Gift economy

From Academic Kids

A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given, rather than traded. This should in theory be beneficial because needs can be satisfied immediately, as opposed to economic stagnation caused by adverse or inappropriate trade conditions, as such in a poverty-stricken area. This is thus often the proposed solution to the poverty cycle, such as in Anarcho-Communism.

In Anarcho-Communism, there is no money or market—only a gift economy. Products are given away and freely distributed. However, gift economies can co-exist with planned economies, market economies, and barter economies.

Gift economies of communal food sharing is a universal practice among ancient and modern hunter-gatherer societies, where sharing is an egalitarian safeguard against failure of any individual's daily foraging. A more elaborate version is the Pacific Northwest Native American potlatch ritual, where leaders give away large amounts of goods to their followers, strengthening group relations.

The sharing economy is an effort to describe sharing in economic terms. Yochai Benkler in his paper Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm writes that Ronald Coase described the firm as a more efficient form of production than the market. Benkler suggests a third mode of production called commons-based peer-production. Charles Leadbeater writes about the Pro Am revolution and the Pro Am economy where amateurs motivated by non-economic reasons are growing in power and supporting the sharing economy. Efforts such as Creative Commons led by Lawrence Lessig encourage sharing and argue that society and corporations will benefit from sharing.

Note that there are societies where gift recipients are expected to give something in return, typically political support, military services and general loyalty, or even return gifts and favors. This was common in warrior societies where kings and chieftains gave freely to their followers and could expect their loyal service in return. Such systems have social sanctions built in to punish freeloaders or miserly chiefs. A default punishment would be to halt gifts or services from one party to the alleged party in wrong. Typical sanctions might also include a bad reputation, formal eviction from the lord's hall, a challenge to a duel, or public ridicule. A stingy lord would find it difficult to attract followers.


Gift economies can exist outside of hunter-gatherer societies or small, ungoverned groups; in certain forms, they thrive today even in huge subpopulations of first-world countries.

  • Traditional scientific research is an information gift economy. Scientists produce research papers and give them away through journals and conferences. Other scientists freely refer to such papers. The more citations a scientist has, the more prestige and respect he or she has, which can attract funding and positions. All scientists therefore benefit from the increased pool of knowledge.
  • The free software community is an information gift economy. Programmers make their source code available, allowing anyone to copy and modify/improve the code. Individual programmers gain prestige and respect, and the community as a whole benefits from better software.

In both these examples, we see that information is particularly suited to gift economics, as information can be copied and transmitted at practically no cost.

Jordan Hubbard, writing in Queue magazine ("Open Source to the Core", p.24–31, May 2004) although referring to open source as a barter economy, describes it as a gift economy: "The volunteer software engineers in the open source software community are far more likely to help those who have demonstrated their commitment to the success of the overall open source software development process." [op. cit., p. 29] In other words, reciprocity is a broad community matter rather than explicit quid pro quo.

  • The Wikipedia web-based collaborative encyclopedia is, in most of its operations, a thriving gift economy. Hundreds of thousands of articles are available on Wikipedia, and none of their innumerable authors and editors received any material reward. Wikipedia has been constructed entirely out of gifts, and gives information freely. From time to time Wikipedia has engaged in fundraising activities, asking people to contribute funds toward operating expenses; these donated funds are gifts, albeit explicitly solicited ones. A tiny portion of Wikipedia's income comes from product sales, mostly T-shirts, mugs, and the like, with Wikipedia logos.

Because Wikipedia exists within a money economy, some expenses must be met with money, such as paying for servers, domain registration, and for certain IT work involved in server maintenance. Therefore, the information in Wikipedia is a gift economy, but some operational aspects of its website and related entities are not. Yahoo's provision of servers in Asia[1] ( for Wikipedia is on a gift basis; there is no explicit quid pro quo. However, several people raised concerns that future reciprocation may be expected, beyond the prestige. (Mook, 2005) [2] (

A gift economy is also an important cornerstone of the annual Burning Man festival, the Freecycle Network and of the Give-away shop.

External links


  • Nate Mook, Google Offers to Host Wikipedia (, Beta News, February 11, 2005. Retrieved March 2, 2005.
  • Marcel Mauss: The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Originally published as Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques in 1925, modern English edition: ISBN 039332043X.
  • Lewis Hyde: The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, 1983 (ISBN 0394715195), especially part I, "A Theory of Gifts", part of which was originally published as "The Gift Must Always Move" in Co-Evolution Quarterly No. 35, Fall 1982.

pl:Ekonomia darów fr:Économie de don


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