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.”
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.)
Other anthropologists have questioned whether barter is typically between "total" strangers, a form of barter known as "silent trade". Silent trade, also called silent barter, dumb barter ("dumb" here used in its old meaning of "mute"), or depot trade, is a method by which traders who cannot speak each other's language can trade without talking. However, Benjamin Orlove has shown that while barter occurs through "silent trade" (between strangers), it also occurs in commercial markets as well. "Because barter is a difficult way of conducting trade, it will occur only where there are strong institutional constraints on the use of money or where the barter symbolically denotes a special social relationship and is used in well-defined conditions. To sum up, multipurpose money in markets is like lubrication for machines - necessary for the most efficient function, but not necessary for the existence of the market itself."
Whether or not one agrees with such broad claims, it’s worth noting that monetary debt, a byproduct of currency, has regularly been used to by some groups to manipulate others. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, suggested that the government encourage Native Americans to purchase goods on credit so they’d fall into debt and be forced to sell their lands. Today, black neighborhoods are disproportionately plagued by debt-collection lawsuits. Even after taking income into account, debt collection suits are twice as common in black neighborhoods as in white ones. $34 million was seized from residents of St. Louis’ mostly black neighborhoods in suits filed between 2008 and 2012, much of which was seized from debtors’ paychecks. In Jennings, a St. Louis suburb, there was one suit for every four residents during those years.
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.)
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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.
It’s no scam, but it can be complicated to the uninitiated. As Lombardi explains, “We run like a little bank.” Members are paid in “barter dollars,” which they can exchange with other members for goods and services. Within the bartering community, it’s the only acceptable currency. “It’s like going to a barter mall,” Lombardi says. “They can do all their holiday shopping. They can get the carpets cleaned. They can pay for their child’s orthodontic work. It’s almost limitless.”
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.
Michael Linton originated the term "local exchange trading system" (LETS) in 1983 and for a time ran the Comox Valley LETSystems in Courtenay, British Columbia. LETS networks use interest-free local credit so direct swaps do not need to be made. For instance, a member may earn credit by doing childcare for one person and spend it later on carpentry with another person in the same network. In LETS, unlike other local currencies, no scrip is issued, but rather transactions are recorded in a central location open to all members. As credit is issued by the network members, for the benefit of the members themselves, LETS are considered mutual credit systems.
An alternate currency, denominated in labour time, would prevent profit taking by middlemen; all goods exchanged would be priced only in terms of the amount of labour that went into them as expressed in the maxim 'Cost the limit of price'. It became the basis of exchanges in London, and in America, where the idea was implemented at the New Harmony communal settlement by Josiah Warren in 1826, and in his Cincinnati 'Time store' in 1827. Warren ideas were adopted by other Owenites and currency reformers, even though the labour exchanges were relatively short lived.
Anthropologists have argued, in contrast, "that when something resembling barter does occur in stateless societies it is almost always between strangers, people who would otherwise be enemies." Barter occurred between strangers, not fellow villagers, and hence cannot be used to naturalisticly explain the origin of money without the state. Since most people engaged in trade knew each other, exchange was fostered through the extension of credit. Marcel Mauss, author of 'The Gift', argued that the first economic contracts were to not act in one's economic self-interest, and that before money, exchange was fostered through the processes of reciprocity and redistribution, not barter. Everyday exchange relations in such societies are characterized by generalized reciprocity, or a non-calculative familial "communism" where each takes according to their needs, and gives as they have.