The Gift Economy

My daughter spent the summer at the L’Abri in England two years ago, and when she returned home, she brought audio copies of some of her favorite lectures. We listened to one of these CDs on the way home from Los Angeles earlier this summer. It was about the difference between the Market Economy and the Gift Economy. In the Market Economy, you exchange something of value, like money, for a commodity. After the exchange is through, you have received your commodity as “a right” since you paid for it, and there are no lingering effects.

The Gift Economy builds community in several ways. First, when you have received something that you did not pay for and did not deserve, you have gratitude toward the giver. Gratitude leads to thankfulness which is one of the foundations of our human experience. Secondly, the receiver often feels indebted to the giver and looses some of his independence and autonomy which is necessary for community to build. (and which is why some people do not like to be given gifts.) But most importantly, the Gift Economy must take place in real community. The Market Economy creates boundaries while gifts move across boundaries and abolish them.

This summer, a couple from our community of friends gave us the wonderful gift of staying at their river front cottage for a few days. My family enjoyed swimming in the river, doing puzzles, writing stories, hiking and playing games. The gift of the cottage included much more than a house. It encompassed all it means for a family to have time away to enjoy each other. I am forever thankful and indebted to our dear friends, and our community together grows deeper and deeper.