In his contribution to Gifts and Interests (Morality and the Meaning of Life) , Jacques Godbout suggests that the freedoms of modernity are “founded on the immediate and permanent liquidation of debt.” In the market, all debts are immediately canceled: You give me goods over the counter, I give you money; we both leave without owing anything to each other (25).

This enables him to specify the difference between gift and commodity:

‘“A debt voluntarily entered into is essential to the gift . . . The partners in a gift system are in a positive or negative state of debt. If it is a positive state, this means that each person believes he owes a great deal to the others.” In short, “the market is founded on the liquidation of debt” while “the gift . . . is founded on debt” (30-31).

The two “systems” are not commensurate. Godbout thinks that it is a flaw of social science to assume that human beings act according to a linear means-ends calculus, and gifts prove that this is inadequate. Gifts are not necessarily unilateral, but “one makes a gift, one often receives something more in return, but the relationship between the two is much more complex than the linear model of instrumental rationality is capable of explaining” (30). Trying to explain gifts in terms of market exchanges (e.g., he received after giving, therefore he gave to receive; the end is receiving and the means is giving) is simply an imposition of market logic on exchanges that operate by a different logic.

Godbout thinks that the market logic is no more “natural” than the other. He suggests instead that there is a “natural” instinct to give - at least, this is as plausible as saying that we have a natural tendency to truck and barter. This upends the study of gifts: Instead of investigating why people give (as if giving were a strange anomaly among creatures who seek only self-interested ends), he wants to ask, Why not give? What inhibits giving?

Articles by Peter J. Leithart