John Medaille comes through with yet another essay that should cause us all to rethink the aims and organisation of our economic system. In 'Friends and Strangers: A Meditation on Money', he presents to us a picture of the 'gift economy' where honor and mutual obligation, rather than cash, are most important.
The economists tell us a neat story about the development of money. The primitive world, they tell us, begins in barter, develops in money, and matures in credit systems. The problem however, is that the historians and the anthropologists have been telling the economists, and telling them for over 100 years, that they can find no record of this development; in fact, the actual history seems to be just the opposite: first comes credit, then money, and finally barter systems. Widespread barter systems only come about after the collapse of monetary systems, and even then money is still used as a unit of account, as a way of equating dissimilar items.
Economic life begins in the family and the village, and in these structures, there is no accounting for debt. Rather, there are long chains of mutual obligations. In general, people do not barter goods; these are gift economies where each person’s surplus freely circulates throughout the village and the family as gifts. The fisherman, when he wants a pair of shoes, does not, as in the economists’ myth, search out a cobbler who wants some fish. Rather, he freely gives away his surplus fish, an act which gains him honor in the village; he is a man who can contribute to the village, and therefore worthy of honor. Perhaps some woman will notice that he is wearing tatty moccasins, which is not appropriate for a man of honor. She will undertake to make him some moccasins and thereby gain honor for herself. In village life, “honor” is the coin of the realm, and the economic system aims at circulating goods in such a way as to bind the members of the village together in a long chain of mutual obligations.
This type of economy only works in small settled villages, however. When we become strangers to one another, cash must come into use.
Money could not purchase anything because there was nothing to buy; there were no markets. Again, this was not because villagers are ignorant of markets, but rather because they made deliberate efforts to prevent the formation of markets, to bind the village together in long chains of mutual obligations. But such efforts are impossible with the growth of the village into the town and the city. When most of the people you meet are strangers rather than friends, the whole idea of the gift economy becomes impossible.
End the Federal Reserve? Sure. Legalise silver and gold as legal tender? Okay. But perhaps the most important thing we can do economically is to shrink our cities to the human scale so we can be friends rather than strangers, so they can become places where love and generosity mean more than cash and debt.