under extreme defensive circumstances), and the incurring of debt (the theft of money from future generations) illegal. Government money should be spent only on generous (in the true meaning of the word — starting something) activities. If it were, there would be no need to spend it on charity. If you’re getting your medicines for pennies and your entertainment for free, and you’re a teacher, or a doctor, or a gardener, or a carpenter, or a tailor, you can organize with others in your self-selected community and gift the others in the community what you have to offer, and accept their gifts so that you need nothing. No charity, no wealth, no poverty, no ‘economic diseases’ that exist only because of lack of access to cures. *Sigh* — it’s all so possible, yet so far from today’s reality that it fills me with despair.
I’ve been reading lately about renaturalization — trying to restore native plants to local ecosystems. The challenge is that these are complex systems that evolved over millennia, and when you start to try to interfere in a positive way, the results can be unexpected and dismaying. Bear Kaufmann sent me this intriguing quote from Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control:
Restoring an ecosystem community is coming at it from the wrong side. “When we try to restore a prairie or wetland, we are trying to assemble an ecosystem along a path that the community has no practice in,” says [ecologist Stuart] Pimm. We are starting with an old farm, while nature may have started with a glacial moraine ten thousand years ago. Pimm began asking himself: Can we assemble a stable ecosystem by taking in the parts at random? Because at random was exactly how humans were trying to restore ecosystems.
And so it is with economies, which are also complex systems. We can try to introduce a Gift Economy at the microcosm (community) level, but to the extent that community is part of a larger set of social constructs still operating under the Market Economy, the consequences may be unpredictable. But just as we try nevertheless to renaturalize our communities ecologically, that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to renaturalize our communities economically, introducing as much as possible a Gift Economy. Generously. Who knows, it might even be fun.