Coined liberty

Coined liberty August 2, 2012

Anthropologists claim that in “gift societies” objects exchanged never become the private property of the recipient. We know this even in our own society: We would never think to use a soup tureen from grandma to feed the cat. Gifts impose an obligation to honor the giver.

Things bought do not bear these obligations. A soup tureen from Walmart can be used for the cat, or as a temporary home for a garter snake, or as a chamber pot. Nobody will care.

Money liberates. It is, as Dostoevsky put it (for different reasons) “coined liberty.” It liberates from the obligations that gifts bear. It liberates so that my bought possessions become mine in a way that gifts never quite do. A money economy is perhaps a pre-requisite for private property. Money also liberates exchange from the constraints of status: Someone who gives me an expensive jewel puts me in debt; if I buy the jewel, I can have it without the shadow of a giver’s domination.

Money exchanges are impersonal exchanges. That too is liberating, and it permits exchanges at distance. But when most exchanges are money exchanges, there seems to be a cost, specifically the cost of depersonalizing economic life.

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