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.
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.
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.
Barter is a system of exchange by which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money. It is distinguishable from gift economies in that the reciprocal exchange is immediate and not delayed in time. It is usually bilateral, but may be multilateral (i.e., mediated through barter organizations) and usually exists parallel to monetary systems in most developed countries, though to a very limited extent. Barter usually replaces money as the method of exchange in times of monetary crisis, such as when the currency may be either unstable (e.g., hyperinflation or deflationary spiral) or simply unavailable for conducting commerce.
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.
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.
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.
Bartering allows individuals to trade items that they already have but are not using for items that they need while keeping their cash on hand for expenses that cannot be paid through bartering such as a mortgage, medical bills and utilities. Bartering can also have a psychological benefit because it can create a deeper personal relationship between trading partners than a typical monetized transaction. Bartering can also help people build professional networks and market their businesses.
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.
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.)
In Spain (particularly the Catalonia region) there is a growing number of exchange markets. These barter markets or swap meets work without money. Participants bring things they do not need and exchange them for the unwanted goods of another participant. Swapping among three parties often helps satisfy tastes when trying to get around the rule that money is not allowed.
Other countries though do not have the reporting requirement that the U.S. does concerning proceeds from barter transactions, but taxation is handled the same way as a cash transaction. If one barters for a profit, one pays the appropriate tax; if one generates a loss in the transaction, they have a loss. Bartering for business is also taxed accordingly as business income or business expense. Many barter exchanges require that one register as a business.
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).
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.