Of Myth and the Gift Economy

First published in 1983, may consider “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde “a brilliantly orchestrated defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money and overrun with commodities”. Hyde claims that creativity is “a gift” which must be shared to be of value. The shared products of creativity form a Gift Economy.

I see Hyde struggling to draw a nuanced line between a “Gift Economy” and a market economy. In his chapter on usury, this line is substantiated as a boundary between the neighbor and the stranger. I believe he struggles because the line is not sharp, and its lack of sharpness underscores the importance of the gift economy even in today’s world of “market triumphalism”.

Becoming a member of the Tribe

Most business-to-business transactions are identical to consumer transactions: one business has something to sell and another buys it. However, when one company desires to purchase an item that is a critical part of its product from another company, the “consumer” process is often deemed inadequate. In these cases a Supply Agreement is negotiated between the two companies. The agreement attempts to spell out the rights and responsibilities of each party. This will include detailed definitions of the product and its quality, how that quality will be demonstrated, volume of product committed to be purchased, upper and lower bounds for the volume of periodic purchases, when ownership of the product transfers from one party to the other, price of the product and mechanism for adjusting the price, liability, indemnification against intellectual property disputes and more. The Supply Agreement will attempt to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and each party’s course of action if any of those scenarios should occur.

It can take many months to negotiate such an agreement.

When done, the agreement is filed away. And the lawyers will tell you, if you ever feel the need to take the agreement out of the drawer, your relationship with the other party is already dead.

Lower level functionaries at the two companies handle the actual transactions between the buyer and the seller. It almost never goes the way it was spelled out in the agreement. The world is just too messy for that. Instead, the person at one company is always communicating with his or her counterpart at the other, explaining their current problem or need and working out a solution. Sales are down (or up), can you postpone a delivery (or bring one forward)? One of our machines broke down. Can we send a partial shipment now and make it up next month? And so on. With a successful business partner, these issues get worked out and are often never seen by senior management. The less visible they are, the more successful the relationship.

This is the gift economy working within the market economy. Every time a buyer helps solve a supplier’s problem they are giving them a gift. There is no quid pro quo, just a belief that the gift will be returned – in a different form – sometime in the future. These transactions are personal. The purchasing agent does not call “the supplier,” they call a particular person at the supplier. They don’t ask that a favor be done for their company, they say “can you help me out here?” As these gifts are exchanged, the relationship is built. The partner that successfully negotiates through these difficulties is often perceived as a “better” supplier/customer than the one who flawlessly delivers on the agreement. This makes sense: if a company has delivered flawlessly to-date, you have no idea how they will behave when the inevitable crisis occurs.

What of that carefully negotiated Supply Agreement gathering dust? It is simply a relic of the ritual that converted a stranger into a tribe member.

–—The myth of intellectual Property and the ambiguity of the modern Tribe

Hyde’s mention of the patent system is an opening to a deeper conversation on the role of the gift economy in contemporary society. Hyde identifies the limited duration of the monopoly granted by a patent as an appropriate compromise between a gift economy and a market economy. More important, in my opinion, is the fact that granting of a patent is contingent on the inventor describing the invention in sufficient detail that others can practice it. This allows others to apply the new knowledge imbedded in the invention to other areas, and to begin improving on the invention long before they can exploit those improvements in the market place. The inventor may be given a monopoly on the profit from an invention for a limited time, but the knowledge itself immediately becomes humanity’s common heritage.

The fact that patents and copyright have the lofty status of being mentioned in the Constitution points to their significance, as does the unique way they are presented there. The Constitution of the United States generally reflects the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke where “rights” reside in the individual and some of these rights are voluntarily surrendered to government in return for the government protecting other rights. The Constitution seeks to enumerate the rights surrendered to the government and orders the government to not infringe other rights. The Bill of Rights starts “Congress shall make no law…” reflecting the general tone of the document.

By contrast, Article 1, Section 8 states “The Congress shall have the Power … To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. Here there is no hint of a belief that there exist abstract, natural “Intellectual Property Rights” to be protected, as we often discuss them today. Rather we see a concrete, artificial market right that can be arbitrarily created (or removed) by government.

This reflects the ongoing ambiguity we feel about the rights of the individual vs. their obligation to society. Humans are fragile compared to the rest of nature and we survive only through a shared culture – which requires shared knowledge. In a small village I share my knowledge for making better arrowheads and reap the benefits of a more successful hunting party. If Proctor and Gamble downloads my photograph from the Internet and uses it to sell soap, how will I ever benefit? This becomes theft by the stranger rather than sharing within my tribe.

In modern society, who is my tribe? I may belong to many. Copyright law attempts to tread this needle through the “Fair Use” clause. The reviewer, professor or journalist who uses my work builds on it and passes the gift along. Eventually I share the, often intangible, benefit. They are part of my tribe, even if I never know them. The person who sells my work for profit, or uses it to sell something else, consumes my gift and owes me compensation.

There is perhaps no better modern-day example of a gift economy than the Open Source Movement. It is the height of irony that almost all of the commerce on the Internet flows through the backbone of the Apache Webserver – software developed by a cadre of independent volunteers working solely for the satisfaction of creating something appreciated by others – appreciated both by users for its usefulness and by their peers for its elegance. Luckily for all of us these volunteers have a day job.

–—The price of the death of Myth

In his book Collaborative Circles, Michael Farrell reports that in 1913 C. S. Lewis “felt particularly skeptical of Christianity, which he viewed as a religion built on recycled mythology”. During a long discussion starting the evening of September 19th and lasting well into the morning, J.R.R. Tolkien “agreed that the New Testament story was a myth” but that “the historical events had unfolded in the form of a familiar myth so as to create a story that would penetrate human consciousness”. So compelling did Lewis find Tolkien’s argument, that the “urbane Oxford scholar” became the best-known Christian apologist.

To Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, God is not a myth, but requires myth[1] to achieve his ends. An alternative view is represented by the theology professor whom when asked, “is God Dead?”, replied, “Go to any museum. They are filled with dead gods”. Her point being that there is a universal spirit that must be reinterpreted as “God” for each age. In this view “God” is a myth and only the “Holy Spirit” has an ultimate reality.

Economies of either the gift or market variety exist within, and are, mythologies, if we accept mythologies as world-views that inform our actions. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations spoke of us being guided toward the common good “as if by an invisible hand” as we pursue individual gain. But he perceived this as only working within a framework of laws and common mores. Among many it is current to believe the “invisible hand” does not work within a framework of mores, but is superior to them. In this belief system “anything goes” in the marketplace because the invisible hand of the market will produce the optimum result. The invisible hand becomes the myth, but a myth that replaces the market-as-human-endeavor with market-as-force-of-nature. This is a market we cannot control and therefore are not accountable for its consequences. We have ample evidence the invisible hand does not always produce optimum results. If it did, economic bubbles would not exist. Please, bring back the mythology of the staid, conservative community banker!

We compensate for a lack of guiding mythologies by enacting laws. But the nature of laws is that they invite lawyering, that is, parsing the law, cutting it to bits until it has lost all meaning. We end with the absurdity of a jealous wife who tries to poison her husband’s mistress being charged with violating a chemical weapons treaty.

Myths, on the other hand, are not subject to such lawyerly interpretation. Their ability to restrict individual actions comes only from a holistic interpretation and integration into the psyche. A respected banker finds selling worthless mortgage-backed derivatives inconceivable. He may not be able to explain why, except to say “it’s just not done!”

Unfortunately, that respected banker also finds it inconceivable that women should vote. However, in this society, the bohemian, the artist-provocateur, is busy building an alternative mythology. He or she is shunned by society, shunning being the primary enforcement mechanism in a mythology-regulated society. The artist, however, lives within his/her own Gift Economy with a value system that is less dependent on the admiration of greater society. Not even a recommendation from Emerson could get Whitman a job, yet he remained happy in his garret. In a law-dominated society the artist is sent to the Gulag.

(As an aside, in this metaphor Science can be viewed as one of the biggest, baddest Bohemians as it disrupts the social order through the creation of new paradigms.)

In a myth-free society, what is the place of the artist? To create pretty pictures for commercial consumption? Or can the artist go beyond propagating the old mythologies and build new ones? Mythologies that reinterpret the universal nature of man, the “Holy Spirit,” and create a new God for the current age.



[1] At least myth is required if free will is to be maintained


About dougstinson

Doug Stinson enjoys pondering unexpected connections and sharing his discoveries. He is also a physicist, a photographer, a new product realization executive, and a student of history, the environment and religion. You can learn about his other creative ventures at http://www.douglasgstinson.com
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