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.
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.
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.
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:
The Owenite socialists in Britain and the United States in the 1830s were the first to attempt to organize barter exchanges. Owenism developed a "theory of equitable exchange" as a critique of the exploitative wage relationship between capitalist and labourer, by which all profit accrued to the capitalist. To counteract the uneven playing field between employers and employed, they proposed "schemes of labour notes based on labour time, thus institutionalizing Owen's demand that human labour, not money, be made the standard of value." This alternate currency eliminated price variability between markets, as well as the role of merchants who bought low and sold high. The system arose in a period where paper currency was an innovation. Paper currency was an IOU circulated by a bank (a promise to pay, not a payment in itself). Both merchants and an unstable paper currency created difficulties for direct producers.
It helped that she had something other people wanted. “If I had gone in and offered to bake a pie for a free night at their hotel,’ they’d probably have said ‘no.’ ” One Barter Babe, Carly Boyce, knitted Simmons an exact replica of a favourite hat Simmons had lost but luckily had a picture of herself wearing. When it came time for the trade, Boyce remembers feeling guilty because the hat was so easy for her to make, and she told Simmons so. Simmons laughed: it was incredibly easy, she told Boyce, for her to give financial advice. It was a funny conversation, Boyce says, but also one that gets at the essence of bartering: when money is taken out of the equation, value is a moving, customizable concept—and that’s just the way most barterers like it.
Some entrepreneurs are already taking the principles of swapping—use everything and anything you already have to survive—to create another offshoot system, one that turns a hefty profit. Called the sharing economy, it is perhaps best exemplified by Airbnb, a service that enables people to rent out their apartments like hotels. Other sites let you turn your driveway into a parking space, your car into a taxi and your tools into a rental service. Forbes estimates revenue flowing through the U.S. sharing economy will hit $3.5 billion by the end of 2013, and maybe more. It’s worth mentioning that some business associations and government members are terrified of this rise: like most alternative economies, it’s largely tax-free.