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.
Barter-based economies are one of the earliest, predating monetary systems and even recorded history. People can successfully use barter in many almost any field. Informally, people often participate in barter and other reciprocal systems without really ever thinking about it as such -- for example, providing web design or tech support for a farmer or baker and receiving vegetables or baked goods in return. Strictly Internet-based exchanges are common as well, for example exchanging content creation for research.
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.
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.
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.
As Orlove noted, barter may occur in commercial economies, usually during periods of monetary crisis. During such a crisis, currency may be in short supply, or highly devalued through hyperinflation. In such cases, money ceases to be the universal medium of exchange or standard of value. Money may be in such short supply that it becomes an item of barter itself rather than the means of exchange. Barter may also occur when people cannot afford to keep money (as when hyperinflation quickly devalues it).
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Yet after three years with the firm, she was dissatisfied. She was spending all her time advising millionaires when she wanted to work with average Torontonians, especially women. She couldn’t help noticing that most of her female friends were broke, confused and floundering. Online, her social media feeds were filled with panicky talk of recession budgets and empty wallets. There was one problem: those women couldn’t afford to pay her, and she certainly couldn’t afford to work for free. “I really wanted to do it,” she says, “but I couldn’t figure out a business model.”
While one-to-one bartering is practiced between individuals and businesses on an informal basis, organized barter exchanges have developed to conduct third party bartering which helps overcome some of the limitations of barter. A barter exchange operates as a broker and bank in which each participating member has an account that is debited when purchases are made, and credited when sales are made.
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.