Economics as the exchange of things, governed by a law of reciprocity

In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, there was something of a craze for this sort of thing, in the guise of what was then called “exchange theory,” developed in infinite variations, from George Homans’ “Social Exchange Theory” in the United States to Claude Levi-Strauss’s Structuralism in France.

Levi-Strauss, who became a kind of intellectual god in anthropology, made the extraordinary argument that human life could be imagined as consisting of three spheres: language (which consisted of the exchange of words), kinship (which consisted of the exchange of women), and economics (which consisted of the exchange of things).

All three, he insisted, were governed by the same fundamental law of reciprocity.

Levi-Strauss’s star is fallen now, and such extreme statements seem, in retrospect, a little bit ridiculous.

Still, it’s not as if anyone has proposed a bold new theory to replace all this. Instead, the assumptions have simply retreated into the background. Almost everyone continues to assume that in its fundamental nature, social life is based on the principle of reciprocity, and therefore that all human interaction can best be understood as a kind of exchange.

If so, then debt really is at the root of all morality, because debt is what happens when some balance has not yet been restored.

Once you read “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” by Daniel Dennett, it’s hard not to replace “words” with “ideas” in Levi-Strauss’s argument. Language (which consisted of the exchange of ideas).