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.
But various anthropologists have pointed out that this barter economy has never been witnessed as researchers have traveled to undeveloped parts of the globe. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”
On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.
Dave Evans, a Barter Business Unlimited member who operates an online ticket reseller in Plainville, Conn., called EasySeat, was first attracted to bartering as a means to sell distressed inventory. “Our inventory is 100 percent speculative,” he says. “Bartering is a way for us to liquidate inventory that we might not be able to sell for cash.” He’s bartered tickets to New York Yankees championship games and Lady Gaga concerts, and in exchange he’s received everything from a fresh paint job at a company building to an overhauled office alarm service. Sometimes, though, he’s bartered for services that weren’t exactly essential to his business. “I used some of the barter money to get Lasik surgery for myself,” he says. “I guess that’s a little counterintuitive.”
People often require some encouragement to give bartering a shot. Debbie Lombardi, president and founder of Barter Business Unlimited, a Connecticut-based exchange network, says that despite her company’s track record and 4,000-plus registered members, she still regularly encounters resistance and confusion from prospective customers. “Nobody comes to me and says, ‘I’ve always wanted to try bartering,’ ” she admits. “It’s more like, ‘I don’t get it. Is this some kind of scam?’”
Finding a way to make a profit from bartering isn’t just a challenge to the people putting up their livelihood for trade. Even the brokers who act as bartering middlemen are searching for creative ways to make money from a service that isn’t about making money. A website like Swap.com—which connects people who want to exchange their unused household items—looks, at least on paper, like a financial windfall. Jeff Bennett, Swap.com’s CEO, claims that “the business has been doubling every year.” They’re closing in on 450,000 registered users, who’ve taken part in more than 4 million barter exchanges valued at approximately $13 million since the site’s inception in 2010. But as no part of that $13 million is in actual money, how exactly does Swap.com cover its overhead? Most of its capital comes from “related aspects of the business,” says Bennett, such as shipping fees and corporate sponsorships. “We’ve had very good experiences with companies like Gallo wines, LuLu’s Clothing, and ModCloth.” He also hopes to introduce a Swap.com subscription service in the near future that offers customers incentives for forking over a monthly fee, like an ad-free environment and early access to their favorite items.
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.
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: