Tuesday, September 13, 2011

More on the History of Money

I don't know if these are boring you, but I am deeply fascinated by this topic, because it seems as if my profession has gotten it wrong for the past 100 years or longer. Most economics textbooks will tell you money sprang forth naturally from barter to solve the 'double coincidence of wants' problem made evident in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Austrian economists and 'goldbugs' really seem to like this interpretation of the history of money, but the evidence seems to be against this view.

David Graeber, an anthropologist (not an economist), recently authored a book called ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ and has made some waves in the media. I posted an interview on PBS a couple weeks ago.

Note that this history of debt/money is already very much a part of MMT and in line with the findings of A. Mitchell Innes almost a century ago. I can't wait to read his book, but until then, I recommend his post at Naked Capitalism in which he responds to a pro-Austrian economist who argued against his findings.

Full post here: David Graeber on the Invention of Money

First, the history:

1) Adam Smith first proposed in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ that as soon as a division of labor appeared in human society, some specializing in hunting, for instance, others making arrowheads, people would begin swapping goods with one another (6 arrowheads for a beaver pelt, for instance.) This habit, though, would logically lead to a problem economists have since dubbed the ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem—for exchange to be possible, both sides have to have something the other is willing to accept in trade. This was assumed to eventually lead to the people stockpiling items deemed likely to be generally desirable, which would thus become ever more desirable for that reason, and eventually, become money. Barter thus gave birth to money, and money, eventually, to credit.

2) 19th century economists such as Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger [1] kept the basic framework of Smith’s argument, but developed hypothetical models of just how money might emerge from such a situation. All assumed that in all communities without money, economic life could only have taken the form of barter.

3) Anthropologists gradually fanned out into the world and began directly observing how economies where money was not used (or anyway, not used for everyday transactions) actually worked. What they discovered was an at first bewildering variety of arrangements, ranging from competitive gift-giving to communal stockpiling to places where economic relations centered on neighbors trying to guess each other’s dreams. What they never found was any place, anywhere, where economic relations between members of community took the form economists predicted: “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.”

Hence in the definitive anthropological work on the subject, Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey concludes, “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” [2]

Just in way of emphasis: economists thus predicted that all (100%) non-monetary economies would be barter economies. Empirical observation has revealed that the actual number of observable cases—out of thousands studied—is 0%.

Similarly, the number of documented marketplaces where people regularly appear to swap goods directly without any reference to a money of account is also zero. If any sociological prediction has ever been empirically refuted, this is it.

4) Economists have for the most part accepted the anthropological findings, if directly confronted with them, but not changed any of the assumptions that generated the false predictions. Meanwhile, all textbooks continue to report the same old sequence: first there was barter, then money, then credit—except instead of actually saying that tribal societies regularly practiced barter, they set it up as an imaginative exercise (“imagine what you would have to do if you didn’t have money!” or vaguely imply that anything actual tribal societies did do must have been barter of some kind.


In many times and places, one sees a similar arrangement: two sorts of money, one, a common long-distance trade item, the other, a common subsistence item—cattle, grain—that’s stockpiled, but never traded. Still, Temple bureaucracies and their ilk are something of a rarity. In their absence, how else might a system of pricing, of proportional equivalents between the values of any and all objects, potentially arise? Here again, anthropology and history both provide one compelling answer, one that again, falls off the radar of just about all economists who have ever written on the subject. That is: legal systems.


Anthropology is full of examples of societies without markets or money, but with elaborate systems of penalties for various forms of injuries or slights.

Again, unlike the economists’ version, this is not hypothetical. This is a description of what actually happens—and not only in the ethnographic record, but the historical one as well.

For example, Welsh and Irish codes contain extremely detailed price schedules where in the Welsh case, the exact value of every object likely to be found in someone’s house were worked out in painstaking detail, from cooking utensils to floorboards—despite the fact that there appear to have been, at the time, no markets where any such items could be bought and sold. The pricing system existed solely for the payment of damages and compensation—partly material, but particularly for insults to people’s honor, since the precise value of each man’s personal dignity could also be precisely quantified in monetary terms.

The persistence of the barter myth is curious.

It seems to me because it goes back precisely to this notion of rationality that Adam Smith too embraced: that human beings are rational, calculating exchangers seeking material advantage, and that therefore it is possible to construct a scientific field that studies such behavior. The problem is that the real world seems to contradict this assumption at every turn. Thus we find that in actual villages, rather than thinking only about getting the best deal in swapping one material good for another with their neighbors, people are much more interested in who they love, who they hate, who they want to bail out of difficulties, who they want to embarrass and humiliate, etc.—not to mention the need to head off feuds.


Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.

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