Gifts are for the Givers

Christmastime is the season of giving. It is the season of charity. It is the season of gifts. But it is not the season of “pure altruism.” That is because, like Santa Claus, pure altruism is not real.

In both charity and gift-giving, the giver always gives to get something in return. We know this because all human action is a choice between alternatives and every action, as Aristotle teaches, “is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” So no charitable act is committed for its own sake, but with an aim at some good.

Only a cynic would opine that the good aimed at by giving gifts is getting gifts in return. And that explanation could scarcely account for charity, especially anonymous charity. One could certainly argue that the good aimed at is the good of the recipient of the gift. But that does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. Economic principles are applicable to all human action, as has been shown by a number of philosophers. And no voluntary transaction is conducted at an absolute loss, because there would is no incentive to do so. (Of course, parties occasionally make a bad deal and lose. And occasionally parties will take a loss now in the hopes of gaining more later.)

As Ludwig von Mises points out, every action is a form of exchange. Barter between individuals is an exchange of the most obvious type, but there are also “autistic exchanges.” An “autistic exchange” is one that an individual makes with himself. For example, if I go to the gym, I exchange my time and energy for perceived health benefits. Gift-giving and charity are other examples of an autistic exchange. “Where there is no intentional mutuality, where an action is performed without any design of being benefited by a concomitant action of other men, there is no interpersonal exchange, but autistic exchange.” The value of the gift is exchanged for the good feelings that come from making other people happy.

Like all exchanges, the autistic exchanges are only undertaken where the participants perceive that the value received is commensurate with the value given. I go to the gym because I perceive that that time and effort is worth the health benefits. I smoke a cigar because I perceive the health hazards and cost are worth the pleasure. I give a gift because I perceive the pleasure of gift-giving (and, to the extent that I expect anything in return, the possibility of gratitude and/or reciprocation) to be commensurate with the thought and value of the gift. Gift-giving, like all other human action, is essentially selfish.

And that’s ok! This is not an indictment of giving or of charity. Quite the opposite. It is in our best interest to give generously. We rightfully perceive that we get value from giving, even when we do not expect a gift in return. Gifts are for the givers, so be a giver this Christmas!
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Beer of the week: Fistmas Holiday Ale – This winter seasonal offering from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing Company is a real treat. This pretty amber brew has hints of ginger and cinnamon, without being over-spiced as many spiced winter beers are.

Reading of the week: The Errors of Santa Claus by Stephen Leacock – As noted last week, Leacock is one of the greatest gifts that Canada has given to the literary world. Whether he wrote for money or for his own pleasure makes no difference to us. (In the words of Mises, “a genius may perform his task for himself, not for the crowd; however, he is an outstanding benefactor of mankind.”) This cute little story shows another way in which gifts are given for the sake of the givers.

Question for the week: This economic analysis works for gift giving, but seems to fall apart at self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Does such self-sacrifice revive the notion of altruism?

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