Fraser Forum

From Daredevil to Babycenter, bartering is alive and well

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George Selgin’s recent excellent and extended blog post “The Myth of the Myth of Barter” responds to some recent academic debates over barter and provides some solid evidence in support of Adam Smith’s arguments that barter often becomes “clogged and embarrassed” when one needs services but is possessed of an excess of goods that are unwanted by the people who can provide the desired services.

In other words, Smith and Selgin both recognized that if I need my brick house repaired and I possess a surplus of strawberries, I’m in big trouble if the local mason is allergic to strawberries, grows his own, or just got six quarts of berries from another customer.

The complications raised by barter are considered, by economists, to be part of the history of the evolution of money. Unlike strawberries, money doesn’t go bad after a few days. It’s universally exchangeable for (nearly) anything, and it’s easy to store. The clogs and embarrassments of the barter system are the spur for the evolution of the more efficient system that is money.

So it matters a lot to economists like Selgin when people claim that barter economies never existed. And it matters even more when they use that claim to argue that the monetary system is unjust and evil because before money there were only “gift economies” where goods and services were provided like birthday presents. Gift economies are great, (Who doesn’t like presents?) but they only function among small groups with close associations and good knowledge of the needs, wants and skills of their members.

I leave it to Selgin who is far more qualified than I to make the real economic history arguments.

What I want to do is to point out quietly that the barter economy exists parallel to the monetary economy all around us. I was reminded of this when I tuned into the new season of Daredevil on Netflix. The crime-fighting vigilante Daredevil spends his days as Matt Murdoch, a young lawyer in Hell’s Kitchen. His clientele are primarily poor and disenfranchised, and as the season’s first episode swings into gear, we see Matt at work in his shabby law office, surrounded by pies and several boxes of bananas.

They are, as his assistant Karen explains, payment from clients.

But barter isn’t just alive and well in the Marvel Universe. In a discussion among midwives at Babycenter—a popular website for expectant mothers and those who work with them—at least one midwife notes, “I do barter, up to 1/4 my fee for things I need anyway... produce, a side of beef or venison, housework, sewing, furniture, quilts, etc.” And in 2015, a Staten Island electrician made the news with his quest to barter his services for help from a divorce lawyer.

Aside from the U.S. senatorial candidate who once suggested a return to bartering chickens for health care, no one seriously thinks that barter is the best economic system. But it’s a functional way of extending the associations of a gift economy to help us get services from strangers—like lawyers and midwives and electricians. And before money evolves, or when cash is tight, or when we want to do an end run around taxes and other regulations, we find ourselves relying on it—clogs and embarrassments and all.


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