The impossible gift

Posted: 24 December 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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 satisfaction people get when they spend money on themselves is less than what well-meaning gift-givers spend 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 on 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, including capitalist commodity exchange) that escapes the work of Waldfogel and neoclassical economists generally.

Comments
  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] match between the price paid by the giver and the preferences of the recipient, and thus misses the ethical moment of the […]

  3. […] their own presents. What Wadfogel and other neoclassical economists don’t understand is the ethical moment of the gift, which is a product of the uncertainty created by the reciprocity associated with the […]

  4. […] have argued that the ethical moment of the gift is a product of the uncertainty of […]

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