The existence of pure barter does not necessarily indicate a very primitive form of civilization. Often the system survives long after the community has progressed considerably in other respects. This may be due to conservatism, since primitive peoples are reluctant to change their trading methods, even though they be sufficiently intelligent and advanced to adopt more convenient methods. In some cases there is prejudice against the adoption of a monetary economy, though such prejudice is usually directed against the use of coins rather than against primitive money. In many cases barter continues to be the principal method of trading long after the adoption of some form of money, for the simple reason that there is not enough money to go round. And a decline in the supply of money often causes a relapse into barter. Distrust in money has also been responsible for reversion to the barter system; such distrust may have been caused by debasement or inflation.
In the light of the stock phrases used by many economists about the inconvenience of barter it may appear puzzling to the student that any community which was sufficiently advanced to realize the possibilities of a monetary system should continue to practise such an inconvenient method. The explanation is that in a primitive community barter is not nearly so inconvenient as it appears through modern eyes. Economists are inclined to exaggerate its inconvenience because they look at it from the point of view of modern man. The instances-real or imaginary-they quote are calculated to make their readers wonder how any community could possibly have existed under barter except in extremely primitive conditions. Some of them seek to demonstrate the absurdity of barter by describing the difficulties that would arise if our modern communities were to attempt to practise it. It is, of course, easy for a lecturer to earn the laughter of his audience by telling them about the pathetic efforts of some market gardener who has to find a barber in need of radishes before he can have his hair cut. What the lecturer and his audience do not realize is that in a primitive community the grower of radishes usually cuts his own hair, or has it cut by a member of his family or household; and that even in primitive communities with barbers as an independent profession the barber and the gardener have a fair idea about each other's requirements, and have no difficulty in suiting each other. If the barber does not happen to require to-day any of the products the gardener is in a position to offer, he simply performs his service in return for the future delivery of products he is expected to need sooner or later.
Even the genuine instances quoted by economists to illustrate the absurdity of barter are apt to be misleading in their implication. There is, for instance, the well-known experience of Mlle. Zelie, singer at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, who, in the course of a tour round the world, gave a concert on one of the Society Islands, and received the fee of three pigs, twenty-three turkeys, forty-four chickens, five thousand coconuts and considerable quantities of bananas, lemons and oranges, representing one-third of the box office takings. In a letter published by Wolowski and quoted to boredom by economists ever since, she says that, although this amount of livestock and vegetables would have been worth about four thousand francs in Paris, in the Society Islands it was of very little use to her. Another much-quoted experience is that of Cameron in Tanganyika, when in order to buy an urgently needed boat he first had to swap brass wire against cloth, then cloth against ivory and finally ivory against the boat.
What the economists quoting these and other similar instances do not appear to realize is that the difficulties complained of are not inherent in the system of barter. They are largely anomalies arising from sudden contact between two different civilizations. A native singer in the Society Islands would not have been embarrassed at receiving payment in kind, since she would have known ways in which to dispose of her takings, or store them for future use. Nor would a native of Tanganyika have found the system of barter prevailing there at the time of Cameron's visit nearly so difficult as Cameron did. Knowing local conditions, he would have been prepared for the difficulties, and, before embarking on a major capital transaction such as the purchase of a boat, he would have made arrangements accordingly. In any case, the fact that the goods required could not be obtained by a single transaction would not have worried him unduly. The majority of primitive peoples enjoy bartering and bargaining, and the time lost in putting through three transactions instead of one would not matter to them nearly as much as to modern man living at high speed, especially to an explorer in a hurry to proceed on his journey. And while Cameron must have suffered a loss in each of the three transactions, a local man with adequate time at his disposal and with a thorough knowledge of his market would have chosen the right moment for effecting the necessary exchanges on terms reasonably advantageous to him.
(From Primitive Money by Paul Einzig)