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David Bouchier: Fair exchange

Duncan C

An English village where I used to live had some old-fashioned habits, including an informal economy right out of the 19th century. One of my friends there was the voluntary organizer of a village system of barter, a kind of cash-free exchange system. His home was not a store, but it was buzzing with activity like a store. The doors were never locked, and people came and went on various errands. Somebody would pop through the back door and leave a couple of pheasants. “That’s for the asparagus,” they would say. Home-brewed beer was exchanged for tomatoes, fresh salmon was swapped for frozen casseroles. Most of the exchanges involved food or unorthodox alcoholic beverages. No written records were kept, and the whole intricate system seemed to balance out to everyone’s satisfaction — fair exchange, and sometimes more than fair. There was an unstated assumption that older people with lower incomes got a better deal.

Barter is a very ancient form of economy. It gets around the need for money, banks, credit cards, taxes and the whole monstrous machinery of modern finance. But barter has its problems. If you had an excess of goats, for example, and needed some olive oil, you had to look around for someone with too much olive oil and an urgent desire for goats. It was tedious, it was complicated and so, about 5,000 years ago, money was invented and quickly became the root of all evil. That’s probably an exaggeration. At least 3% of all evil can probably be blamed on other things such as planning committees, party politics and plain stupidity.

The history of money has been the history of different schemes for distributing it. The original scheme, which lasted for many thousands of years, was very simple. Powerful kings and aristocrats kept everything. In the 19th century Karl Marx came up with what seemed like a better scheme — that everyone should share the wealth equally. But that was more sharing than human nature could stand. We are still waiting for the next bright idea about how to use money without allowing it to use us.

When it comes to fundraising for Public Radio, we would love to do it on the barter system. What we have to offer is a year-round cornucopia of quality music, news and entertainment, just when you need those things most. But here’s the problem — we can’t accept goats or olive oil in exchange. The studio is too small for a herd of goats, and we don’t have enough recipes to use an ocean of olive oil. So, we have to ask for your support in the form of money, which we can then exchange for all the great programming you’ve come to expect for WSHU. You can contribute the equivalent of one goat a month as a sustaining member, or a whole herd right now. Whatever you decide, you will find it is a more than fair exchange.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.