March 17, 2009

Capitalism and “Casual Encounters”

It?s been my long-held experience that anything worth having can be found on Craigslist:

The brand-new house worth half-a-million dollars that I lived in as a college student. (It was a rough life). The cushy dog-sitting job that earned me an extra $1,000 a month. The gorgeous, neuroscientist boyfriend. The ipod that played the songs that got me through the breakup with the house, dog, and gorgeous, neuroscientist boyfriend.

Now, it seems that what I have been telling people for years?that Craigslist is a bastion of the free-market (and awesomeness)?is being publicly recognized. A number of news outlets have reported that bartering is quickly becoming the new credit card. Craigslist reports that their bartering posts?a G-rated form of the ?casual encounter,? if you will?have doubled since last year.

Why this move towards a cashless exchange? Most obviously, people are increasingly hesitant to hand over their Benjamins or even their Washingtons. But it goes deeper. 

With the economy, and the U.S. dollar, inspiring about as much trust as a used-car salesman (who by comparison, now looks as reliable as a Boy Scout), the one thing people have any vestige of trust left in, economically-speaking, is themselves. They know they can rely on the soundness of their own judgment and the ability to make the economic choices that are right for them.

Enter bartering.

Bartering allows both parties to make a mutually agreeable exchange without any outside interference, no price-setting mechanism other than their choice. Sound like laissez-faire at work to you? In a cashless swap, capitalism and the free market are both at work, allowing an agreeable exchange rate for goods and services based on demand and supply.

But this type of arrangement couldn?t possibly work, at least if we listen to the Dems, who have used a struggling economy to


destroy capitalism. Ironically, most of these out-of-touch politicians are carrying on a tryst with socialism while continuing to give lip-service to capitalism. Take the stimulus package, Obama?s best efforts to deal the death blow to laissez-faire. While embracing socialism in deed, he is loath to admit it in word, even discrediting the question when asked. ?It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question,? he told reporters after being questioned about the echoes (actually more like shouts) of socialism in his economic policies.

Fortunately, while capitalism may be under attack on the federal level, it?s alive and well among the ordinary citizen. At the grass roots level, more people are finding new ways to embrace it, with bartering being just one example. We shouldn?t be surprised. Adam Smith wouldn?t have been: ?The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.?

If we accept that bartering is inherent to mankind, as Smith argues, and at its root a capitalistic system that allows individuals to engage in the free market unhampered, then it follows that, at their core, men are intrinsically capitalist in nature.

So, while bartering may be novel to this generation, it certainly isn?t a new idea, historically speaking.

Consider the caveman. During the pre-internet-period when my illustrious mentor was but a child and mankind still wore animal skins and dragged their woman around by their hair as a form of affection, bartering was the modus operandi:

Caveman 1, pointing at antelope-skin: ?Grunt.? (Translation: ?That?s a mighty swanky animal-skin. It sure would look good with my new stone spear.?

Caveman 2, pointing at Caveman?s 1 daughter: ?Grunt.? (Translation: ?Trade you.?)

Caveman 1: ?Grunt? (Translation: You?ve got a deal. I?ll even throw in my wife for free.)   

Clearly, this bartering thing has a long and storied tradition (obviously not least in my imagination). Still, it is new to this generation, which begs the question: Can a system that operates on a man?s word rather than his money really take in a society that has long lost sight of the meaning of a gentleman?s agreement?

That remains to be seen, and it’s community-based sites, like Craigslist, that will reveal if there’s any hope of an ancient form of exchange flourishing in a thoroughly modern world.

One thing you can be sure about? If we do return to the antelope-skin-for-conjugal-helpmate bartering system, I?ll be sure that I have married myself off by then and that I?ve chosen a husband whose stick is bigger than the next guy?s. 

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