| The dismal science|
A gift economy is an economy in which there is no money, markets, buying and selling, nor even bartering, but rather a completely communal sharing of goods in which anyone can take what they need and anyone can give what they want or can. Contrary to popular belief, there has never been a recorded society based entirely on barter. Consensus amongst anthropologists holds that prior to the invention of states and therefore taxes, money, and markets, the gift economy was the dominant economic system.
Its advocates include The Venus Project, which proposes a "cybernated" global gift economy facilitated by computer technology, and the followers of anarchist Peter Kropotkin for whom a proposed gift economy was a central part of his ideology of anarcho-communism.
Difficulties and success
For obvious reasons, such an economy is a total non-starter in any situation where resource scarcity or ecological carrying capacity are factors. It could be argued, however, that a pure gift economy in information is evolving now that technology has removed factors of scarcity (e.g. paper books, barriers to entry in conventional media). Certainly something like this is happening with wikis, the free software/open source movement and arguably with online file-sharing and copyright piracy. It is also practiced on a limited scope in such things as the freecycle and free box movements, and "slugging" in the Washington D.C. area. It could also be argued that a gift economy would work in a primitive hunter-gatherer culture with a low human population; this was what Karl Marx called the stage of "primitive communism".
Attempting to implement a pure gift economy on a large scale though would likely lead to squalor and certainly raises all sorts of questions. How would production even continue at all, given that there would be nothing at all to direct it (not the "invisible hand" of the free market, not the central planning of state socialism, not the mix of the two found in modern social democracies, nor even the worker self-management and collectives of anarcho-syndicalism)? It should be noted that the limited areas where a gift economy is working are because of the market economy opening up that possibility for gift economies to be practiced within the broader context of a market economy. Information technology (produced in the market) removed scarcity as an issue for information; the freecycle and free box movements exist to help deal with the surplus of goods produced in a market economy. Take away the market and even those limited possibilities go away with it, and what we are left with is, well, squalor. Then again, returning to hunting, gathering, and mud huts may be the goal of some of its advocates to begin with.
In Elliot S. Maggin's Superman: Last Son of Krypton, the planet Oa officially has a Gift Economy. Bartering and monetary exchanges are illegal there; items may only be given to one another as gifts. What actually happens, though, is that everyone on the planet engages in barter all the time; they just couch it in the terminology of gift-giving and pretend that the "exchange" is not for-value at all.
The Melnorme, an alien race in the old videogame Star Control 2, introduce themselves as having left the use of money long ago and instead trade among themselves with commodities that include information, even if when you have business with them "credits" result of exchanging what you sell to them are used. They also consider altruism as vulgar and inappropiate.