Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.
Bartering may sound like a style of commerce more fitting to a backwater marketplace than a modern capitalist environment. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association—an organization created to promote “just and equitable standards” in modern bartering—the U.S. barter market is a staggering $12 billion annually. In other words, $12 billion worth of goods and services are traded every year without any currency changing hands. Scott Whitmer, founder of trade exchange company Florida Barter, says that while 2011 saw positive signs of an economic recovery, many small and medium-size companies are still struggling. “Bartering has continued to help many [of these] companies grow and conserve cash,” he says. Though Florida Barter enjoyed a record 2011—a 12 percent increase in total trade volume; more than $17 million worth of trades among the 1,600 clients—Whitmer says bartering as a business practice is still in its infancy, “on the cusp of exploding.”
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.
Since the 1830s, direct barter in western market economies has been aided by exchanges which frequently utilize alternative currencies based on the labor theory of value, and designed to prevent profit taking by intermediators. Examples include the Owenite socialists, the Cincinnati Time store, and more recently Ithaca HOURS (Time banking) and the LETS system.
Companies may want to barter their products for other products because they do not have the credit or cash to buy those goods. It is an efficient way to trade because the risks of foreign exchange are eliminated. The most common contemporary example of business-to-business barter transactions is an exchange of advertising time or space; it is typical for smaller firms to trade the rights to advertise on each others' business spaces. Bartering also occurs among companies and individuals. For example, an accounting firm can provide an accounting report for an electrician in exchange for having its offices rewired by the electrician.
In a small economy where individuals specialize in trades, they may find the process of setting up a centralized currency and maintaining it an unnecessary burden in order to trade. One option may be to use a commodity to exchange value between parties that want to trade goods or services and this is why gold and silver have been useful forms of currency in many cultures and times. Another option may be to use a barter system to trade.
On the positive side, there are great advantages to bartering. As mentioned earlier, you do not need money to barter. Another advantage is that there is flexibility in bartering. For instance, related products can be traded such as portable tablets in exchange for laptops. Or, items that are completely different can be traded such as lawn mowers for televisions. Homes can now be exchanged when people are traveling, which can save both parties money. For instance, if your parents have friends in another state and they need somewhere to stay while on a family vacation, their friends may trade their home for a week or so in exchange for your parents allowing them to use your home.
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.
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).
It’s hard to answer that without actually seeing a modern gift economy in action. Luckily, modern gift economies actually do exist. On a small scale, they exist among friends, who might lend each other a vacuum or a cup of flour. There’s even an example of a gift economy on a much larger scale, albeit one that’s not always in operation: The Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival in which about 10,000 people gather for a month in the woods (it rotates among various national forests around the country each year) and agree not to bring any money. Groups of attendees set up “kitchens,” in which they prepare and serve food for thousands of people every day, all for free. Classical economists might guess that people would take advantage of such a system, but, sure enough, everyone is fed, and the people who don’t cook play music, set up trails, teach classes, gather firewood, and perform in plays, among other things.