Two weeks ago Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution called me a Scrooge for pointing out that "helping" professions don’t help more. So this Christmas day, let me Scrooge again by pointing out the dark side of gifts. It is not just that gifts can be worth less than they cost; the problem goes deeper. In Friday’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer explained:
The roundsman is the guy who, with the class huddled at the bed of a patient who has developed a rash after taking penicillin, raises his hand to ask … whether this might not instead be a case of Schmendrick’s Syndrome … The point is for the prof to remember this hyper-motivated stiff who stays up nights reading journals … the roundsman, let’s call him Oswald, ignores at his peril, is that this apple polishing does not endear him to his colleagues, … The general feeling among the rest of us is that we should have Oswald killed. … There’s always an Oswald. There’s always the husband who takes his wife to Paris for Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day? The rest of us schlubs can barely remember to come home with a single long-stem rose. What does he think he’s doing? And love is no defense. We don’t care how much you love her — you don’t do Paris. It’s bad for the team.
Gift-giving is in part a contest, to show how much more you know and care about someone, relative to others. And what that someone gets, in part, is having everyone see how loved they are, relative to others. If you succeed and make yourself look good, you make other givers look worse by comparison. And if your recipient looks loved, other recipients look less loved by comparison.
"All is fair in love and war" they say, and this sort of love is a lot like war; when you gain, others lose. But while we usually feel at least a little bad about the harm we cause in ordinary war, we are smugly proud of the harm we cause in this war of love that is gifts.
The world may gain some benefits from people feeling they can trust their associates. But even so, I’d guess most gifts produce a net harm.
Enjoy your spoils of war this Christmas day.