Doing the rounds on teh interwebs is this fantastic post by David Graeber, and anthrolopogist, on where money comes from.
The basic “story”, and it is only a story, is that first there was barter, then people realised you couldn’t always swap your stuff for what you wanted (no double coincidence of wants), so people invented money, then people invented lending money at interest, then, eventually, capitalism.
This is an economist’s fairytale but the truth, or at least what we know so far is infinitely more interesting…
The actual evidence is that in Mesopotamia—the first case we know anything about—these more widespread pricing systems in fact emerged as a side-effect of non-state bureaucracies. Again, non-state bureaucracies are a phenomenon that no economic model would even have anticipated existing. It’s off the map of economic theory. But look at the historical record and there they are. Sumerian Temples (and even many of the early Palace complexes that imitated them) were not states, did not extract taxes or maintain a monopoly of force, but did contain thousands of people engaged in agriculture, industry, fishing, and herding, people who had to be fed and provisioned, their inputs and outputs measured. All evidence that exists points to money emerging as a series of fixed equivalent between silver—the stuff used to measure fixed equivalents in long distance trade, and conveniently stockpiled in the temples themselves where it was used to make images of gods, etc.—and grain, the stuff used to pay the most important rations from temple stockpiles to its workers.
The numismatist Phillip Grierson long ago pointed to the existence of such elaborate systems of equivalents in the Barbarian Law Codes of early Medieval Europe. 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. One can’t help but wonder how classical economic theory would account for such a situation. Did the ancient Welsh and Irish invent money through barter at some point in the distant past, and then, having invented it, kept the money, but stopped buying and selling things to one another entirely?
The killer blow for economists comes here though…
Murphy argues that the fact that there are no documented cases of barter economies doesn’t matter, because all that is really required is for there to have been some period of history, however brief, where barter was widespread for money to have emerged. This is about the weakest argument one can possibly make. Remember, economists originally predicted all (100%) non-monetary economies would operate through barter. The actual figure of observable cases is 0%. Economists claim to be scientists. Normally, when a scientist’s premises produce such spectacularly non-predictive results, the scientist begins working on a new set of premises. Saying “but can you prove it didn’t happen sometime long long ago where there are no records?” is a classic example of special pleading. In fact, I can’t prove it didn’t. I also can’t prove that money wasn’t introduced by little green men from Mars in a similar unknown period of history.
Read it all, very interesting.