The gift economy and commerce

In biblical times, money was treated in radically different ways depending on whether you were dealing with someone inside or outside the tribe.  For example:

To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest.

– Deuteronomy 23:19,20

Within the tribe, it was forbidden to make money on money you gave to someone (this is the genesis of usury laws).  It was known and understood that what mattered was the collective wealth and well-being of the tribe, and so there were established norms and expectations around the giving and receiving of gifts.  It was known that as a recipient of a gift it was your job to return what was given to you or its equivalent, whether to the person who gave to you or to the next person in the tribe who had a need.  This is how the needs of the members of the tribe were addressed. Gifts flowed in a circular fashion.

Outside the tribe, on the other hand, all bets were off.  You could lend, charge interest, even ask for a goat as collateral if this would help ensure payment.

I visualize it like this: within the circle, we have the gift economy; outside of the circle we have commerce.

Without judging what is good and bad here – indeed without commerce where would we be as a world? – it’s simple to observe that, year after year and century after century, the purview of commerce has gotten broader and the space for the gift economy has shrunken:

What was once the tribe became the extended family became, at least in the West today, the nuclear family.  Community ties weaken, religious ties weaken as many (but certainly not all) parts of the world become more secular, and the gift economy, the economy where generosity and helping first and asking questions later, gets whittled down so much that it’s just a speck in an ocean of commerce.

The irony of course is that, thanks to the amazing power of commerce, we’re wealthier than we’ve ever been.

Which means we have a choice.   Our first, most obvious option is to separate more and to insulate.  We can shop online and hide from the world; we can only associate with people who (socially, economically, politically) are just like us.  We can have Google and Facebook give us search results and friend feeds that systematically reinforce our beliefs.  Indeed there’s a great gravitational pull in this direction.

Our other option, the one that’s been nagging at us and sneaking up on us oh-so-quietly, is to recognize that what we desire most of all is to connect with others, to break down barriers and rip out the insulation, to experience the world and people and one another in a fuller, richer way, and to use our own wealth to heal the world.

The success of Generosity Day this year and, I’m hoping, in years to come is proof of the hunger for the second path, the one that leads to openness and connection, the one that allows us to take all our wealth and power and opportunity and build a different world, one in which we use our great capacity for change and for wealth creation to help one another.

In the end both paths will have to co-exist, but the false promise that’s being served up is that the first path alone will be enough.  It won’t.

One thought on “The gift economy and commerce

  1. In biblical days, people gave a ‘tithe’ which was a percantage of thier income (usually 10%) which was directed to the temple and redistributed to the poor etc. Effectively it was the tax of the day. There were then ‘offerings’ over and above that, some mandatory, and others voluntary. The biggest lesson to be learned from ‘old testament’ thinking is that giving was always in the context of community involvement and engagement. Yes there has true commerce in those days too, but the ‘giving’ part was driven by connection, and community ownership of the needs of less fortunate.

    The issue we have today is that the government has taken the place of the ‘temple.’ Government, as an impersonal third party, is usually seen as dis-engaged and self serving. Therefore the gift economy of today has to fight a lonely battle of either creating engagement, or tapping into any kind of existing engagement it can find… a feat that was not required in biblical times where community was central, not commerce.

    Getting a committed tribe to put their hands in their pocket voluntarily, and with joy… surely that is the ultimate in engagement? Doesn’t the bible also say “where your treasure is, there your heart is also?”

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