Merit-based gifts

Last week I gave Bryan Caplan a gift.  Not being much of an egalitarian, I explained the gift on the grounds that he is extremely meritorious.

What if we generally gave gifts on the basis of sheer personal merit?

Most gifts are for "occasions," such as birthdays and Christmas.  The value of the gift may be correlated with how the giver perceives the merit of the recipient, but rarely is merit the pretext for the gift.  Perhaps a general practice of explicit merit-based gift-giving would create too many perceived slights.  In contrast, when a holiday is the pretext and the value of the gift is (possibly) linked to merit, we can self-deceive and believe that a small-valued gift simply represents a cheap gift-giver, or a friendship of uncertain strength, rather than our own lack of merit.

But every now and then it is important to stand up to social convention and do what is right.  Please give a merit-based gift — to someone who deserves it — sometime this month. 


i'll ask my boss for a raise. the joy of giving!

I remember reading that Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's partner, gave a gift of a few Berkshire Hathaway shares to Professor Robert Cialdini (who wrote "Influence") just because he liked his work so much.

Which billionaire would be most likely to do the same for Professor Cowen?

Christmas and birthday presents ARE merit-based gifts, as long as you decide that the value of the gift will be proportional to the merit of the receiver ("Have you been a good boy this year?").

In that case, Christmas Eve and the birthday is no longer an occasion -- it's a deadline.

What is merit?

Wouldn't it be a better strategy (from a risk perspective) for each person to give according to the utility they gain from giving the gift? Merit shouldn't play a role in the decision beyond how much we think the person will benefit from the gift.

Giving a quality gift on the basis of a subjective analysis of another person's merit is no different than giving CEOs bonuses and stock options. Which would be fine if the person you are treating this way is your agent.

But your child, or your grandmother? That may teach the wrong values (i.e. it may miss the value of charity altogether) or may give your gift some kind of chilling and impersonal trait.

Be human.

To the extent that merit is correlated with the quantity and quality of
personal relationships, so is your holiday and birthday booty.

Sent a care package earlier today. Way ahead of you :).

I'm not sure gift-giving practices evolved from feelings of egalitarianism. Whenever I think about what kind of gift would be good for a person, I ask myself what might benefit their life that they would not buy themselves.

I understand the rationality arguments about people choosing what's best for them, and while it might be generally true, it's certainly not specifically true. People have their blind spots. People also have their personal religions -- established habits -- that keep them from acquiring some things that usually don't add utility, but might in rare circumstances.

It's easier to see somebody's blind spots than your own just like it's easier to see another person's personal problems than it is your own. So, a society of gift-givers might become stronger -- in the very same way that a society of traders becomes stronger: a net benefit of utility. And in particular, there may be no other way (until pervasive AI) to achieve those utility benefits.

Eh, it's just a thought.

Gifts given on the basis of merit are, in fact, not gifts at all.

To the extent that merit based gifts provide an additional positive feedback loop, I can see the value in merit based gifts. How else to express your admiration of a peer or friends work than with a nice bottle of wine, or whiskey (to be split between the gifter and giftee, of course).

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