I’m in the Christmas spirit, fresh from decorating the Krafft family tree (pictured above), and I wanted to write something holiday related. As so often happens, though, David Ruccio beats me to the punch, pushing back on the typical counter-intuitive anti-gift argument from mainstream economics. Thankfully I have something to add this time, as you’ll see below. First, here’s David:
It’s Christmas, and therefore the time when one or another neoclassical economist shows up to point out the impossibility of the gift. The basic argument—this year from Joel Waldfogel, courtesy of the Economist—is that gift-giving represents a “deadweight loss,” that is, the difference between the satisfaction people get when they spend money on themselves and when well-meaning gift-givers spend the same amount of money on gifts.
The conclusion: from the perspective of neoclassical theory, gift-giving would be improved by just offering money, and letting people buy their own presents. Thus, in a world of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals, gift-giving makes no sense. It represents a loss, both on the individual level and the social level.
What neoclassical economists miss is the ethical moment of the gift (whether for Christmas or some other occasion), which is the product of the uncertainty surrounding the gift. The uncertainty runs from the decision to make the offering of a gift (what should the gift be, and when should it be given?) to the debt incurred by the recipient (what should the reciprocal gift be, and when should it be given?). The indeterminacy of the gift, and therefore the social relationship connecting the giver and recipient, creates moments in which ethical decisions need to be made.
It’s that ethical moment of the gift (and, for the matter, any form of exchange other than capitalist commodity exchange) that escapes the work of Waldfogel and neoclassical economists generally.
Of course, there is a deconstructionist perspective that also points out the impossibility of the gift, but relies on a different view of selfishness. For this, we’ll look to Jacques Derrida, whose methodology could not be more different from the neoclassical economist’s:
In his text, Given Time, Derrida suggests that the notion of the gift contains an implicit demand that the genuine gift must reside outside of the oppositional demands of giving and taking, and beyond any mere self-interest or calculative reasoning (GT 30). According to him, however, a gift is also something that cannot appear as such (GD 29), as it is destroyed by anything that proposes equivalence or recompense, as well as by anything that even proposes to know of, or acknowledge it…
The important point is that, for Derrida, a genuine gift requires an anonymity of the giver, such that there is no accrued benefit in giving. The giver cannot even recognise that they are giving, for that would be to reabsorb their gift to the other person as some kind of testimony to the worth of the self – ie. the kind of self-congratulatory logic…
Significantly, however, according to Derrida, the existential force of this demand for an absolute altruism can never be assuaged, and yet equally clearly it can also never be fulfilled, and this ensures that the condition of the possibility of the gift is inextricably associated with its impossibility.
I don’t think I have anything to add, other than that Derrida’s argument is infinitely closer to being right than Waldfogel’s. Shocker, right?