Bartering is based on a simple concept: Two individuals negotiate to determine the relative value of their goods and services and offer them to one another in an even exchange. It is the oldest form of commerce, dating back to at time before hard currency even existed. (Learn more about how bartering evolved, read The History of Money: From Barter To Banknotes.)
When two people each have items the other wants, both people can determine the values of the items and provide the amount that results in an optimal allocation of resources. Therefore, if an individual has 20 pounds of rice that he values at $10, he can exchange it with another individual who needs rice and who has something that the individual wants that's valued at $10. A person can also exchange an item for something that the individual does not need because there is a ready market to dispose of that item.
This sort of scenario was so undesirable that societies must have created money to facilitate trade, argues Smith. Aristotle had similar ideas, and they’re by now a fixture in just about every introductory economics textbook. “In simple, early economies, people engaged in barter,” reads one. (“The American Indian with a pony to dispose of had to wait until he met another Indian who wanted a pony and at the same time was able and willing to give for it a blanket or other commodity that he himself desired,” read an earlier one.)
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:
Simmons learned how to ask after one Barter Babe, a veteran barterer, told her she needed to post a wish list. Following the advice, she eventually got not just one bike but two (one for her and one for Matt), a TTC pass, yoga lessons, a haircut and food she wanted to eat, among hundreds of other things. Simmons made exceptions for some unique trades, too, such as both circus performance training and butter churning lessons, the latter of which she now barters as a skill to others. She even worked up the nerve to approach local businesses in person, armed with a business case for barter. One café near her apartment traded a month’s worth of morning coffee for a financial session; a boutique hotel, Hotel Ocho at Queen and Spadina, took a financial seminar luncheon for its employees in return for an overnight stay for Simmons’s parents, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary.
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.
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.
David Graeber argues that the inefficiency of barter in archaic society has been used by economists since Adam Smith to explain the emergence of money, the economy, and hence the discipline of economics itself. "Economists of the contemporary orthodoxy... propose an evolutionary development of economies which places barter, as a 'natural' human characteristic, at the most primitive stage, to be superseded by monetary exchange as soon as people become aware of the latter's greater efficiency." However, extensive investigation by anthropologists like Graeber has since then established that "No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing. But there are economies today which are nevertheless dominated by barter."
She was about to quit the project when she received a cascade of good news: six new women signed up as Barter Babes, more than she’d ever had before at one time. Then City Television contacted her for an interview segment—one of her Barter Babes had mentioned her trade to a friend at the station. After that, social media mentions of Barter Babes blew up.
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.