The Gift Economy (IRL)

As an economic structure, capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. It doesn’t matter where you draw the line either: Whether it is that we live on a finite planet with finite resources, or the endless hoarding of wealth eventually resulting in a bottom up collapse, or any other apparent problem perturbing the system of never-ending growth. It doesn’t matter. Capitalism will, eventually, fail. The question then becomes, what do we do after capitalism’s demise?

Charles Eisenstein has written extensively about one potential alternative: The Gift Economy. In short, the gift economy is an economic structure in which status is garnered from one’s contribution to the system and not one’s success in exploiting that system. It is a system that promotes human and ecological prosperity as its primary goals and not as secondary to wealth creation. For example, in a gift economy, if you want less homelessness in your community, simply give or build the homeless homes. If you want less hunger, feed people. We waste nearly half of the food we produce anyway. Ultimately, a gift economy is a system that places our humanity above all else, and especially above something as abstract as “capital gains”.

“Cool, but this will never work in the real world. People are lazy and they will take advantage of the system. No one will just give things away for free.” — Skeptics, paraphrased

Perhaps the above counter argument is true. However, in a system in which society values input over output, it seems unlikely that “takers” would revel in achieving such a menial status in the new economy. (This clearly would require a major deviation away from our current economic perspective.) Nevertheless, there are examples of Gift Economies that exist today and, to find them, one need only to look to science.

“I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” — Alexander Fleming, when asked if he would patent the drug.

Gifts are reciprocal. If someone does something nice for you, you feel compelled to “return the favor”. This feeling isn’t ubiquitous of course, but it’s close. Thus, in a gift economy, status is achieved by giving. Alexander Fleming was famously quoted above for being unwilling to patent the life-saving antibiotic, penicillin. He gave away his discovery without contingency and, by doing so, saved countless lives. Fleming has since become a legend amongst his peers and their students. He was knighted by King George VI, and was awarded both the Nobel Prize and the U.S. Medal for Merit, the highest award of its kind during that time. In return for his “gift”, Fleming achieved unmatched social and professional status that endures to this day.

Importantly, however, consider Fleming’s justification for “giving away” his discovery: “Nature did that.” This is a key insight because, at some level, all gifts originate from nature. We do not exist without a functional ecosystem to support life. This is a fundamental understanding in a gift economy.

“Good for him but that was a one time deal.” — Skeptics, paraphrased

Fleming set a beautiful precedent that the pharmaceutical industry has, unfortunately, since corrupted beyond all belief. Yet, not all is lost. In the 21st century, computer science is arguably just as important as any other scientific pursuit and, luckily, many in the field have followed Fleming’s lead. Open-source software is typically how computer scientists release their inventions, their tools. Open-source software is free to download and modify as the end-user sees fit. This enables researchers to uncover new scientific discoveries without massive paywalls while also contributing to the further development of the tool. As a model, open-source software is a gift economy.

Status in the open-source community is achieved by developing a useful tool. The more useful the tool, the more others will use the tool and make it better. Which, of course, creates a simple but effective positive feedback loop. This loop can eventually build a community and, once you have a community, naturally, you have an economy in which the best ideas succeed because of their utility.

Google and the other tech firms use computer science to sell ads, to make profit. Their product is “free”, but it isn’t open. Their model is fundamentally different from open-source. Open-source developers use their skills to help others and help make discoveries that have changed the world. This isn’t limited to science either. Open-source software helps artists, musicians, and small business owners, on-and-on. Unlike capitalism, the utility of open-source software and their communities is seemingly boundless because its priority is not to make profit, but rather to foster human well being.

If you can think of other examples of gift economies IRL, write a response below!




scientist | communicator | sometimes these overlap

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Jeremy Sutherland

Jeremy Sutherland

scientist | communicator | sometimes these overlap

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