The Myth of the Barter Economy

tags: economics, Barter Economy

Ilana E. Strauss is an assistant editor at From the Grapevine. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, and The Toast.

Imagine life before money. Say, you made bread but you needed meat.

But what if the town butcher didn’t want your bread? You’d have to find someone who did, trading until you eventually got some meat.

You can see how this gets incredibly complicated and inefficient, which is why humans invented money: to make it easier to exchange goods. Right?

This historical world of barter sounds quite inconvenient. It also may be completely made up.

The man who arguably founded modern economic theory, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, popularized the idea that barter was a precursor to money. In The Wealth of Nations, he describes an imaginary scenario in which a baker living before the invention of money wanted a butcher’s meat but had nothing the butcher wanted.“No exchange can, in this case, be made between them,” Smith wrote.

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.) 

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.” ...

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