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.
Barter is a system of exchange by which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money. It is distinguishable from gift economies in that the reciprocal exchange is immediate and not delayed in time. It is usually bilateral, but may be multilateral (i.e., mediated through barter organizations) and usually exists parallel to monetary systems in most developed countries, though to a very limited extent. Barter usually replaces money as the method of exchange in times of monetary crisis, such as when the currency may be either unstable (e.g., hyperinflation or deflationary spiral) or simply unavailable for conducting commerce.
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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.
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.
In late 2012, Toronto even got its own spinoff of Trade School, a model that originated in New York in 2010. The Toronto Trade School holds classes—on anything from spoken word to origami flower–making to bicycle maintenance—and invites students to “pay” with an item or service from the teacher’s barter wish list. It has hosted more than 70 classes.
She was about to quit the project when she received a cascade of good news: six new women signed up as Barter Babes, more than she’d ever had before at one time. Then City Television contacted her for an interview segment—one of her Barter Babes had mentioned her trade to a friend at the station. After that, social media mentions of Barter Babes blew up.
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Another advantage of bartering is that you do not have to part with material items. Instead, you can offer a service in exchange for an item. For instance, if your friend has a skateboard that you want and their bicycle needs work, if you are good at fixing things, you can offer to fix their bike in exchange for the skateboard. With bartering two parties can get something they want or need from each other without having to spend any money.
Barter-based economies are one of the earliest, predating monetary systems and even recorded history. People can successfully use barter in many almost any field. Informally, people often participate in barter and other reciprocal systems without really ever thinking about it as such -- for example, providing web design or tech support for a farmer or baker and receiving vegetables or baked goods in return. Strictly Internet-based exchanges are common as well, for example exchanging content creation for research.
“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.
Trade did occur in non-monetary societies, but not among fellow villagers. Instead, it was used almost exclusively with strangers, or even enemies, where it was often accompanied by complex rituals involving trade, dance, feasting, mock fighting, or sex—and sometimes all of them intertwined. Take the indigenous Gunwinggu people of Australia, as observed by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s: