Reciprocal Gift-Exchange and Charity Knit Networks into Communities

Humans like to give and to receive without cheating or being cheated: we want to be part of networks of reciprocal gift-exchange. If you want to become a member in good standing of  community you will need to “give to get.”

Reciprocal Gift-Exchange and Charity Knit Networks into Communities

Reciprocal Gift-Exchange and Charity Knit Networks into Communities

“Humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers.

We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.”
Bradford DeLong in Regional Policy and Distributional Policy

DeLong’s thesis (also explored in “David Graeber is Back“) is that humans have evolved to rely on reciprocal gift-exchange to maintain the communities they are members of. We trade goods, services, respect/status, and information with kin, close friends, and immediate neighbors for two big reasons:

  1. To keep us all pulling roughly in the same direction.
  2. To take advantage of the division of labor.

There are powerful psychological and societal mechanisms and incentives that urge us to engage in such gift-exchange relationships and to keep such gift-exchange relationships reciprocal–in rough balance.


Charity is support and concern for the less fortunate members of a group or community. In the Jewish tradition, it’s referred to as tzedakah and is a formal obligation to support community members in need. The Jewish rabbi Maimonides (1135-1208) identified eight levels of tzedakah, from least preferable to most in his Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Gifts to the Poor” 10:7-14

  1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.
  2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.
  3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.
  4. The person who gives before being asked.
  5. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.
  6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.
  7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives. This is achieved by relying on a person or public fund that is trustworthy.
  8. The person who helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient.

It’s an interesting and well thought out guideline that is designed to promote independence and self-sufficiency. The first four levels relate to how proactive you are in identifying opportunities for charity. The next three are designed to minimize negative consequences from the support, and the highest level aims to remove the need for additional support.

In the Christian tradition, charity are acts of kindness and gifts to your neighbors that flows from your relationship with God.

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that men may praise them. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-4

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
First Corinthians 13:1-3

I like Maimonides goal for charitable giving of fostering independence and self-sufficiency. I don’t think it precludes the ongoing reciprocal gift-exchange with other community members but recognizes that some people may need more help.

“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”
Horace Mann

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Image Credit: Network Globe by Jozsef Bagota; licensed from 123RF.

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