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.
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.)
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.
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.
For one thing, the barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.
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But, since the advent of money-based systems, bartering is an option that most of us dismiss as soon as we get that first paycheck or allowance. Not so for a guy named Kyle MacDonald. He drew a media frenzy when, in a matter of one year and 14 trades, he bartered his way from a paper clip to a house [source: NPR]. Although he had a lot of help from his local government and some people in show business, his story offers dramatic evidence of today's existing market for bartering. MacDonald is one of many people who have taken advantage of the growing phenomenon of bartering over the Internet. This ancient practice is also alive and well in services that facilitate bartering and companies that swap favors.
In his analysis of barter between coastal and inland villages in the Trobriand Islands, Keith Hart highlighted the difference between highly ceremonial gift exchange between community leaders, and the barter that occurs between individual households. The haggling that takes place between strangers is possible because of the larger temporary political order established by the gift exchanges of leaders. From this he concludes that barter is "an atomized interaction predicated upon the presence of society" (i.e. that social order established by gift exchange), and not typical between complete strangers.
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Debts in the wir currency, assigned the same value as the Swiss franc, could be paid with sales to any member of the bartering circle: if a baker needed to “purchase” eggs and flour from a farmer, the baker could pay off the debt by “selling” baked goods to another wir member. The farmer, in turn, could use his newly acquired credit to “buy” his own needed items or services. Despite a bank-led campaign to discredit the system, wir stuck. Today, it has more than 60,000 business participants and does the equivalent of about $4.4 billion in annual trade.
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.
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.)