To recap once again on this month's challenge, it is:
Paying My Moral Debts
I'm going through the list of all the free stuff I, personally, am currently getting only because other people are enthusiastic and generous. Then I'm seeing how much I can commit by way of fair return, and how much of that should or can be financial. The coming month is for sorting out the financial side.
But this is where I ask: is the idea of financial moral debt a trap in itself?
On one level, clearly not. If I promise to give somebody some money, then even if there is no legal evidence of the debt, or the law allows me some way to weasel out of it, I'm obviously bound by my word. Moving out a bit, if somebody helps me out when I need a gift or a loan, and then further down the line they need some help from me, I think I owe them morally whether I've promised anything or not. And if Croesus helps me out and won't take anything back, even this confers on me a kind of soft obligation to pay the favour forward to somebody else at least once. All these kinds of moral debt, I'm quite happy with.
But taking the notion of 'debt' too literally, risks damaging the very gift economy I'm trying to do my part in.
There is nothing mean, and often something quite charming, about the ideal of always paying one's way and not owing nuttin' to nobody. That is a strong strain in the way I was brought up. Its danger, though - and hence the danger of projects like this - is that it may instil a kind of Janus-faced and flinty righteousness. On the one face, a pride in having paid all one owes (unlike, perhaps, some of those other people
). On the other, a stubborn unwillingness to take stuff one can't pay for (ditto).
The proud face is almost certainly wrong. Here I've reckoned up a few moral debts that are too obvious to overlook. But were I to look harder, I should certainly find some more. And some of the best free stuff I'm probably benefiting from may be so transparent, and work so well, that I scarcely notice it, and have no hope of quantifying it. If I could quantify monetarily all the labour I benefit from without charge, it's not at all obvious that I could pay it. Nor would everybody even want me to pay it - assuming they were set up to receive payment in the first place. Payment in kind or in labour doesn't necessarily help either - same deal. The gift economy is not, on first blush, very much like the market economy at all.
The stubborn face may now incline to say, "Okay - I won't take any more free benefits than I can help." This is wrong in another sense. If Mr Stubborn refuses to take advantage of a benefit, it doesn't follow that the benefactor gets back any of what they spent to provide it. All that happens is that a little grace is lost from the world, and a little utility dropped into the entropy bin. It's surely wrong to be an ungrateful freeloader. But it's no better to be a surly curmudgeon. I've mentioned before that I believe mutual bounty to be an essential element of a working libertarian society, just as surely as legalistic gaming is a poison to it. But if there is to be bounty in giving, there must logically be no less grace in receiving. The temptation to maintain the moral 'credit' of a Lady Bountiful is ultimately as selfish and status-seeking, as the temptation to live the lush life on somebody else's tab is selfish and greedy.
So how much should I pay, and what should I take advantage of?
In the market economy, we know where we stand. A known value is offered by a particular person, and a known value is given in return by another. Plain dealing and precise reckoning are the market's breath and bones.
In the gift economy, value must still be given and returned. But even with the help of guide prices and suggested donations, the aims, rules, and consequences are very different. The same fundamental economic principles must apply, but in very distinct ways. I have a hazy idea of how to take some of the simplest issues forward, and shall attempt to do so in subsequent posts in this series. Taking the case where payment must be financial - this month's narrow target - I want to show how that quality I call gaiety
, a sort of genial flexibility about various specifics of how good things are paid for and provided, can improve on either the legalistic market approach (take all you want, as cheaply or freely as you can get away with) or the moralistic market approach (don't take anything unless you can afford to pay the least you think it's worth) when dealing with goods freely offered. And I want, too, to examine its limits, and the places where market-like punctilio about specific obligations is required to keep the good shows on the road.
It's proving no simpler a project than I expected, and as always, I welcome any insights anybody has to offer.