Since the latest series of worldwide economic meltdowns, people have bartered in growing numbers. Last year, the 100 members of the International Reciprocal Trade Association, a network of barter and trade exchanges, facilitated the bartering of billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services around the world. (The IRTA uses its own barter currency called Universal Currency.) In some areas of Greece, bartering has become as second nature as paying for things with cash—there’s even a new barter-style currency called the TEM, accrued through offering goods and services via a vast online network and regular open-air market days. Spain’s time bank system, in which people exchange hours of labour instead of units of currency, has grown exponentially as a result of the country’s crippled economy.
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.
Simmons learned how to ask after one Barter Babe, a veteran barterer, told her she needed to post a wish list. Following the advice, she eventually got not just one bike but two (one for her and one for Matt), a TTC pass, yoga lessons, a haircut and food she wanted to eat, among hundreds of other things. Simmons made exceptions for some unique trades, too, such as both circus performance training and butter churning lessons, the latter of which she now barters as a skill to others. She even worked up the nerve to approach local businesses in person, armed with a business case for barter. One café near her apartment traded a month’s worth of morning coffee for a financial session; a boutique hotel, Hotel Ocho at Queen and Spadina, took a financial seminar luncheon for its employees in return for an overnight stay for Simmons’s parents, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary.
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.
In a small economy where individuals specialize in trades, they may find the process of setting up a centralized currency and maintaining it an unnecessary burden in order to trade. One option may be to use a commodity to exchange value between parties that want to trade goods or services and this is why gold and silver have been useful forms of currency in many cultures and times. Another option may be to use a barter system to trade.
Still, Adam Smith really did seem to believe barter was real. He writes, “When the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations,” and then goes on to describe the inefficiencies of barter. And Beggs says that many textbooks sloppily seem to endorse this viewpoint. “They sort of use that fairy tale,” he explains.
If you've ever swapped one of your toys with a friend in return for one of their toys, you have bartered. Bartering is trading services or goods with another person when there is no money involved. This type of exchange was relied upon by early civilizations. There are even cultures within modern society who still rely on this type of exchange. Bartering has been around for a very long time, however, it's not necessarily something that an economy or society has relied solely on.
When two people each have items the other wants, both people can determine the values of the items and provide the amount that results in an optimal allocation of resources. Therefore, if an individual has 20 pounds of rice that he values at $10, he can exchange it with another individual who needs rice and who has something that the individual wants that's valued at $10. A person can also exchange an item for something that the individual does not need because there is a ready market to dispose of that item.
Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, sought to demonstrate that markets (and economies) pre-existed the state, and hence should be free of government regulation. He argued (against conventional wisdom) that money was not the creation of governments. Markets emerged, in his view, out of the division of labour, by which individuals began to specialize in specific crafts and hence had to depend on others for subsistence goods. These goods were first exchanged by barter. Specialization depended on trade, but was hindered by the "double coincidence of wants" which barter requires, i.e., for the exchange to occur, each participant must want what the other has. To complete this hypothetical history, craftsmen would stockpile one particular good, be it salt or metal, that they thought no one would refuse. This is the origin of money according to Smith. Money, as a universally desired medium of exchange, allows each half of the transaction to be separated.
For one thing, the barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.
As Orlove noted, barter may occur in commercial economies, usually during periods of monetary crisis. During such a crisis, currency may be in short supply, or highly devalued through hyperinflation. In such cases, money ceases to be the universal medium of exchange or standard of value. Money may be in such short supply that it becomes an item of barter itself rather than the means of exchange. Barter may also occur when people cannot afford to keep money (as when hyperinflation quickly devalues it).