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Gift economy
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Gift economy

A gift economy is an economic system in which participants give away things of value to the shared benefit of the community.

Gift economies were first formally recognized in the potlatch rituals of Native American societies in the Pacific Northwest. Leaders would give away large amounts of perishable goods to their followers.

The tradition of scientific research is an example of a gift economy. A scientist produces research papers and gives them away to other scientists, through journals and conferences. The other scientists are free to refer to the first scientist's papers. The more citations the scientist has, the more prestige and respect he has, which can attract funding and positions. All of the scientists benefit from an increased pool of knowledge.

The concept of a gift economy is also important in Chinese social relations and guanxi. People in Chinese societies will exchange gifts in order to cement social relationships.

A gift economy is an important cornerstone of the annual Burning Man festival.

Information is particularly suited to gift economics, as a given piece of information can be copied and transmitted indefinitely at practically no cost.

The free software community can be thought of as an example of an information gift economy. Programmers make their source code available to users and the developer community, and anyone can copy and modify/improve the code. Individual programmers gain prestige and respect, and the community as a whole benefits from better software.

There is some confusion about the terms free software and open source software. Open source software may be free (to copy & modify), but it also may restrict copying and modifying. The author quoted below seems to use them as synonyms: Jordan Hubbard, writing in Queue magazine ("Open Source to the Core", p.24--31, May 2004) while referring to open source as a "barter economy," describes it in terms much more relevant to 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 seen as a broad community matter rather than one of explicit quid pro quo.

Anarcho-communism uses a gift economy, as there is no money or market. Products are given away and freely distributed.

Gift economies can co-exist with command economies, market economies and barter economies.

Note that there are examples of societies where somebody who receives a gift is 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. Typical sanctions might be a bad reputation, formal eviction from the lords hall, challenges to duels from men who find this behavior repulsive or public ridicule. A stingy lord would find it difficult to attract followers.

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