Incentives and rewards are not the same thing, and people who complain that the spirit of Christmas is eroded by commercialisation are not simply priggish. The direct juxtaposition of the purely commercial exchange with the exchange based solely on mutual affection is offensive and unstable.
Forty years ago, Richard Titmuss wrote a much cited book The Gift Relationship from Human Blood to Social Policy. His subject was not the exchange of Christmas presents, but the extraction of blood. He reviewed the performance of the British and American mechanisms for obtaining supplies for transfusions.
Titmuss concluded that a voluntary system, which appealed to the public spirit of donors but offered no payment, produced more blood, and blood less liable to contamination, than a market that paid whatever amount balanced supply and demand. He argued that the market system and the voluntary system were essentially incompatible. The existence of paid donation undermined the ethos that stimulated voluntary donation.
Titmuss’s work has been extensively reviewed since, but his broad conclusions seem to stand up. Still, his contribution does not really turn on whether American or British hospitals get more or better blood but on the questions it raises about the nature of exchange – an issue subsequently taken up by philosophers Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel.
For a certain type of economist, pornography, prostitution and sexual activity within a loving relationship are all just exchanges that benefit both parties. But most people not only believe the last of these to be fundamentally different from the first two, but believe it to be devalued by the existence of the first two types of transaction.
The trader who barters securities on December 24 may become the parent who barters gifts on December 25. To an anthropologist from Mars, the two kinds of exchange might appear similar, but to us they differ fundamentally. Both trades are mutually rewarding, but in different ways.
Titmuss believed that when commercial exchange resembles a social relationship the existence of the former taints the latter. It sometimes makes sense to bribe children to undertake household tasks or pass examinations. But not even Chicago economists have cash registers by the kitchen sink: to do so would undermine the discipline of family life. And perhaps the same is true in a football team or an army unit – or an industrial company or even a bank. Successful production depends on co-operative and even caring behaviour that is undermined by the cash nexus.
The problem of disrupting social relationships through the introduction of commercial relationships is most evident in the public sector. In northern and western Europe, the traditional deal was that public service was demanding but poorly paid, but participants were rewarded with respect, job security and a sense of public service.
Many factors have eroded this public sector ethos. For the hoodie, the term “respect” is not a recognition of status and achievement but an assertion of imagined rights, and is part of a culture that is readier to challenge the authority of a teacher or the police. Job security and autonomy for state employees are hard to reconcile with accountability and performance measurement. The BBC attempts to reconcile a mission of public service broadcasting with competition for the services of popular entertainers, and the outcome is a mess.
The public realm continues to rely on thousands of people who offer services voluntarily, and the very nature of health, or education, or policing demands that it be undertaken by people who do not have a purely instrumental view of their vocation. Perhaps it was appropriate to build Blenheim Palace for John Churchill, or to offer his distant descendant Winston a dukedom: but these measures were recognition of great achievement, not performance incentives designed to encourage the individuals concerned to try harder. If Marlborough and Churchill had needed such incentives, they would not have been the right people for the roles they fulfilled.
Incentives and rewards are not the same thing, and people who complain that the spirit of Christmas is eroded by commercialisation are not simply priggish. The direct juxtaposition of the purely commercial exchange with the exchange based solely on mutual affection is offensive and unstable. That is why it is necessary to withhold from children the knowledge that the department store Santa Claus dispenses only gifts for which parents have already paid.