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Short Thoughts

Goods as Gifts and Limitarianism

About a year ago, I started keeping a digital Commonplace Book: a place to collect quotes from and links to online articles that moved me for some reason. Most of what I've collected, I've found, tends to be about ethics and morality, ways of thinking and being. This wasn't deliberate, but it is instructive---a window into what seems to concern me deeply, at an unconscious level.

Just recently, thanks to Andrew Belfield, I came across this interesting passage by Robin Wall Kimmerer, from her book Braiding Sweetgrass. She describes a dream about shopping in a market where the goods are all gifts, which you pay for with gratitude.

I looked in my basket: two zucchinis, an onion, tomatoes, bread, & a bunch of cilantro. It was still half empty, but it felt full. I had everything I needed. I glanced over at the cheese stall, thinking to get some, but knowing it would be given, not sold, I decided I could do without. It’s funny: Had all the things in the market merely been a very low price, I would have scooped up as much as I could. But when everything became a gift, I felt self-restraint. I didn’t want to take too much.

How true what she says seems to feel! I, too, think it would be harder to accept all goods as gifts, rather than paying for them. A purchase is a transactional exchange, an impersonal one. Giftgiving is personal: to accept a gift with gratitude is to acknowledge the giver.

Receiving a gift makes one cognizant of the value---in terms of labor, effort, resources, thoughtfulness---of the gift being given. Hopefully, it keeps one mindful not to take too much, because it some point you are taking advantage of the giver. And---ideally---it reminds the receiver to give back, to reciprocate the generosity, not only to the original giftgiver, but to others, as well.

In my head, this connects to something else in my commonplace book: Ingrid Robeyns' notion of Limitarianism, the idea that there should be a threshold on the amount of wealth an individual can have. If this idea intrigues you, then I recommend to you her paper, Why Limitarianism?, which further expounds her views and situates them in the context of other theories of distributive justice.

What connects limitarianism to gifting in my mind is the link between the limitarian threshold and what Robeyns terms flourishing: up to a certain point, the more wealth you have, the better off you are. The money helps you to improve your life, to flourish. But beyond a certain amount, wealth stops improving your life; you already have everything you need, there's nothing that you can buy that makes your life better than it already is. Such excess wealth is wasted, from society's point of view.

Another way to think of this is to say that beyond such a wealth threshold, an individual's resources are effectively infinite, and therefore everything is cheap.

It’s funny: Had all the things in the market merely been a very low price, I would have scooped up as much as I could.

Would kinda explain a lot, wouldn't it? Why do the obscenely rich continue to amass, when they already have everything? Because they can. Because everything is cheap, and nothing is precious.

Everything is a transaction; nothing is a gift.

I'm oversimplifying things, no doubt, and I don't claim to have extracted any constructive moral here, either for society or the individual. It's just a connection I've made, between two ideas that strike a chord with me. And I like connections.