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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.
But various anthropologists have pointed out that this barter economy has never been witnessed as researchers have traveled to undeveloped parts of the globe. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”
“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.
It is estimated that over 450,000 businesses in the United States were involved in barter exchange activities in 2010. There are approximately 400 commercial and corporate barter companies serving all parts of the world. There are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to start a barter exchange. Several major cities in the U.S. and Canada do not currently have a local barter exchange. There are two industry groups in the United States, the National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE) and the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA). Both offer training and promote high ethical standards among their members. Moreover, each has created its own currency through which its member barter companies can trade. NATE's currency is the known as the BANC and IRTA's currency is called Universal Currency (UC).
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Bartering does have its limitations. Many bigger (i.e., chain) businesses will not entertain the idea and even smaller organizations may limit the amount of goods or services for which they will barter (i.e., they may not agree to a 100% barter arrangement and instead require that you make at least partial payment). But in an economic crunch, bartering can be a great way to get the goods and services you need without having to pull money out of your pocket.
Michael Linton originated the term "local exchange trading system" (LETS) in 1983 and for a time ran the Comox Valley LETSystems in Courtenay, British Columbia. LETS networks use interest-free local credit so direct swaps do not need to be made. For instance, a member may earn credit by doing childcare for one person and spend it later on carpentry with another person in the same network. In LETS, unlike other local currencies, no scrip is issued, but rather transactions are recorded in a central location open to all members. As credit is issued by the network members, for the benefit of the members themselves, LETS are considered mutual credit systems.
Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.
On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.
In his analysis of barter between coastal and inland villages in the Trobriand Islands, Keith Hart highlighted the difference between highly ceremonial gift exchange between community leaders, and the barter that occurs between individual households. The haggling that takes place between strangers is possible because of the larger temporary political order established by the gift exchanges of leaders. From this he concludes that barter is "an atomized interaction predicated upon the presence of society" (i.e. that social order established by gift exchange), and not typical between complete strangers.
The Internet provides a new medium for the barter exchange industry. Pure Internet-based barter companies differ from traditional, organized trade exchanges in that they do not have a physical office. In modern Internet barter exchanges, there is an agreement or process in place to value goods and services exchanged, which is facilitated by the barter exchange for a fee. A barter exchange functions primarily as the organizer of a marketplace where members buy and sell products and services among themselves.
Other countries, though, do not have the reporting requirement that the U.S. does concerning proceeds from barter transactions, but taxation is handled the same way as a cash transaction. If one barters for a profit, one pays the appropriate tax; if one generates a loss in the transaction, they have a loss. Bartering for business is also taxed accordingly as business income or business expense. Many barter exchanges require that one register as a business.
An alternate currency, denominated in labour time, would prevent profit taking by middlemen; all goods exchanged would be priced only in terms of the amount of labour that went into them as expressed in the maxim 'Cost the limit of price'. It became the basis of exchanges in London, and in America, where the idea was implemented at the New Harmony communal settlement by Josiah Warren in 1826, and in his Cincinnati 'Time store' in 1827. Warren ideas were adopted by other Owenites and currency reformers, even though the labour exchanges were relatively short lived.
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.
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