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Fair exchange


There’s a pleasant village in England that I still think of as “my” village because I made my home there for a few years.

A friend of mine was the unpaid coordinator of the village’s system of barter, a kind of informal exchange economy. The doors of his home were always open and people came and went on various exchange 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 of dubious legality. No written records were kept, and the whole intricate system seemed to balance out to everyone’s satisfaction. There was also a subtle bias built into the process. People with lower incomes got a better deal.

Barter is a very ancient form of economy. It avoids 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 cooking oil, you had to look around for someone with too much cooking oil and an urgent desire for goats. It was tedious, it was complicated and so 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.

Eventually, thousands years after it was invented, the village allowed money into their communal barter system in the form of something called the Auction Pledge. It’s more formal than barter, but the spirit and the purpose are the same. People who have a special skill, or time on their hands can offer their services in an auction-like meeting. It might be lawn cutting or computer help or house painting or advice on income tax. Anyone can bid for the service auction style. The prices are much cheaper than market rates, and the money goes to local charities. Everybody wins, and you can contribute work even if you have no money.

Left to itself, money flows uphill into the pockets of the already wealthy. The trick for a civilized community is to make some of it flow back downstream, to divert a little of the wealth into things that benefit everybody. That’s the essence of nonprofit fundraising. People will try any crazy thing. A village in Italy, needing to raise money for the repair of the church, hit on the following novel scheme. For a donation of one Euro (then about one dollar), any citizen could throw a custard pie in the face of the priest or the mayor; for two Euros, both. The demand was overwhelming — the line stretched around the piazza. But they needed to raise 20,000 Euros, and there were only two thousand villagers. Also, the priest and the mayor could absorb only so many pies. In short, the scheme failed.

But those Italian villagers were on the right track. It’s no use asking people for money if you can’t offer something better than money in return.

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.