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.”
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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.
It is estimated that over 450,000 businesses in the United States were involved in barter exchange activities in 2010. There are approximately 400 commercial and corporate barter companies serving all parts of the world. There are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to start a barter exchange. Several major cities in the U.S. and Canada do not currently have a local barter exchange. There are two industry groups in the United States, the National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE) and the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA). Both offer training and promote high ethical standards among their members. Moreover, each has created its own currency through which its member barter companies can trade. NATE's currency is the known as the BANC and IRTA's currency is called Universal Currency (UC).
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.
And that means everything from tuna to stamps to cigarettes has its own unique value in a trade and barter market. — Alexandra Cardinale, Vox, "Why ramen is so valuable in prison," 14 Nov. 2018 European officials were also looking at a barter system that would allow Iran to sell oil, for example to China, and use the proceeds from that sale to purchase goods or technology from Europe. — Laurence Norman, WSJ, "Europe’s Payment Channel to Salvage Iran Deal Faces Limits," 25 Sep. 2018 With unemployment around 9 percent and consumer prices surging, some Argentines are again turning to barter clubs, which first emerged during the collapse nearly two decades ago. — Almudena Calatrava, Fox News, "Argentines seek soup kitchens, barter markets amid crisis," 10 Sep. 2018 This particular search insired Gellar and Laibow to hop on the phone and barter. — Colleen Leahey Mckeegan, Marie Claire, "Sarah Michelle Gellar's Second Act? Disrupting the Food Industry," 18 Apr. 2017 Choco Pies became so prevalent for sale or barter on the streets that North Korea reportedly banned their import to Kaesong in 2014. — Brian Murphy, Washington Post, "The Choco Pie dividend: South Korean firms are drooling at the prospect of business in the North," 17 June 2018 In 1996, amid crippling famine, Ji tried to steal a few pieces of coal from a rail yard to barter for food. — Brian Murphy, BostonGlobe.com, "Could these outspoken North Korean defectors return home?," 11 June 2018 In 1996, amid crippling famine, Ji tried to steal a few pieces of coal from a rail yard to barter for food. — Brian Murphy, BostonGlobe.com, "Could these outspoken North Korean defectors return home?," 11 June 2018 Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. — Joshua Rapp Learn, Science | AAAS, "The Maya civilization used chocolate as money," 27 June 2018
When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
Another advantage of bartering is that you do not have to part with material items. Instead, you can offer a service in exchange for an item. For instance, if your friend has a skateboard that you want and their bicycle needs work, if you are good at fixing things, you can offer to fix their bike in exchange for the skateboard. With bartering two parties can get something they want or need from each other without having to spend any money.
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.