The gift economy is a situation where people function without money or barter, but rather give away their surpluses to each other, with the reasonable expectation of getting something back eventually, and keeping things roughly even.
Bartering is making an explicit trade for items or services, without money.
While we were away in Alaska, we had the 16 year old daughter of a neighbor watch our livestock for us. We never did agree on a price before we left; she was reluctant to talk money.
What does this have to do with barter or the gift economy, you ask? Well, you see, while we were away, Hubby and I talked it over, and decided approximately how much we thought the girl should be paid. When we were assessing that, we considered the actual work she was doing, our own level of need (desperation) for someone to do the work, the difficulty of finding someone reliable to watch our place for us, and how much we valued our relationships with the girl, her parents, her aunt and uncle, and her grandparents, who all live in our community.
When we got home, and I called the girl to see about paying her, she quoted a price within a few dollars of what Hubby and I had decided to pay her anyways.
I had always felt that a gift economy would not work very well in our current culture, because our culture encourages people to be greedy and selfish, and only look out for themselves. However, based on a sixteen year old girl coming up with a price that values our relationship as much as her labor, and us coming to a price that values our relationship as much as our money, I think it may be possible, after all. In our relationship-based transaction, everybody was quite satisfied with the result, and felt the deal was fair.
Thinking about it a bit more, we’ve been gifted bushels of grain from local farmers, too, for our goats and chickens; in return, we’ve gifted back cartons of eggs and pints of jam. We’ve received vegetables, help moving, and lawn mowing, and given labor and preserves in return. None of this was really formally bartered; rather, people assumed that they would get something back, eventually, when the time came. And, so far, they (and we) have.
In a similar vein, my father is in the process of building a house, and is temporarily living in a place where he does not have enough space for his vehicles. We volunteered to let him park them on our acreage for the winter. We did not want anything for doing this; we value our relationship with Dad, and wanted to help out. However, Dad wanted to return the favor, and has hauled away decades worth of accumulated garbage that was sitting around the acreage – old appliances, half-rotten furniture, boxes of empty bottles, worn-out tires…junk that we inherited when we bought the place, and that we have not had any way to remove. It is a huge relief to not have to figure out how to get rid of all that crap, and we feel like we got the better end of the deal…by a long shot. Dad maintains that HE is the one who is coming out way ahead.
So I am now revising my opinion on the gift economy. In situations where there are long-standing relationships, or the expectation of long-standing relationships developing, and where everyone involved values those relationships, a gift economy could work out very well. Without stable relationships, however, and a certain level of trust, I still think it would fall apart pretty quickly. So far, I have to say, accomplishing things within a community where relationships are valued, is much more relaxed than trying to hire or accomplish some of these things in the formal economy. We’re fortunate to live in such a stable, tight-knit community, where bartering and gifting work out so well.