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.
Whether or not one agrees with such broad claims, it’s worth noting that monetary debt, a byproduct of currency, has regularly been used to by some groups to manipulate others. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, suggested that the government encourage Native Americans to purchase goods on credit so they’d fall into debt and be forced to sell their lands. Today, black neighborhoods are disproportionately plagued by debt-collection lawsuits. Even after taking income into account, debt collection suits are twice as common in black neighborhoods as in white ones. $34 million was seized from residents of St. Louis’ mostly black neighborhoods in suits filed between 2008 and 2012, much of which was seized from debtors’ paychecks. In Jennings, a St. Louis suburb, there was one suit for every four residents during those years.
For example, the market for national security payloads and NASA missions (James Webb is a notable exception, bartered between NASA and ESA) are typically closed to Arianespace. — Eric Berger, Ars Technica, "As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist," 20 July 2018 Friends told the British press that Rowley would often search dumpsters for items to barter or sell. — William Booth, Anchorage Daily News, "Woman exposed to nerve agent in southern England dies; police launch murder investigation," 9 July 2018 Anyone who unlawfully captures or kills a big game animal and then sells or barters the animal is guilty of a felony. — Dustin Gardiner, azcentral, "10 Arizona laws that actually exist: Private armies, food-wasting ban, windshield repairs," 27 June 2018 This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says. — Joshua Rapp Learn, Science | AAAS, "The Maya civilization used chocolate as money," 27 June 2018 To generate publicity, the cash is handed out at ceremonies held in the weekly roadside markets where villagers gather to barter meager fish hauls for goods like plastic buckets or quart bottles of gasoline. — New York Times, "Nearly Eradicated in Humans, the Guinea Worm Finds New Victims: Dogs," 18 June 2018 Prize is not transferable or redeemable for cash and may not be sold, bartered or auctioned. — Union-tribune Rewards, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Enter to Win Two Tickets to San Diego Legion's Inaugural Rugby Season as well as a gift certificate to Hundred Proof!," 11 May 2018 Others report punishment for having hoarded, rationed or bartered for menstrual products. — refinery29.com, "Meghan Markle Has Championed Menstrual Equity — Here's Why You Should Too," 21 May 2018 As the city bartered for water with local farmers and hustled to build desalination plants, its residents simply started using less water. — Ryan Lenora Brown, The Christian Science Monitor, "Squeezing more out of taps: How Cape Town cut consumption in half," 30 Apr. 2018
While Swapsity trades are facilitated online, its participants can be seen in real life at themed in-person swap meets as well as the annual Live Green Toronto Festival. Over the past three years, more than 25,000 items—primarily clothes, books, CDs and DVDs—have been swapped at its events, collectively saving people roughly $200,000. About 5,000 items have been donated to charity. On average, each participant saves $80 at every swap (the value of items they go home with and would have otherwise bought). This year’s Live Green event was packed despite the grey July weather: until it started to rain heavily in the late afternoon, lineups to get into the six swapping tents spanned the full length of the waiting area, then folded in on themselves like accordions. Even in the rain, the leaking tents bustled.
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.
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.
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.
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.