Chapter four of Braiding Sweetgrass (“The Gift of Strawberries”) examines the distinction between gifts and commodities. Because a gift is not paid for, it implies a relationship of reciprocity and imbues the object with some of the significance of that relationship. You’d probably hesitate to give away a pair of handmade socks from grandma in a way you wouldn’t a pair of socks you’d bought at the store.
A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank you note [for grandma’s socks]. I will take good care of them. And if I’m a very gracious grandchild, I’ll wear them when she visits, even if I don’t like them. And when it’s her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return.
As the anthropologist David Graeber describes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, economies based on mutual debt have been a binding force for communities since long before the advent of currency. The community is stronger when you give the miller shoes and you both remember that he owes you flour (you at least prefer he not die or go broke so that he can reciprocate your gift), than when the miller buys your shoes and neither of you have to remember or give a shit about each other. Money, and with it the idea of commodities, are antisocial in this way. Money is the denial of relationship.
The essence of a gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is at its root reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a bundle of rights. Whereas in a gift economy, property has a bundle of responsibilities attached.
This especially reminds me of freedom. Commodity exchange encourages positive freedom: it strips the mutual obligations gift-givers have to each other, expanding their freedom to do as they please. Gift exchange, on the other hand, expands our negative freedom: the web of mutual indebtedness fostered by gift exchange acts a kind of safety net. If I owe you a favor, you won’t let me starve because you need me to return the favor. And if you owe me the favor, you won’t let me starve because, well, you owe me.
It’s funny, had all the things in the market merely been a very low price, I probably would’ve scooped up as much as I could. But when everything became a gift, I felt self restraint. I didn’t want to take too much. And I began thinking of what small presents I might bring to the vendors tomorrow.
In some ways, the way that my ethical obligations end at the checkout counter when purchasing a commodity is a feature, not a bug. I think of factory-farmed meat or cheap sweatshop clothes where I don’t have to think about where the things I buy came from because paying for them brings a kind of moral closure (or the illusion thereof) to my relationship with them and their origins. externalities matter a lot here. If we are going to say that one’s moral obligations are fully abstracted by the price of something (as a commodity economy encourages us to believe) then that price had better account for everything morally salient that went into the creation of that commodity. Of course in practice it rarely does.