mid-15c., apparently from Old French barater "to barter, cheat, deceive, haggle" (also, "to have sexual intercourse"), 12c., of uncertain origin, perhaps from a Celtic language (cf. Irish brath "treachery"). Connection between "trading" and "cheating" exists in several languages. Related: Bartered; bartering. The noun is first recorded 1590s, from the verb.
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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.)
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).
David Graeber argues that the inefficiency of barter in archaic society has been used by economists since Adam Smith to explain the emergence of money, the economy, and hence the discipline of economics itself. "Economists of the contemporary orthodoxy... propose an evolutionary development of economies which places barter, as a 'natural' human characteristic, at the most primitive stage, to be superseded by monetary exchange as soon as people become aware of the latter's greater efficiency." However, extensive investigation by anthropologists like Graeber has since then established that "No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing. But there are economies today which are nevertheless dominated by barter."
For one thing, the barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.
For example, the market for national security payloads and NASA missions (James Webb is a notable exception, bartered between NASA and ESA) are typically closed to Arianespace. — Eric Berger, Ars Technica, "As the SpaceX steamroller surges, European rocket industry vows to resist," 20 July 2018 Friends told the British press that Rowley would often search dumpsters for items to barter or sell. — William Booth, Anchorage Daily News, "Woman exposed to nerve agent in southern England dies; police launch murder investigation," 9 July 2018 Anyone who unlawfully captures or kills a big game animal and then sells or barters the animal is guilty of a felony. — Dustin Gardiner, azcentral, "10 Arizona laws that actually exist: Private armies, food-wasting ban, windshield repairs," 27 June 2018 This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says. — Joshua Rapp Learn, Science | AAAS, "The Maya civilization used chocolate as money," 27 June 2018 To generate publicity, the cash is handed out at ceremonies held in the weekly roadside markets where villagers gather to barter meager fish hauls for goods like plastic buckets or quart bottles of gasoline. — New York Times, "Nearly Eradicated in Humans, the Guinea Worm Finds New Victims: Dogs," 18 June 2018 Prize is not transferable or redeemable for cash and may not be sold, bartered or auctioned. — Union-tribune Rewards, sandiegouniontribune.com, "Enter to Win Two Tickets to San Diego Legion's Inaugural Rugby Season as well as a gift certificate to Hundred Proof!," 11 May 2018 Others report punishment for having hoarded, rationed or bartered for menstrual products. — refinery29.com, "Meghan Markle Has Championed Menstrual Equity — Here's Why You Should Too," 21 May 2018 As the city bartered for water with local farmers and hustled to build desalination plants, its residents simply started using less water. — Ryan Lenora Brown, The Christian Science Monitor, "Squeezing more out of taps: How Cape Town cut consumption in half," 30 Apr. 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.
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.
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
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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: