This piece by Alison Milbank is well worth reading, and will do more to inform your perception of both Christmas and The Hobbit than two thirds of the articles out there about either one, but I’m going to zoom in on just this bit here:
And like the Christmas burglar and chimney invader, Santa Claus, he is a distributor and gift-giver. For The Hobbit takes us modern capitalists — and Bilbo too with his formal contract — on a journey into more ancient economic models of exchange, in which society operates through the giving and receiving of gifts. […] Bilbo himself is offered huge amounts of treasure but accepts only as much as one pony can carry, and then proceeds to donate jewels as he travels. Once home again in Bag End, he spends the rest in presents too. Tolkien makes all this central to hobbit society, in which one gives as well as receives presents on one’s birthday.
The answer to dragon-sickness is not just simple generosity but giving as a mode of exchange, which unites donor and recipient, and which prompts reciprocity. Tolkien unites here gift-exchange practices of traditional societies with the Distributist political vision of his own day, which sought a more equal and just society not by removing private property but by distributing it as widely as possible.
The notion of a society based around gift-giving is immediately appealing to me, and as a defining characteristic of Bilbo and of Hobbits it certainly rings true. That said, I have two doubts: first, is an economic model based around gifts really workable? Secondly, is this really a Distributist idea?
As to the first, gift-giving doesn’t seem like a great centerpiece for an economy, because of the “deadweight loss” problem: material gifts have a high risk of being worth less to their recipients than an equivalent amount of cash1. It would also become tedious as a continuous way of life, unless we as a culture could settle on certain kinds of acceptable “default” gifts that would be universally appropriate, and which had practical value (I can see various kinds and arrangements of food possibly fitting the bill here).
I would genuinely love to read any sources regarding these “ancient economic models of exchange, in which society operates through the giving and receiving of gifts”; a few footnotes on the alluded-to history would have been nice.
Finally, Milbanks links this idea with Distributism, “which sought a more equal and just society not by removing private property but by distributing it as widely as possible.” I have to say this is not quite the whole story; Distributism is mainly concerned with wealth-producing property — land, money, tools of trade — and not so much with stuff. A society isn’t any more Distributist just because its people are constantly exchanging doodads as courtesy-tokens; it might even be less so.
It’s lovely to think of Bilbo spreading the wealth as he returns home from Erebor, but I seem to recall that, most of the time, when Hobbits give gifts, they are giving away trinkets, party favours and baubles, not money or items of real value.
That said, there is one good real-world example of all this that comes to mind, and that is the culture of the Midwestern farming community2. You could very well say that, among the family farms, at least, there is a culture based around giving and receiving gifts — in the form of favors and loans of time & equipment. They always seem to be doing things for each other, giving and accepting assistance as a basic way of living, to a degree that would cause acute embarrasment in most urban communities; and it works out really well for everyone involved.
“…it is [generally] more likely that the gift will leave the recipient worse off than if she had made her own consumption choice with an equal amount of cash.” — Joel Waldfogel, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”, The American Economic Review, Dec. 1993 ↩
This may very well be true of farming and ranching communities everywhere, but Midwesterners are the only ones I’ve had measurable experience with. ↩