19 Comments

The thing about reputational systems in very large societies is that they make it easy for "cheaters" to abuse the system in the short term in a local area, then move on to a different area of the society and repeat their behavior. I suppose today, with the web, perhaps they would be caught out and followed (and "canceled"?) once they had plundered enough areas. (And perhaps that is why it is so hard to find much personal information about a great many "journalists" and "influencers". They don't want to be found out.)

Anyway, if the policing mechanism is getting a bad reputation for lack of reciprocity, keeping track of 'bad' individuals in a very large population would seem to be a major sticking point to the success fo gifting.

My personal experience is that, when used, it works pretty well in persistent groups with a good grapevine. But I've been on the receiving end of a serious, serial "cheater" who never seems to suffer. So . . .

Expand full comment

Consider the give and take of research, and writing and publishing research papers. An awful lot of give and take involved, and if you don't understand the game, you won't get far as a researcher, if no one wants to collaborate, review.

Expand full comment

Have you ever tried developing a systematic categorization of possible economic frameworks? If so, how do you think it would look?

If I think about it, it ends up being along game theoretic lines. If I try to be more precise, my sketch looks like a description of the moves available to each "player" (individuals, the state), and the responses available for each move.

For instance, a free market includes one where there is no state, but there is property, and individuals may send some of their property for another individual, but they will try to ensure it is matched by a receipt of more valuable property (to the individual in question). But there are variants. Two or more individuals might opt to coordinate their moves, forming an organization (or a company or a family or...), in which they entrust approval of some or all such transactions to another member of their group. Another variant allows transactions where receipt is delayed - I give you $1000 today in return for $1050 in a month. Or even where receipt is not guaranteed - I give you some entertainment now, in the hopes that you toss me a few dollars if you enjoyed it, whether it's a dollar bill in my hat, or a donation to my Patreon.

One could try to systematize different versions of socialism or communism in a similar way. Eventually, I would hope to recognize patterns among them, use that to group them, and to discover new exchange frameworks in the combinations of patterns that I didn't see tried yet.

This could lead in turn to some interesting science fiction. I can't name an example from memory, but I would be surprised if no writer out there had tried to create a serious economic framework based on a sentient hivemind, for instance, or a symbiotic pair. Or a species whose sentience was hard for us to determine, such as a very large organism with no known other instances, no obvious means of communication, but nevertheless complex behavior.

Expand full comment

I wonder if the income distribution in a gift economy would be more or less egalitarian than our own. I would bet less egalitarian.

Your income would not only depend on how productive you are, but also how good you are at leveraging a dense network of favors and IOUs this economy would create. Being a good worker and good politician seems like rare combination.

Expand full comment

My understanding and personal observations are that numerous forms of gift exchange are still very common in Japanese society.

Expand full comment

Hobby focused forums are a bit like a gift economy . People freely give their time and expertise to help/inform others about the topic either as a gift or for the reputation in the community.

Some examples include fish keeping/aquatic plant forums, old computer forums (68kmla.org) and similar hobbies where challenging skills and obscure knowledge are needed/useful.

Expand full comment

Emotional support works almost entirely on a gift economy.

Expand full comment

The medieval parties sound really fun -- one of the things I enjoy about the meetups that have sprung up around readers of Scott Alexander's blog is that they feel a bit like what I imagine an 18th century philosophy salon might have been like. Getting "reputation points" and "social capital" for the costs incurred by hosting is totally worth it, in my opinion, although I'm not sure I'd like to go as far as groups like the Salish do in terms of giving everything away at gatherings, I do wish bigger and more advanced societies could manage to do better with informal things like "paying it forward" and "contributing to one's community."

Expand full comment

The Viking example is pretty interesting. Do we know if the Viking economy was primarily gift economics or in part?

Expand full comment

This gift economy seems similar to bartering but transcends it since there’s no explicit agreement of exchange. It relies instead on a spirit of giving, respect, and honoring someone’s contribution despite no obligation to do so. In short, it depends on the best qualities of humanity, so it definitively could only survive (on a widespread scale) in SF. Or in a honor society that existed in some of the Native American cultures that you reference. Sadly.

Expand full comment