Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Gift Paradox: Complex Selves and Symbolic Good

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Gift Paradox: Complex Selves and Symbolic Good

Article excerpt

Abstract Symbolic utility involves appreciation and esteem and expressed by symbolic products (gifts), while substantive utility entails ordinary welfare satisfied by substantive products. For neoclassical theory, both utilities are symmetrical or fungible and, hence, substitutable along the uni-dimensional utility function. If they are substitutable, though, why would agents be judged as "crass" if they intentionally remind the recipient of the cost of the substitution? For normative sociological theory, the judgment of "crassness" would arise if the agent mixes moral norms with non-moral substantive interests. The two are supposed to be non-fungible, stemming from multiple selves. If both utilities are non-fungible and stem from multiple selves, though, why do we call agents who spend on gifts beyond their means "fools," while those who spend very little "cheapskates"? It seems that there must be a supervising, single self that makes decisions on the proper division of the budget between substantive products and gifts. But this invites the single-self idea from the back window, reverting back to the neoclassical approach. We would be caught in a vicious cycle of anomalies. To get out of the cycle, this paper identifies the critical issues and suggests an alternative, complex-self view.

Keywords: unitary-self view, multiple-self view, complex-self view

INTRODUCTION

Symbolic products or gifts express outwardly the tastes for appreciation, respect, esteem, and other symbolic utilities. Such symbolic utilities are signaled by the way the gift is wrapped or is attached with kind words. Such symbolic signaling is generally called "gift wrapping." In contrast, substantive products satisfy the tastes for warmth, food, aesthetics, conversations, and other substantive utilities.

I employ the term "gift" loosely to denote only the gift wrapping, as when one sends a Christmas card, or to denote a "present," i.e., the card as well as a substantive product. Further, I use the term "gift" to refer to the expression of appreciation towards others as well as towards one's self. Self-awarding gifts are abundant as in the examples of birthday parties, wedding celebrations, and the purchase of status goods.

The gift poses a paradox for neoclassical economic theory. Another face of the paradox also confronts normative sociological theory. For neoclassical theory, symbolic utility and substantive utility are symmetrical. If so, the agent substitutes smoothly between the two as they maximize the uni-dimensional utility function. However, this view, called here the "unitary-self" view, invites an anomaly: If the two utilities are fungible, why would agents refrain themselves from revealing the cost of the smooth substitution by, for example, hiding the price tag of a gift? Obviously, they do not want their action to be called "crass." Or in case it is a money gift, why would agents commit "crass" acts if they intentionally remind the recipient of the cost of the gift? And why would the recipients commit "prostituting" acts if they accept "gifts" or payments for their labor services attached with insults, unkind words, or improper respect?

For normative theory, agents do not reveal the price of the gift or remind others of the trouble of getting the gift because they follow a moral norm that is non-fungible with other norms. Some norms concern the pursuit of substantive utility. Other norms concern the pursuit of symbolic utility such as esteem, pride, appreciation, and so on. So, according to the normative view, agents have multiple selves. However, this normative solution, called here the "multiple-self" approach, invites the other face of the same paradox: If the two utilities are non-fungible, why would we judge agents as "blunderers" and "fools" if they spend too many resources on gifts, whilst judging agents as "cheapskates" if they spend too little resources on gifts? For these judgments to work, there must be a supervising, single self that makes decisions on the proper division of the budget between substantive products and gifts. …

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