Sunday, December 6, 2009

Barter and other economies

Barter's an old system of exchanging goods and services. It existed before money economies, continued in parallel with money, and people fall back on it when currencies fail. Joe trades his corn for Peter's venison. Al helps Fred paint his house and then Fred helps Al fix his plumbing. It's a reasonable way to do a lot of business.

Barter's fine, but I'm rather fond of the gift economy. Think of a barter system, but one in which nobody keeps track. Joe gives his corn to Peter. Peter may give him some venison, but he doesn't have to. Al paints Fred's house. Fred say thanks. People do something without expecting anything specific in return. Does that sound like a good system to you?

It isn't, in the open market. In a barter system, Joe and Peter don't even have to know or like each other. As long as they can trust enough to do a trade, barter works. For a gift economy to work, there has to be some sort of connection between people. Joe is Peter's cousin. Al and Fred are friends and neighbors. There are bonds between people that go beyond commerce. It's tribal.

We evolved in tribal systems. In a gift economy, as long as the gifts are exchanged between people with connections, it's fine. The whole tribe benefits. If the tribe is strong, people are secure and safe. We don't have to be tribal in the old Native American sense. Take an extended family with good bonds and trust. Add in some friends and neighbors, and presto! One tribal economy.

In a tribal economy, a person's value isn't in how much stuff he can pile up. He's respected for what he shares with other people. It could be skills and talents, or it could be goods like the bounty from his garden. Not only is he valuable to the tribe, he gets a lot of satisfaction out of the arrangement. Who doesn't like being respected and valued? Someone who takes and cheats loses respect. Since he's nasty, few will come to his aid should he get in trouble.

The gift economy works at the tribal level. What about the wider world, you ask?

I say, gift to the greater world, even if they are not in "your tribe."

If you are a Christian, isn't it your duty to "cast you bread upon the waters." After all, won't it "come back to you threefold?"

A pagan will talk about the threefold law. What you do comes back to you three times.

Then there are those who follow the law of Karma. Again, the good (or bad) that's done comes back to you.

Now that you think about it, isn't a gift economy a moral economy? Is a money economy moral?


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