“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’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.
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.
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.
The whole point of barter is to satisfy a need. A valuable barter is whatever a barterer needs at that moment. Raj Dhiman, a 30-year-old chemist, joined Swapsity at the beginning of 2012. For his first barter, he traded a batch of home-baked gluten-free muffins in return for a full weekend first aid course. Unlike the course’s instructor, Dhiman relished the challenge of perfecting the recipe. Since then, he’s exchanged a lesson on how to create a website for an Indian cooking class. He’s also turned away barter offers that he didn’t find personal value in. “It’s perfectly fine to decline,” he says, “It wasn’t like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this person thinking?’ I’d say, ‘I appreciate the offer, but that’s not what I need right now.’ All you have to do is ask for what you need.”
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.
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Since the 1830s, direct barter in western market economies has been aided by exchanges which frequently utilize alternative currencies based on the labor theory of value, and designed to prevent profit taking by intermediators. Examples include the Owenite socialists, the Cincinnati Time store, and more recently Ithaca HOURS (Time banking) and the LETS system.
Consumer-based barter systems aren’t the only trade in town, either. In the GTA, there is a robust business-to-business barter system, similar to wir but on a smaller scale. Businesses sign up for a service—there are several available—and trade unbilled work hours or dust-covered inventory for goods and services they couldn’t otherwise afford, especially during recessionary times: often things that attract top talent and retain big clients, such as advertising, promotional gear or client perks.