Craigslist, Casual Encounters, Cavemen, and Capitalism

[As posted on Taki's Magazine]

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 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 reinvent (read: 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 capitalism. While embracing socialism in deed, he is loathe 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 (or, really, more like shouts) of socialism in his policies’.

Fortunately, while capitalism may be under attack on the federal level, it’s alive and well among ordinary citizens. At the grass roots level, more people are finding new ways to embrace it. Hence, the move towards bartering. 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 Cavemans 1's daughter: “Grunt.” (Translation: “Trade you.”)
Caveman 1: “Grunt” (Translation: You’ve got a deal. I’ll even throw in this saber-tooth tiger 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 succeed 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.

While perusing Donald Douglas' American Power (always time well-spent), I came across what may be the best Barry O caricature I've seen. I promise you, it's worth a click.
Note to my regular readers: I penned this post last Friday while I was supposed to be on a blogging hiatus. As I reviewed my own words about how this generation has lost sight of the importance of a man's word and the meaning of a gentleman's agreement, the irony struck me--and my conscience--like a ton of bricks. (I had also posted a picture montage that day.)

Now, I know that putting up a post during an intended hiatus was hardly the most egregious error I could have committed. But I think it's important nonetheless. I was raised to know that a man's word and integrity may be the most important thing he's got in this world. If I disappointed any of you by my early return (and I certainly disappointed myself), you have my sincerest apology.

Before I break out into a rendition of "Reunited, and it feels so good," go forth and barter or join the the revolt of the kulaks. It'll make us both feel better.


  1. Good to see you haven't been resting on your laurels - welcome back. I can't help but wonder if modern methods of courtship are an improvement over the hair-dragging carry 'em of over your shoulder tradition.

  2. Sorry, but I wasn't a big fan of the caricature of the President at Mr. Douglas' blog.

    Daily market numbers are far from the best way to judge any particular political figure, as I guarantee a number of folks on the right will argue when these numbers inevitably go up, again.

    The Market Is Not Judging Obama

    Besides, it's a clear case of Confusing Causation & Correlation in Markets and Politics. As this article states, the same claims were made about Dubya... (...and they were just as foolish and short-sighted then.)

    It's a long term problem, starting well before Obama took office, and it's going to take long term solutions, and perhaps a little patience, to get the ship righted, again. If Turdblossom sez we need to take The Long View in judging his boss, Bush 43 (perhaps our kids or grandkids will know the "truth" about him), than surely we can give 44 a year or two before making those same kinda snap judgments that Karl said are likely so wrong about the guy who was actually in office when all of this got started... Just something to consider...

  3. Anonymous16.3.09

    I couldn't agree with you more.

    Glad to read you're back.

    Loved the conversation with the cave
    man. I know you didn't think of that scenario all by yourself. I'm sure your 'illustrious' mentor told you in detail about how he bartered for the love of his life.

  4. A Response to repsac3's comment:

    While I agree about the stock market being a less than accurate indicator of a particular political figures direct effect on the economy, it does provide a good sounding mechanism of public faith in he economy. Rather than instill confidence and ally fears of a recession, the bailout has done the opposite. Who wants to invest when the image of corporate America pandering to the Federal Government to save them from bankruptcy is so prevalent? Obama might not be directly responsible for the continued downturn in the economy, but his policies have done little to assuage public concerns about the economy. If anything they have only reinforced them.

    "Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'." - Randall Munroe

    All of Obama's current and proposed economic policies have their roots in Keynesian economic theory and socialism, whether or not he admits it (if it looks like a socialist duck, walks like a socialist duck, and quacks/talks like a socialist duck then, it's probably a socialist duck). Keynesian economics have been tried before under Carter's administration – look how well that turned out. While Carter may not be arguably responsible for the recession in the 80's (though I doubt such an argument can be made) the Keynesian policies he advocated were. One would have thought that after such a disastrous failure Keynesianism would have been permanently discredited – guess again. Keynesian policies require a big government and lots of spending on it's part – democrats seem to be fond of this. It should be of little surprise then that we see these ideas creeping back into the realms of credibility under a democratic administration backed by a democratically controlled House and Senate.

    Since FDR the democrats have seen the cure for societies' ills in Federally funded public programs and increased Federal regulation (this is a polite way of saying "socialism" without taking all of it's historically imputed negative connotations along for the ride). Obama is no different. And If history is to be any judge it will hold that such practices do not work and are fundamentally antagonistic to a free society - and it hasn't been for a lack of trying.

    Back to Douglas' post. While it may be premature to characterize Obama as the Urkel who unwittingly wrecked the US economy, the ideological foundations of his current and proposed “solutions” have done just that. The theories behind Obama's ideals have already been tested – they failed. To say otherwise is to deliberately ignore the lessons of history. History has already judged the merit of Obama's ideals – he need only pursue them to become said Urkel.

  5. Anonymous18.3.09

    Very well stated, GNH.
    And Sue, loved the link- it was so worth the click. A little humor to liven up my night is always appreciated.

  6. The short answer to your question I think is yes. Largely because bartering does not require inherent trust. It merely requires to parties to meet, examine the articles for swap and then reach an agreeable exchange. As you noted with the cavemen (pssst caveman one got suckered, the sabertooth tiger should have been more than enough for the pelt.) the exchange was an initial meeting for the trade of valuable goods.

    Further us menfolk inherently understand bartering, our second favorite pursuit is typically the study of sport in all its sundry, which includes the exchanges of contracts in a giant swap meet called the trading deadline. The artificial cap on barter activities leads to a frenzy of activity in the waning hours, except in football, where the concept of trading has become nearly extinct, much like salary cap violations. In fact one of the better sport/econ bloggers out there JC Bradbury expounded on the fundamental mechanism to evaluate baseball trades a few years back. Both parties have to have a clear understanding of the goods they have to offer as well as the goods they hope to attain. In baseball it's along these lines, I have an old and injury prone third baseman, I need a new one, I wonder if someone will give me something for my excess outfield talent.

    Now consider one of the most profound barter implications of our time, well my time, you probably hadn't been born when this occurred *shakes fist & mutters menacingly at darn kids on lawn*

    Jake: What's this?
    Elwood: What?
    Jake: This car. This stupid car! Where's the Cadillac?
    [Elwood doesn't answer]
    Jake: The Caddy! Where's the Caddy?
    Elwood: The what?
    Jake: The Cadillac we used to have. The Bluesmobile!
    Elwood: I traded it.
    Jake: You traded the Bluesmobile for this?
    Elwood: No, for a microphone.
    Jake: A microphone?
    Jake: Okay I can see that. What the hell is this?
    Elwood: This was a bargain. I picked it up at the Mount Prospect city police auction last spring. It's an old Mount Prospect police car. They were practically giving 'em away.
    Jake: Well thank you, pal. The day I get outta prison, my own brother picks me up in a *police* car!

    Elwood far from being the dunderhead that Jake implies recognized that he could acquire an inexpensive high performance vehicle for less than the cost of a high quality microphone and therefore dealt the old bluesmobile for the microphone. An exceptional needs assessment and intelligent trading.

    Barter, for lack of a better word, is good. Barter is right. Barter works. Barter clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Barter, in all of its forms; barter for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And barter, you mark my words, will not only save my generation, but that other dysfunctional bunch called the baby boomers. Thank you very much.