Thursday, March 4, 2010

Beyond Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something.” It implies an exchange of goods or services that are more or less equal in value. A key underlying assumption in monetary currencies is that once you accept it for something, it will buy something of equal value from someone else who accepts it. Even in a mutual credit system, your balance is a way keeping track of where you are in the quid pro quo game. But, is the quid pro quo game the most efficient way of allocating resources?

Gift economies come in many forms, but usually what we mean by a “gift” is when quid is less tied to quo. Clearly, this is a matter of degree as there are many possible social contracts around gifts.

For gift economies to function properly a certain degree of familiarity and intimacy must exist among the participants. For instance, very few parents keep accounts on how many breakfasts they have given their children with the expectation of equal reciprocity. For parents, caring for their children is its own reward, and we think poorly of parents when this stops being the case.

When you are dealing with people who aren’t as close to you, the quid pro quo game comes more into play. Imagine, for example, two tribes coming together to trade. Each tribe operates with a gift economy inside its membrane, but when trading outside the membrane, there is an expectation of equal reciprocity in trade.

Until the industrial revolution, the majority of economic interactions were in the gift economy. Money has, of course, been around for thousands of years, but most of what people needed was satisfied through the gift economy on the village level. Think barn-raisings, shared child-care, borrowing tools, etc. Only when goods were needed from outside the community did the quid pro quo money game come into play.

Now, we can wax nostalgic about bygone eras, but there are good reasons why this all ended. The biggest reason is that this social architecture has not been able to scale. When a person lives in an urban environment, they tend to lack intimacy and familiarity with most people around them. In place of this intimacy, we make monetary exchanges. It must also be noted that a rich and impressive human culture has been built around quid pro quo social architecture.

However, while the gift economy has not yet been feasible on a large scale, on a small scale, it is actually far more efficient. Imagine how much wealth would be lost if you began to charge your children for breakfast. When and how would that debt be paid off?

What would happen if the gift economy could scale? Would it possibly serve as a far more efficient way to allocate goods and resources? What would it mean to actually live in the much talked about global village?

Quid Pro Quo as a pioneer species

A pioneer species is a species that shows up on new or recently disturbed land. They are quick to arrive, and they create the conditions for other species to thrive. As other species arrive, these pioneers are quickly outcompeted. Pioneer plants will leave their seeds in the soil for when the next disturbance occurs. This kind of succession ecology has worked extremely well for our biosphere.

I would contend that the quid pro quo social contract is a pioneer species in the social realm. Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time. Early interactions with this person are most likely in the quid pro quo space. Perhaps you try to talk for no more than half of the time. Perhaps you alternate who pays for the meals you eat out together. Perhaps you trade a ride to the airport for a day of dog sitting. In all cases, quid pro quo is used because you aren’t familiar with the person yet. As you become more familiar with each other, the ride to the airport probably doesn’t have strings attached, the meals become less formally tracked, and conversation may ebb and flow more naturally. Quid pro quo created the conditions for the other more advanced social contracts to emerge.

So how can we create the conditions for the global gift economy to emerge? What are your thoughts?