Buy Nothing groups are in the news these days as hedges against inflation (WSJ), builders of community (NYT) and various and sundry other purposes. The basic premise of a Buy Nothing group is that it’s a group of people, usually on Facebook, who agree to post things for free and indicate interest in posted items. No selling, no trading. This might seem an odd topic for a blog post on economics, but in what follows I’ll argue that Buy Nothing groups can teach us a lot about this crazy species sometimes called Homo economicus.
I’m something of an expert here, because I am not only a political theorist and student of economics, I’m also the admin of our local Buy Nothing (BN) group and have watched its mechanics for years now, often with delight, sometimes with frustration. Friends of mine have elaborate BN set ups, complete with bins on their porches organized alphabetically by name. I love these people, but I am not one of them. I instead leave things on the rocking chair of my porch, including, to my husband’s chagrin, carefully labeled Ziploc bags filled with kombucha scobies or, occasionally, guppies.
I’ve given away bed frames, bookshelves, bedside tables, half a toilet, expired Cream of Wheat, an Ethan Allen coffee table, and the aforementioned kombucha scobies and multiple rounds of guppy fry. I’ve received more than I can list, including rugs, a couch and chair, gardening advice and some irises, lots of crafting supplies, kids clothes, house plants and cuttings, and various other knickknacks. My husband finds the entire thing inexplicable and sometimes infuriating, though he has appreciated the occasional free rug that happens to fit the laundry room perfectly.
As a social scientist, broadly speaking, I’ve watched our BN page for years and have been fascinated by what it says about human nature and our general tendency to truck, barter, and exchange. In some sense, of course, it’s not bartering or exchanging at all, because those things aren’t allowed on the page. But what is present is a sense of both generalized and indirect reciprocity, whereby the more people gift the more they tend to receive, and where relationships between gifters play a role in decisions over allocations of resources, and where norms of behavior and decision-rules are both pluralistic but also fairly coherent.
Reputation, for example, is an important tool, though not a decisive one. Not everyone who gifts cares about questions of fairness and it is absolutely up to the gifter to decide where an item goes. Rules and norms themselves develop and grow. Our group has developed a norm of “simmering” on high-value items as a way to increase fairness for people who do not access Facebook all the time. There’s also a general norm of transparency, as when people indicate they’re picking someone quickly in order to get an item out of their house quickly. And you can see relationships develop as people who have gifted to each other over time start interacting in other ways both inside and outside the group.
While some focus on BN groups reducing waste, I’m more interested in the way they solve knowledge and coordination problems. I posted the bottom half of a working toilet after my husband cracked it while doing plumbing work (don’t ask). I got some pushback because really, the bottom half of a toilet is, in fact, the definition of garbage, but an engineering professor scooped it up for a project her engineering students were putting together and it got a second life outside the landfill. The beauty of this exchange is that until that day I didn’t know I had the bottom half of a toilet to gift and she did not know she needed or wanted half a toilet at all (wanted might even be a strong term). And yet, via the beauty of modern technology and our human propensity to share, her needs and my needs were somehow beautifully compatible in a way no one could have predicted.
There are also very interesting network effects, such as the time I went to pick up a rug from an older neighbor. Her husband, a retired professor, helped me load the rug into the car and we ended up talking about health care. This random meeting over a rug ended with me giving a talk on healthcare policy to a university downstate alongside a palliative care physician who works at a comfort care home, an area of research I’ve wanted to dig into more. We exchanged numbers and plan on meeting up over the summer. If you had told me before I left that picking up a rug would have resulted in valuable contacts on end-of-life care, I might have been concerned about what precisely was rolled up in that rug. But such is the spontaneity of these BN relationships.
And of course, given human nature, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
There are definitely annoying things about BN membership: people don’t show up to grab items, a few times things have been stolen off porches, sometimes people post catty things, like the time someone didn’t like my offer of expired Cream of Wheat (someone eventually snagged it, so there), sometimes it’s just easier to bundle things to Goodwill than to wait for people to claim things and keep them organized, and sometimes you find yourself driving 20 minutes out of your way to pick up a $5 item only to realize on the way back that opportunity costs really do exist.
On a deeper level, there’s debate within the BN community about whether the geographic focus of most BN groups and the ethos of “giving where you live” contributes to systemic racism and in fact the platform seems to be moving toward an app that many original BN folks resist. The political theorist in me wants to point out in response to these concerns that there will always be tradeoffs between community and equity. Aristotle knows this; Michael Walzer knows this; anyone who has thought about questions of distributive justice has thought about this. I’m personally less concerned with these issues precisely because I’m impressed by how often items do in fact leave the group. We have members of our relatively affluent group who run clothing closets for foster kids, people who organize winter clothing drives for refugees and homeless folks, and people who grab items for friends and relatives in need. Is it a perfectly equitable distribution mechanism? Of course not, but no such thing exists. For what it is, it’s pretty good and it’s 100% voluntary.
While I sometimes see coverage of BN groups that discusses them as though they’re some new form of community made possible by technology, I actually think the most interesting parts of the BN project is how much of it is in fact very very old. BN is, in a sense, a kind of throwback to our pre-market lives, focused on mutual aid and generalized, indirect, and direct reciprocity. But the modernity of it means that it is, in fact, completely compatible with (and perhaps even relies on) a modern market economy. Someone posted a brand new rug the other day, one she had purchased but had waited too long to return. The rug was snapped up, to be appreciated by someone else for purposes unknown. People post food they bought but didn’t like, clothing that no longer fits, and a range of consumer goods that are only available because we live in a modern market society. But the posting of these items helps solve local knowledge problems in ways that ordering directly from Amazon may not. And they create local network effects that ordering from Amazon almost never does.
So what can we learn from BN groups? In general, I don’t think there’s anything terribly new about the phenomenon. The main thing that’s new is the way humans are using technology platforms like Facebook and apps to do things they’ve been doing anyway for tens of thousands of years. Buy Nothing groups demonstrate the deep reciprocity that’s one of the foundations of human nature. Buy Nothing groups also may in fact demonstrate a kind of limit on markets. Not, mind you, a moral limit, but a practical limit. While humans like money, they also like giving and they also like receiving. What Buy Nothing groups highlight more than anything else is that human nature is a pretty stable thing. Humans love giving and receiving, we’re profoundly and weirdly social, and we have magpie tendencies that show up in funny ways. I love my Buy Nothing group not because it keeps things out of landfills or helps me save money, though it does in fact do both those things. I love it because it’s a microcosm of everything I find fascinating about human sociality in all its quirky, beautiful, and frustrating glory.
Lauren Hall is associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the author of The Medicalization of Birth and Death (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) and Family and the Politics of Moderation (Baylor University Press, 2014) as well as the co-editor of a volume on the political philosophy of French political thinker Chantal Delsol.