The man who arguably founded modern economic theory, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, popularized the idea that barter was a precursor to money. In The Wealth of Nations, he describes an imaginary scenario in which a baker living before the invention of money wanted a butcher’s meat but had nothing the butcher wanted.“No exchange can, in this case, be made between them,” Smith wrote.
It’s hard to answer that without actually seeing a modern gift economy in action. Luckily, modern gift economies actually do exist. On a small scale, they exist among friends, who might lend each other a vacuum or a cup of flour. There’s even an example of a gift economy on a much larger scale, albeit one that’s not always in operation: The Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival in which about 10,000 people gather for a month in the woods (it rotates among various national forests around the country each year) and agree not to bring any money. Groups of attendees set up “kitchens,” in which they prepare and serve food for thousands of people every day, all for free. Classical economists might guess that people would take advantage of such a system, but, sure enough, everyone is fed, and the people who don’t cook play music, set up trails, teach classes, gather firewood, and perform in plays, among other things.
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
It was the fifth lasagna that did it. Three months into the project, Simmons had signed up over 80 Barter Babes, and every time she bartered her financial services, she seemed to get a lasagna in return. She was trying to shove yet another five-pound pasta dish into her freezer when the tears started to flow. “I don’t need another lasagna!” she yelled at her boyfriend. “I need a haircut! I need a bicycle!” She was overwhelmed with doubts about her bartering experiment: I’m so ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? This whole thing is never going to work. Trades weren’t happening at the frequency she had anticipated, and Simmons was feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford a dye job at a salon, and she had started gaining weight. She’d gone from ballin’ to having $200 in her joint account.