But gratuitousness can live together with the market



By Luigino Bruni

Published on Avvenire on 23/09/2010 

The topic of gratuitousness is (finally!) being talked about again, even in public debate, in politics – and even in economy and economic science.

This renewed interest by the economy should not surprise people if we remember that the Latin word charitas (note the letter “h”, as it was written in the first Christian codes) – which was chosen by Christians to translate the Greek word agape, gratuitous love – had economic origins and uses. It means that which was expensive, that which costs on the market. This renewed interest, however, is accompanied by usage which is not always attentive and faithful to the great philosophical, spiritual and especially human reflection (only humans know about it) on gratuitousness. In my opinion, there are two errors that frequently appear when people talk about gratuitousness. First of all, they identify it with free, as in free of charge, a price of zero. “Frank works gratuitously”, meaning he works for free, therefore, his stipend is zero.  Instead, from the great Franciscan tradition, we know that gratuitousness in a certain way means to have infinite value.

When Francis sent friars to give the Gospel, he told them to not accept money in exchange for their preaching. But why? The tradition goes that, “If they had to pay you, it would take all the gold in the world.” And therefore, accepting sums of money less than “all the gold in the world” would mean underselling gratuitousness – relational and spiritual dumping. That is where the Franciscan tradition to accept gifts as an answer to reciprocity originates. Today, when we identify gratuitousness with “free”, we risk cancelling out this fundamental truth, and we twist the meaning of gratuitousness (underselling and undervaluing it) and market. Why does it also twist the meaning of market?

This is where we come to the second error.

Identifying gratuitousness with free (price of zero) has and is leading people more and more to associate the market, contracts and mercantile exchange to non-gratuitousness. If gratuitousness is free, then everything that deals with prices and money  has nothing to do with gratuitousness – that is, if we use gratuitous to mean discount, freebee, which would be gratuitousness present in the market (in reality, these meanings are a “vaccine” against real gratuitousness). Or, it can come “after” the market, when entrepreneurs as private citizens make donations or institute foundations to finally be able to live that gratuitousness so foreign to economic action and business. There would be much to say about the birth of the American philanthropic model, which, even as a reaction to the excessive interweaving of gratuitousness (charis) and market (indulgence), has built a dichotomic economic system, where business is business and gift is something totally private and separate from it. (We have to say that in the USA, there is not even an equivalent word for the Italian gratuitá, or as we are using, gratuitousness. Gratuity is only the tip that one gives to the bellhop). In reality, the true cultural challenge of gratuitousness is to think about it as a founding dimension of every human experience, from family to business, from politics to contract, as is in line with Caritas in veritate. Many examples of microcredit, from the Franciscans during the Middle Ages to Yunus, have lived extraordinary experiences of gratuitousness which frees millions of people from misery and exclusion, without a gift or “free” services, but with contracts, with conditioning rules – with gratuitousness accompanied by what is right and proper. The kind of gratuitousness that is required today of the banking system is not primarily that of sponsors and banking foundations, but the kind that informs (or not) the normalness of banking, from responsibility to transparency. The kind of gratuitousness that truly counts is not the 2% of one’s profits, but the other 98%. Otherwise, we reduce gratuitousness to a kind of limoncello during a lunch (limoncello is a sweet Italian lemon-based liquor) – something that fills holes, and even more, something that should not be offered at that time, immediately becoming unnecessary and superfluous.