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.
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Remember back in school when kids would swap juice boxes for chips, or cookies for Twinkies? Even children have an innate sense that the comparable value of cookies to Twinkies is in the eye of the beholder. To the kid who gets cookies every day, the elusive cream-filled cake treat is worth more than a few, and he realizes his friend might feel differently.
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.”
Trading goods and services without the use of money is called bartering. Early civilizations relied on this kind of exchange. Even cultures in modern society rely on it. Think of people in prison who commonly trade cigarettes for protection or extra food. For the most part, they don't have cash. So, like people in pre-currency economies, they work with what they have.
You can use bartering to cut costs with your small business or to reduce personal expenses. For example, a handyman can trade services with a hairstylist. Each person is still getting paid for their work, in a sense, and it can lead to referrals to cash-carrying customers without costing a penny. However, the essence of bartering is simply to trade something you have for something you want or need – and you can do this whether you are struggling financially or have a steady income.
Economic historian Karl Polanyi has argued that where barter is widespread, and cash supplies limited, barter is aided by the use of credit, brokerage, and money as a unit of account (i.e. used to price items). All of these strategies are found in ancient economies including Ptolemaic Egypt. They are also the basis for more recent barter exchange systems.
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.