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.
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He would have heard of channels and sandbanks, of natural features of the land useful for sea-marks, of villages and tribes and modes of barter and precautions to take: with the instructive tales about native chiefs dyed more or less blue, whose character for greediness, ferocity, or amiability must have been expounded to him with that capacity for vivid language which seems joined naturally to the shadiness of moral character and recklessness of disposition.
Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
Toronto’s online Freecycle network, where 27,000-plus members can give, and get, things for free, provides a variation on bartering. Last April, Toronto hosted one of its first gift circles, which, as the name suggests, encourage small groups to form gifting communities—groups of 20 that give and take from a pool of goods and services depending on their needs. Torontonians can also swap skills at justfortheloveofit.org, a freeconomy community that spans 174 countries. On the site, members share talents that range from useful (dog walking, yoga instruction, electrical work) to questionable (boycotting, ear candling, loving) to weird (tree whispering, culture jamming, puppet making). When it comes to alternative economies, the creative possibilities are vast, but they all speak to the same desire for something different—anything other than what we have.
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.
In Canada, barter continues to thrive. The largest b2b barter exchange is Tradebank, founded in 1987. P2P bartering has seen a renaissance in major Canadian cities through Bunz - built as a network of Facebook groups that went on to become a stand-alone bartering based app in January 2016. Within the first year, Bunz accumulated over 75,000 users in over 200 cities worldwide.
During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.
Economists since the times of Adam Smith (1723-1790), looking at non-specific pre-modern societies as examples, have used the inefficiency of barter to explain the emergence of money, of "the" economy, and hence of the discipline of economics itself. However, ethnographic studies have shown that no present or past society has used barter without any other medium of exchange or measurement, nor have anthropologists found evidence that money emerged from barter, instead finding that gift-giving (credit extended on a personal basis with an inter-personal balance maintained over the long term) was the most usual means of exchange of goods and services.
Nowinska says one of the biggest challenges Swapsity faces is that new barterers think they have nothing to offer. So they offer bad trades. Yet most people have hundreds of skills—from cooking to networking to scrapbooking. The trick is learning to recognize the value of your skills, your knowledge and your talent. Bartering attaches value to things that are not always recognized, or highly valued, in a cash economy—often hobbies that people can’t make a living on but love to do. One Barter Babe trades her homemade canned goods for gifts—mostly other crafted items—she can give away at Christmas. A Swapsity member has traded pounds of fiddleheads she picks at her mom’s house in the country for feng shui sessions.
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:
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.
Anthropologists have argued, in contrast, "that when something resembling barter does occur in stateless societies it is almost always between strangers." Barter occurred between strangers, not fellow villagers, and hence cannot be used to naturalistically explain the origin of money without the state. Since most people engaged in trade knew each other, exchange was fostered through the extension of credit. Marcel Mauss, author of 'The Gift', argued that the first economic contracts were to not act in one's economic self-interest, and that before money, exchange was fostered through the processes of reciprocity and redistribution, not barter. Everyday exchange relations in such societies are characterized by generalized reciprocity, or a non-calculative familial "communism" where each takes according to their needs, and gives as they have.
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.