BY tradition the poet laureate of Great Britain annually receives not only a stipend of 70 pounds but also the value of a tierce (forty-two U.S. gallons) of wine, paid in cash at seventeenth-century prices, and, famously, a butt of sack (that is, 130 gallons of it). This is the sort of arrangement--by turns quaint, feudalistic, and humane--that we have for centuries been conditioned to expect from Britain. And yet there are signs that such arrangements are being eroded. It used to be that servants at Buckingham Palace received a free supply of hand soap; now, the palace has announced, the servants will instead receive an extra 15 pounds a year. It used to be that those who served at royal social functions were allowed to take home two miniature bottles of liquor on each occasion; now they will instead receive an extra 45 pounds a year. Even the poet laureate, Ted Hughes, seems to have his eye on the cash. Last year, according to a newspaper report, he made known his intention to sell his butt of sack at 4 pounds the bottle, the vintage to be marketed under the name Laureate's Choice. Wisely, I think, Hughes seems not to have followed through on this scheme.
There is something fundamentally honest and compelling about economic exchanges "in kind," in which the value of goods or services is calibrated at least in part in terms other than monetary. Such exchanges are the economic version of the judicial sentencing that consigns criminals to grimly appropriate activities (crooked slumlord must live in his own building; crooked speculator must teach high school economics) rather than to time in jail. Money can be delusory. It is a commonplace that the value of one currency relative to another can cause a country's exports or imports to surge, even though nothing about the exported or imported products themselves has actually changed. In contrast, transactions in which the ancient idea of barter plays a role put more of a premium on true equivalence. And there are many indications that, despite what may be happening to feudal vestiges in Britain, the world economic system is finding barter to be congenial in more and more instances--for governments, for corporations, and for individuals. By one estimate, some 20 percent of the world's economic transactions are now in the form of barter deals, up from only about five percent thirty years ago. In the American domestic economy the value of barter deals is growing by about 15 percent a year.
One of the biggest barter transactions in history took place in 1990 between PepsiCo and Russia: a $3 billion exchange of cola syrup for Stolichnaya vodka. To assist hurricane victims in Florida and Hawaii, a broker several years ago arranged for the exchange of 500 Fujitsu laser printers for 1.7 million "meals ready-to-eat" left over from the Gulf War. The government of Peru is settling some of its debt to overseas creditors with iron pellets, fish meal, copper wire, and alpaca cloth. The slow thaw in relations between North and South Korea has been helped along by a barter arrangement involving flour and zinc. There now seems to be a potential barter aspect to almost everything. A 1991 survey by an organ-donation network sampled opinion on whether organ providers or their families might barter body parts for funeral services, or whether people who agreed to become organ donors might be given preferential placement on waiting lists in the event that they themselves needed a replacement. In Israel last year the country's gravediggers sought a labor agreement stipulating that workers receive two grave sites for every five years of service.
Barter is, of course, deeply primitive, which may account for a measure of its enduring appeal. But these days something else is also at work. In his illuminating new book The Construction of Social Reality (1995) the philosopher John R. Searle draws a distinction between "brute" facts, which are facts that are simply facts (such as that Mount Everest exists, or that the sun is 93 million miles from Earth), and "institutional" facts, which are facts only as long as we all concede that they are facts (such as that marriage is real, or that there is something called private property and something called human rights, or that a person is a citizen of a particular country). Barter is a product of a brute-fact world: I have wheat, you have cows--let's trade. Barter's lineal descendant, money, inhabits the realm of institutional fact: it has value only because we agree that it does. Institutional fact, Searle points out, is the glory of our species, the very basis of cultural progress. Of course, institutional fact is also inherently fragile--the first thing to go as a society becomes less stable. Searle observes sourly, "One of the most fascinating--and terrifying--features of the era in which I write this is the steady erosion of acceptance of large institutional structures around the world."