Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, December 26, 2016

In Which Megan McArdle Explains Altruism To The Masses

My dear readers,

Many of you have notified me that you are concerned about the economic injustices inherent in gift-giving. Every year, like a communist clockwork, we are expected to give up our hard-earned money to buy presents for others, presents that they probably don't even want. The "holiday season" demands that we rack our brains thinking of something to give a "loved one" that one barely knows. You end up giving them something useless and they end up giving you something you already have, which is a tremendous waste of money that you could have spent on yourself.

Call me Scrooge if you must! But also admit that you don't know your own mother's likes and dislikes enough to think of something to buy her, and after "long thought" you usually resort to the first thing you see when you walk into Macy's: those discount packaged bath salt or perfume sets. Now, now! Don't bother to deny it! People only say that their children share experiences with them, or discuss their likes and dislikes. Actually, they maintain a comfortable silence and simply grab something handy at gift-giving times.

Why do they force themselves to let the moocher and looters drag them down to their levels? We think of interactions between people as a single economic action, where the rich are aristocrats and the poor are sheep to be shorn, but in fact every American also lives in the "gift economy," where people give you things for nothing, with the expectation of you returning the favor in the future. You can keep down expenses on cab rides and improve the consumer experience by asking your sister to take you to the airport and she'll do it because she expects you to return a favor at a later time.

Now, don't try this economic model if you are running a government! Communism failed because Stalingrad refused to feed and walk the dogs when Leningrad went out of town with Moscow! And the reverse is also true: alas, spouses fail to understand why you expect to be remunerated for your time and effort in the bedroom.

Reciprocal altruism is inefficient compared to cash, but exchanging equal amounts of cash would be silly. However, if one person gives more cash than the other, the former is obviously more committed to the relationship and the other side is being cheated, eroding their relationship. This is why we don't let cash intrude in intimate transactions, such as sex. Trying to figure out what to charge each other for services rendered would be a nightmare of complexity and subjectivity, not to mention hurt feelings. What if she felt that a certain activity was worth $100 and he felt her performance was worth no more than $20, the going market rate on the street? Chaos would be inevitable.

So no matter how fond you are of money, go ahead and buy that heavily discounted, unwanted gift for the woman in your life. The old dear will be happy just to have paper and ribbon to play with, an you will probably get a fat inheritance down the line.


Unknown said...

well, it's pretty obvious why Megan gets nothing useful or nice, although calling anyone she might exchange gifts with a moocher/looter is an interesting strategy.

My family talks and we also have Amazon lists. It isn't hard if you're practical and/or have a brain. Ohhhh, I see the problem

John I said...

I heard her blather on NPR the other day. Her opinion should come with a clear disclaimer that she is a supply sider and therefore can't be trusted with your money.

mccamj said...

One of the great Megan themes => few see the world as clearly as Megan does.

I don't find this nearly as rewarding as her default theme => nothing can be done because hard as we see here:
Fact checking has difficulties so we can't check facts. Megan dreams up some challenges that she thinks can't be surmounted but ignores easy ones like Trump's claim that thousands of Muslims danced in Jersey City on 9/11.

And then of course another favorite - Obamacare has failed! But maybe Susan can skewer that one for us.

cynic said...

Did she just read The Gift of the Magi now and throw up in her John Galt sweater?

gromet said...

I want to order a copy of this post for everyone I know, and pay Amazon $3.99 to put each copy in a bag cinched shut with a ribbon.

mccamj said...

Where are you Susan?