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Transatlantic Blog

The great exchange: How returning Christmas gifts refutes socialism

“It is more blessed to give than to receive,” according to the scriptures – but so many people will return disappointing Christmas gifts to the store for an exchange or refund today that January 3 has sometimes been dubbed “National Returns Day.” While it may deflate our ego to know that our gift choices do not bring our loved ones the pleasure we had hoped, there are economic, political, and spiritual truths embedded in this unheralded holiday tradition.

Despite the secret guilt and implied ingratitude of returning gifts, the practice is widespread and growing across the West. Nearly half (46 percent) of all Americans will return unwanted Christmas gifts, according to Optoro, a company that tracks this figure annually. Of these, the average person returns four items. The value of exchanged merchandise is £143 million in the UK alone; globally, that rises to $90 billion, and climbing.

Stream editor Jay Richards captured the economic reality behind this in a touching childhood story about a game a teacher played in elementary school, which you can see summarized here. The bottom line is: The more choice a person has over a gift, the greater the satisfaction. Economists call this “maximizing utility,” and expanded choice increases personal happiness.

Every returned shirt, tacky piece of jewelry, or unwanted kitchen appliance silently attests to the failure of socialism.

Christmas gift returns also refute the notions of socialism and command economics. If those closest to us, who know us personally, cannot always choose gifts we might like, how can distant and anonymous central planners? As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, their grasp of the situation always amounts to “incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge” that, by its nature, cannot tell bureaucrats “how to secure the best use of resources.” Even if they knew of the particularities facing every one of the nation’s 325 million citizens, government administrators could not micromanage circumstances to bring the same degree of enjoyment we can through millions of independent choices. Economic centralization makes people less happy than the autonomy bestowed by economic freedom. Every returned shirt, tacky piece of jewelry, or unwanted kitchen appliance silently attests to the failure of socialism.

Finally, there is a spiritual sense pregnant even in something as mundane as exchanging unwanted gifts. The Christmas season specifically marks Jesus Christ’s nativity, in which the Savior took our human nature and our fallen faculties the ability to commune with God. St. Gregory Nazianzus said that through Christ’s incarnation, “the new was substituted for the old” and “each property of His, Who was above us, was interchanged with each of ours.”

“This is the reason for the generation [birth] and the virgin, for the manger and Bethlehem,” he continued, “to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon” Christ’s followers (Oration 2, 24 and 22, respectively).

Thank God for this heavenly exchange.

(Photo credit: JJByers. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.