Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

The Philanthropic or Gift Order

Jacques T. Godbout

I first wish to thank Lenore Ealy for the opportunity to comment briefly on Laurent Dobuzinskis’ stimulating paper. The author shows that most analysts, including Hayek, consider Mauss’s analysis, and the gift phenomenon in general, to apply primarily to archaic societies. “Gifts exist only at the margin of the market economy” (Dobuzinskis 2009, 119).

Furthermore, when it does apply to present-day societies, it is defined as disinterested, nonreciprocal, acts.

What the Maussian movement (MAUSS, an acronym for Mouvement anti-utilitariste dans les sciences sociales)1 first attempted to show is that Mauss’s vision of the gift very much applies to modern society. This is the main thesis in our book, The World of the Gift, first published in French in 1992. The gift here is an order that is both spontaneous and modern. (I prefer “gift” to “philanthropic” order. Philanthropy is simply one type within the “gift order.”) The market order itself rests in part on this order, if only because the gift feeds trust, a necessary ingredient of the Hayekian catallaxy (Dobuzinskis 2009, 122). This is why we don’t think of the gift as first and foremost an economic order, although its economic dimension is important and increasingly so in an information economy with phenomena such as open source and “copyleft” (124). The gift is not only a gift economy (130), and the gift and economic orders are not always, and not necessarily, antagonistic. Let me try to briefly develop these points.

First what is this phenomenon we call “the gift”?  In Western societies it is generally defined both formally and legally as a nonreciprocal, unilateral transfer. Something goes from A to B, with nothing from B to A or to anyone else. For someone wishing to study the phenomenon, it comes as a surprise—and a malaise—to find that this definition almost never applies. When one follows what we can call the “chain of the gift”—presents, hospitality, services, and even the most apparently unilateral gifts of blood, organs, volunteerism, and philanthropy—one finds a general circulation of things quite in opposition to the definition. This is so much the case that the common saying “What goes around comes around” (and its equivalent in many languages) is the way in which many people define the gift, and it seems to have the status of a social law.

The more one gives, in fact, the more one receives. But there is a caveat. This does not mean that the giver’s motivation is to receive, that his objective is to get something in return. One must not confound the intention with the material transfer. In fact, it is the opposite. The story goes that the less we give with the intention to receive, the more we receive. This is the primary paradox of the gift paradigm: the more we give, the more we receive, subject to the condition that we do not give for that purpose! But it must be added that even when we do give to receive, the paradigm holds. Merchants know this well. And even in this case, when everyone knows that their “present” is purely instrumental, the paradigm still holds; less than if the intention is altruistic, but it holds.

It is not a comfortable conclusion for an economist, but there seems to exist a fundamental tendency to give when a gift is received. Not necessarily to give back, not to give the equivalent, but to give. This is the observation. It is the general rule, a driving social force, a spring for individual action. Homo economicus is not alone; he shares the social order with Homo donator. Within the market order, this spring is replaced by interest. Self-interest is without a doubt an important motivational force for human action, one that possesses a great privilege, and this privilege is that it is self-evident. But the “lure of the gift” is as strong as the lure of gain (l’appât du gain). This is simply not recognized, not self-evident in our society; it must be demonstrated (Godbout 2007). The generality of this phenomenon is of course impossible to show here. Let me just give an extreme example, for a kind of gift commonly thought to be unilateral. When a philanthropic organization sends letters of solicitation to their “generous donors,” it often accompanies these with symbolic presents. Why? Because even a small and purely symbolic (and instrumental) present activates this impulse to give. “The American Disabled Veterans organization reports . . . that when the mailing includes an unsolicited gift (. . . individualized address labels) the success rate nearly doubles” (Cialdini 2001, 30).

Kolm, like so many others, tries to explain it through motivations and sentiments of all kinds: “fairness, equity, . . . moral indebtedness” (Dobuzinskis 2009, 129). All of this is true. But I strongly believe that explanations like this are, and will always be, ultimately unsatisfying. Why? Because, as Hénaff puts it, “the gift relationship possesses the astonishing power of instituting a link stronger than sentiments” (2002, 197). As Cialdini notes, “There is a strong cultural pressure to reciprocate a gift, even an unwanted one“ (2001, 33). Only cultural? It is surely reinforced by cultural and social factors, but recent research in cognitive science shows a possible genetic foundation (Judson 2007).

At the end of his essay, Mauss describes the gift phenomenon as “this fleeting moment when a society holds” (“l’instant fugitif où la société prend,”) ( 2007, 243). Like a handmade mayonnaise, we do not know exactly why the elements cohere or do not. We must accept it as a fact, as economists accept self-interest: when something is received as a gift by a human being, it produces an invitation to give in return. It is of course a source of profound astonishment for those applying the homo economicus paradigm: the model predicts that in such a situation, the agent should, and in fact will, take advantage. Most people, most of the time, do not.

So what is a gift?  “A gift is a non-contracted good” (Stark and Falk 1998, 272). This simple definition by an economist is an interesting starting point because it does not specify whether the good is unilateral. But it does specify that should there be a return, it will be free. At least legally. This freedom, however, is not absolute; it is regulated, but not by a contract. What circulates is regulated by the quality and the intensity of the relationship between social agents. The gift feeds this relationship. The gift is then what circulates between human beings as a result of the dynamic of their social ties, in opposition to what circulates on the principle of rights or the logic of market self-interest, which are both ideally free from such ties.

How does this work? First, how does it not work? As we have seen, it is not “pure” (Dobuzinzkis 2009, 120) in the sense of being in principle unilateral. Gift-giving is a relationship rather than an individual beau geste. Pure, unilateral altruism is not the ideal gift. Incidentally, for those familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma, it is interesting to observe that two altruists do not solve the dilemma with any more facility than two egoists motivated by self-interest only (Godbout 2007, 259-276). In the gift paradigm, the normal gift is reciprocated. If and when a “pure” gift is given, one not meant to be reciprocated, it creates a significant problem for the recipient. He is often humiliated; but worse, his impulse to give back is blocked. This does not mean that altruism does not exist. What it means is that altruistic motivation is often not pure, but mixed. And above all, it means that altruists do receive: the more one gives altruistically (without the intention to receive), the more one receives.

In fact, what the gift model illustrates is the gift’s dark side. Surprisingly, the dark aspect is on the recipient’s side. The recipient is entirely dependent on the donor: he has no voice of his own. This is why the state is often a better system of circulation of services, because it can accord rights to recipients, in direct opposition to principles of charity and philanthropy. The gift’s order or system, in other words, is different from that of the state. Incidentally, Mauss did not write that the state was “the only way for modern societies to recover the social bonds he observed in archaic societies” (Dobuzinskis 2009, 127). As Dobuzinskis remarks, “in fairness, Mauss showed a marked preference for . . . associations” (122).

From that point of view, gift-giving is closer to the market than to the state system. The gift order and the state order do not always mesh. As Goodin writes, “The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need government to come to their help” (1993, 64).  But the state can be superior to the gift. An interesting question here, and an increasingly important one, is just when the state is preferable and when a philanthropic association is better. The question highlights the limits of the gift model: that the recipient has no standing. This dark side of the gift explains why the recipient is often better off as a client (with bargaining power) or as a citizen (with political power in democratic rights).

This being said, what, then, are the elements of the homo donator paradigm? They clearly can’t be laid out here, but to sketch an outline (and maybe spur curiosity): the gift model is based on a very peculiar notion of debt, far from the equivalence principle; the gift affects the identity of the agents; agents must infringe on the rules for their gifts to be “true.” One meta-rule of the gift is indeed that escape from the rule is necessary in order for the actors to express the freedom inherent in the gesture. All of the gift’s partners affirm that the more closely social rules are obeyed, the narrower the gesture and the less the gift can be said to be “true” or “real.” So gift givers are always playing with the rules, and this leads to the well-known problem of excess characteristic to the gift. It may seem strange, but is it so different from the market experience where each agent tries to “beat the market”?

I agree that the gift is not a “fully developed paradigm” (Dobuzinskis 2009, 116). It is also true that “there are interesting parallels between Mauss’s paradigm and Hayek’s idea of the spontaneous order” (121). The gift paradigm is a spontaneous social order. One can even add that since both are based on principles of the network and, within that, mutual autonomous adjustments, rather than hierarchy and authority, they are more similar to each other than to the state and its bureaucracy. In Mary Douglas’s words, “Like the market, it supplies each individual with personal incentives to collaborate” (121). But this spontaneous order is not often acknowledged by economists, except at a purely theoretical level. As Frank notes, “Most [economic] texts mention at the outset that our rational choice model takes people’s taste as given. They may be altruists, sadists, masochists; or they may be concerned solely with advancing their own material interests. But having said that, most texts then proceed to ignore all motives other than material self-interest” (1994, xxiii). They often also admit that this spring of action exists for themselves. Even Hayek wrote in his preface to The Road to Serfdom (1944), “I am as certain as anyone can be that the beliefs set out in [this book] are not determined by my personal interests. . . . I have come to regard the writing of this book as a duty which I must not evade.”





1 Primarily francophone, as writes the author, but not only. Our journal (La revue du MAUSS) is also published in Portuguese (Brazil) and Italian.



Cialdini, Robert  B. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Dobuzinskis, Laurent. “French Perspectives on the Origin and Logic of the ‘Philanthropic Order‘: A Critical Account. Conversations on Philanthropy VI: 115-139©2009 DonorsTrust.

Frank, Robert H. 1994. Microeconomics and Behavior. New York: McGraw Hill.

Godbout, Jacques T. 2007. Ce qui circule entre nous. Paris: Seuil.

Godbout, Jacques T. and Alain Caillé. 1992. The World of the Gift. D. Winkler, trans. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Goodin, Robert  E. 1993. "Moral Atrophy in the Welfare State." Policy Sciences, 26: 62-78.

Hayek, Friedrich A.  1944.   The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hénaff, Marcel. 2002. “Le Prix de la vérité.” Le don, l'argent, la philosophie. Paris: Seuil.

Judson, Olivia. 2007. “The Selfless Gene.” Atlantic Monthly. (October 2007).

Mauss, Marcel. 2007. Essai sur le don. Paris: PUF.

Stark, Oded. and Ita. Falk. 1998. "Transfers, Empathy Formation, and Reverse Transfers." The American Economic Review 88(2): 271-276.

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