Gift economy: a viable economy

2009-03-11

Vision for a meaningful and sustainable Economic system

Survival

Currently most of us work close to 40 hours a week to meet our basic needs: Food, clothing, shelter. The lucky ones among us have additional surplus income that can be placed on luxury goods, used to educate [feed] our children, or to take leisure time away from work.

There are very few animals, and certainly no top-predators that work as much as we do. If a lion were to kill as many gazelles as it could, it wouldn’t survive very long. Instead, it kills what it needs and then it chooses to spend the rest of its free time relaxing, spending time with its felines. Humans have not always been this industrious, in fact for over 99% of our history, we have worked very little: no more than a few hours a day, a little more if we are gathering instead of hunting. You can see this in indigenous Australian cultures (50,000 years), African (900,000 years+) and so forth.

Economic recessions

When there is an economic recession, there is a slowing of the gears. The cost of labor has become too high, and thus the cost of resources becomes unattainable. There are two solutions to economic slowdowns: inflation and consolidation.

Inflation is the act of giving some people money, and none to others. If we gave money to everyone, there would be no change in the economy. By giving some people more money, the people who didn’t get any money become ‘cheaper’, devalued. This makes the cost of labor go down, which makes it ultimately cheaper to cut down trees or mine up resources (since we never pay the land for what we take). By using inflation as our means to get out of a recession, we force people to work again full time, their savings become less meaningful, and we maintain the growth pressure on our land to provide ever more resources.

Consolidation is the act of reducing the workweek for everyone so that the rate of unemployment decreases. With a shorter work week, people are going to consume less luxury goods, and also convert less resources into products; which would help us to better live in equilibrium with our environment. This may seem unrealistic, but some countries have already started this trend, France most notably but also the Netherlands and possibly Germany all have workweek reduction laws in place for ~36 hours / week. A reduction of 4 hours may not seem much, but as other countries follow suit it opens the door for another country to further reduce its week from 36 to 32 and so forth.

The Vision: Gift economics

If we want to reduce consumption, so that we can be sustainable and live in balance with our ecology, we must find smart ways to reduce our consumption while still promoting our well being

The essence of the long-term goal is to reduce the workweek to its minimum, so that the work we have to do to survive [pay rent, eat food etc] is no more and no less than what is needed for our survival. The remaining time is then freed up to pursue work that we want to do. It’s a shift from a must-work economy to a want-to-work economy.

Work that people want to do is inherently useful. It’s a gift economy. I want to teach: so I teach, I want to learn: so I go to school, I want to bake cookies, I want to help kangaroos who are being badly affected by our activities, or maybe I want to become a doctor and heal people. As the workweek gradually decreases, our time to do positive contributions increases, and the net-output of the human-system becomes ever more increasingly “positive”.

The beauty of such a system is that if someone is working 2 days a week, say: farming their own vegetables, and then they decide to do nothing for the remainder of their week, this is not only completely acceptable, it is preferred to them making something they didn’t actually want to do. When people start doing things they don’t want, they make waist; or worse, they can be forced to do things that only benefit others. One example of this phenomena: Chinese farmers who are being forced into factories, to use materials dug-up unsustainably from their ecology, to make plastic toys, which are shipped to America and then 6 months later 99% of those are in the dump.

Once the shift from progressively shorter workweeks reaches its minimum point, we transition from a primarily capitalist-based economy to a gift-based economy [aka take-economy vs. a give-economy].

At this stage we may see people who spend their mornings doing chores that are necessary for their survival, such as some morning farm tending, cleaning or repairing, followed by a lunch and then some afternoon volunteer activities that they themselves have opted to start or join. The person in question may decide they want to open a restaurant as their ‘contribution’ to society, and work exclusively as a volunteer. They could do this every day of the week, or more likely only on some days of the week. They would obtain their necessary ingredients all from their own or other peoples farms who are willing to share their surplus with the restaurant’s cause, the food made would also be a gift, and people would simply be invited to come and share in the surplus.

Bottom-up shift


This new system relies on a shift of how we think of ourselves. Currently our economic system says: “if you don’t force people to work, by making them worry about paying rent or eating food, they are lazy and they won’t do anything.” So we allow ourselves to be ruled and to suffer. We think badly of ourselves. We still believe in ‘original sin’. If we don’t trust ourselves to be good people, then we will not see ourselves as being good people.

Instead we are saying: "once people have met their two basic needs: food and shelter; they will then follow their dreams, seek to do good, develop rich family/friend interactions, and work to have meaningful lives". We see the desire for humans to make their lives meaningful as a result of them having had their needs met, rather than restricted. What we see instead today is that we are being forced to live in a perpetual state of "survival".

An economic system can either promote or suppress the individuals’ within a society to develop themselves. But the real change in thinking must come from the individual: upwards. To this end, this proposed model will only provide a more equitable basis for this personal expression to develop.

This model will not ‘create’ good people, but it may very well facilitate it.

Law and order

We can look at crime as being a failing of society to care, not in the individual’s inability to survive. 90% of all of those in prisons were in poverty before ending up there; the link between poverty and crime is well known and scientifically established. When a person steals an apple to eat, is the problem that they stole, or is the problem that no one is willing to share? So who exactly should be in prisons?

Profit

The concept of "Profit" in this system is shifted. Right now we use profit as our mantra to generate wealth. But profit is essentially saying: “we are going to make a trade, only it won’t be fair because I am going to get more than you”; if it were an equal trade, there would be no profit. So there is always a winner and a loser. And because all of our wealth, at the bottom of the pyramid, always ends up coming from resources (aka the environment), it is the environment that looses today in the unequal "profit" exchange.

Instead in the gift-economy model, we shift Profit to be viewed as a "gift". Where the Surplus is redistributed willingly by people.

Competition

The gift-economy system does not do away with competition, but it also doesn’t idolize it. Useful functions will be self-promoting, and people will naturally gravitate towards doing things that they are both good at, and demanded by others.

Local Adaptation

One of the beauties of this model is that it is very simple, and thus highly suited to local adaptation. There is no eye-from-above that monitors people, nor a need for centralization or control. The core of the model is a few basic principles, but the way in which people self-organize, and what they choose to give, is entirely local in nature. So long as people follow the guidelines, the system is self-correcting. This allows for diversity, cultural differences, local condition adaptation and evolution to take place more readily. It is large-scale economics built on small-scale naturally forming structures. Put another way: this is empowering-hierarchies built from the bottom up instead of dis-empowering or limiting hierarchies imposed from the top-down.

Money vs. Wealth

A form of money may still exist in the future with this model, but it becomes largely irrelevant, as the primary motivation in the economy is entirely non-financial. Real wealth comes from your own personal sense of gratification, and from the strength and quality of your abilities and your relationships. Your life has meaning because you make it to have meaning.

Technology

People who work together to create things they want to offer will naturally find people who are seeking the things that are being offered. And if no one is making the thing you want, you are encouraged to work towards making it. The whole idea is that all of your work is done because you see value in it, and all of our products and services exist because someone is made happy by receiving it. Because you have nothing material to gain from your gift directly, there is an intrinsic value created that your offering should be responsible and considerate of other people, the earth and our ecology.

It wouldn't make sense to make a toy-factory that indirectly polluted the river, that would be like baking a cake for your friend only to find out they were allergic to what you put in it. And since you are making toys purely because you want to offer something nice to people, children in this case, you would want to do it right in every way possible; its just common sense.

There is no reason why large projects can not be formed, where the development of cutting edge technologies would continue; in fact, since the primary motivation is to create useful things, the technology we develop will be limited by social/environmental responsibilities we impose on ourselves, instead of being hindered by mechanisms that hinder technology in order to increase profits.

Today we have the opposite situation: our technology is recklessly in pursuit of profits: at the expense of our future and ecology, and yet it is hindered by our very own redundant and consumptive profit-based mentalities which seek to stagger and limit the long-term usefulness of our tools.

Other values

Other values that are essential to our future include: trust, transparency and honesty. Especially in business we need to not accept the hiding of information; books need to be honest; if we are good people, what do we have to hide? Intellectual materialism floats in the same boat here, as the coveting and controlling of ideas ties hand-in-hand with the desire to exert power and control over others. Ideas are meant to be shared; they are a part of our gift.

It takes energy to stop people from stealing ideas; it creates energy to share them

How to get there?

The first step is to play with this idea and to try and explore it. If you come up with issues, discuss them. You can write your questions and concerns to: Sebastian Chedal schedal@gmail.com and I would be more than happy to think it over with you.

If you are already sold on the idea, and want to know how to make this a reality, here is what I suggest:

  • Make it clear to the world that you are against inflation because this increases consumption, devalues your time, forces you to work more for rising prices, and robs you of your savings
  • Demand a shortening of the workweek, this will decrease unemployment and reduce consumption and give you more ‘free’ time. We do this in 4h/week steps and start with 36 hours, and reducing the workweek further every time we have a recession and/or other nations follow suit
  • See people as being inherently good, or share this view with others if you already do. We have a system built around the concept that people are greedy, selfish and lazy; so long as we believe this is true, our economic system will reflect this.
  • Scorn those who promote values of greed, profit, intellectual materialism, privatization, or other excessively selfish behaviors. Once we decide to see people as being inherently good people, those who do not behave in respectable ways should not be given our respect and we need to be firm on our beliefs against these people and/or institutions.
  • Start giving. To horde is to fear, we don’t want to live in fear, and fear is its own end. Any system based on fear is unsustainable, and this includes the individual-person system as well as a nation. We want to build on something else than fear. Something that is real, viable. We want a life-model that is meaningful.
  • Share this idea with others.

There are two ways to create change:

  1. The Spreading of ideas
  2. Becoming the change you seek in the world
  3. Both of these are essential; ideas can move quickly, it took less than 10 years for the ‘Self Actualization’ movement of the 1960’s to completely change the Nation.