The Interplay Between Giving and Getting (What Say’s Law Really Means)

If you want to get something, the best question you can ask is: “What can I give?”

Once you have determined what you can give, you would be right to ask yourself: “Does anybody want it?”

If the answer is “No”, then it may be wise to ask yourself whether you know what “giving” really means.

The first stumbling block here lies in determining whether or not other people really want what you have to give. One of the best ways to find out is to ask them what they would be willing to give up for it.

If it turns out that another person would be willing to give something up for what you have to give, then you have two choices. You can either:

1) Decide to give it to them freely anyway, for nothing in return.

2) Accept what they have to give.

If you do the former, then you are being charitable—you are giving a gift. If you do the latter, then you are making an exchange. Though there are indeed many cases in which giving gifts is noble, there are other cases in which making exchanges may be nobler still.

At the root of it, exchange can be even more powerful than the giving of gifts because it increases the amount of giving in the world: In an upwardly-spiraling chain of events, each act of reciprocal giving inspires another, and another, and another and another still, all the way up to the point that someone stops giving.

Fortunately, there are so many wonderful ways of reciprocally giving. Even saving and investing—which are often sadly misclassified as “hoarding”—are themselves forms of giving: When you “save”, in the literal sense of the word, you are planning to give something much bigger in the future. And when you “invest”, you are giving someone your savings to use, right now, even offering to bear much or all of the risk of loss as well.

And so, the chain of giving does not stop when people begin to save, or “hoard”. The chain of giving only stops when people stop offering to give things that others would be willing to give for.

This is one of many reasons why it is crucial to find out whether or not you are really giving something to begin with. This is why it is important to recognize that whenever you are “giving” something for which others would give up nothing of their own accord, it is right to question whether you are “giving” them anything at all.

This is the underlying logic of “markets”, those world-turning systems of reciprocal giving. This particular dynamic is known to economists as “Say’s Law“—named after Jean-Baptiste Say, who was born in 1767, and lived through times of great change in this arena.

Say’s Law is often summarized as: “Supply creates its own demand.” But this summary is a bit nebulous without some context, and so I found myself taking quite a while to understand what it really means.

What it meant to Jean-Baptiste Say is that when a shoemaker makes shoes, he has created both a supply and the ability to demand. He can only demand apples from the applefarmer because he has made a supply of shoes that he can offer to her. He can only get because he gives.

Those words, “supply” and “demand” sound very clinical to modern ears. “Getting” and “giving” speak closer to the heart, while meaning the same thing to the brain. And they even better explain what is really going on.

Only because he has created shoes does the shoemaker have something to give. And to find out if he is really “giving”, to determine if others really want them, to discover if he is really doing good for his fellow women and men, he must ask them what in the world they would be willing to give themselves.

When the woman who keeps the apple orchard demonstrates that the shoes are worth more to her than her 100th bushel of apples, she has demonstrated that the shoes are indeed worth making. By accepting the apples in exchange, the shoemaker demonstrates that the apples are worth the growing.

This is what lies under the hood of every free exchange. We can abstract this out by using money or credit or by selling time or labor. But this, ultimately, is all that commerce is: Commerce is the art of giving, and of asking others what they are willing to give.

When it is done right, a lot of “getting” may come from commerce as well. But, as Jean-Baptiste Say noted back at the turn of the 18th century, the giving comes first. It is “supply” or “giving” that creates “demand” or “getting”.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary. I’d like to say that now, we take this idea for granted. But I think that is the opposite of the truth. I think that many of us go through our entire lives without ever truly grasping the power and implications of this very simple, very peaceful, and very beautiful idea.

So: When you want to get something, first ask what you can give.

And: To find out whether or not you’re truly giving at all, one of the most sure and honest ways available is to ask others what they are willing to give in turn.

The more we are generous—and the more we hold each other accountable in this way—the better we all will all tend to do.

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