Dynamist Blog

Gifts and the Knowledge Problem

Here's the opening of a post I wrote for DeepGlamour.net:

Christmas present iron upset woman coupleAn article in Sunday's NYT travel section carries the season-appropriate headline, "Brad Pitt's Gifts to New Orleans." The piece suggests, rather gently, that the actor has made a common mistake: giving what pleases him rather than what the recipient wants. The displaced residents of the Ninth Ward would like comfortable, inexpensive, and quickly available houses. Pitt prefers cutting-edge architecture. Residents are grateful for his generosity and good wishes, but their gratitude is tinged with regret for what might have been if he'd heeded their desires.

Gifts are like that. Even the most generous can disappoint. As Cheryl Strayed writes in a terrific essay in the December issue of Allure (alas, in typical Conde-Nast fashion, it's not online):

"My boyfriend gave me a 12-pack of Diet Coke for Christmas!" I occasionally exclaim with glee, now that years have passed since the roil of sorrow and humiliation of that day. That present is little more than a funny memory now, a mere entry in my annals of the Really Bad Gifts I've Received. There was the "electronic guard dog" — a plastic speaker that emitted a screeching bark each time it detected motion — given to me when I had two actual dogs that did the job with authentic verve. There was the book about how to succeed as a financial executive in Japan that I received upon my college graduation as an English major. There were the used bath towels sent as a wedding present by an otherwise sane relative. And then there was the granddaddy of them all: a Weight Watchers gift certificate from my mother-in-law for my birthday when I was eight months pregnant.

Each of these gifts made me believe, in a new light, the old adage that it's far better to give than it is to receive. Receiving sometimes hurts. Bad gifts tell us not who we are, but who the gift givers wish we would be — thinner, say, or a Japanese capitalist rather than an aspiring writer. Or, perhaps worse, they imply that we mean so little to the gift giver that he or she didn't even bother to consider what we might like or need. That's how it felt to receive soda for Christmas.

To be fair, Strayed's mother-in-law very likely chose her gift out of womanly sympathy for the impending struggle to lose pregnancy weight, perhaps even thinking that she herself would have once appreciated such a present. But whatever the good intentions, the gift itself revealed that she knew little of her daughter-in-law's own desires or how Strayed wished to be thought of by others. The gift certificate wasn't just wasteful, like the electronic guard dog. It actually hurt.

Read the rest, which includes discussion of Joel Waldfogel's new book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays and the deadweight loss of Christmas, here.

The problem of buying good presents for other people, even people you supposedly know well, illustrates that old familiar Hayekian concept, the knowledge problem. If you can't even give your loved ones the right presents, how likely is it that a central authority could make the right decisions for everyone?

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