Excerpted from the new economic bestseller The Real Crash
Today, we're accustomed to thinking of small greenish paper rectangles as the definition of money, and we think of the US government as the only source of money. To honestly discuss sound money, we need to realize where our current money customs came from.
At first, it was every man for himself. You ate or wore what you could pick or catch.
Barter was the first advance. If you had some extra meat, and your neighbor had an extra fur, you might make a direct exchange. If food, water, clothing, and simple tools are the only goods on the market, barter is fine - you can always find someone who has what you want and wants what you have.
But as soon as there's basic manufacturing and prosperity begins increasing, barter becomes inadequate. Say you're a hunter and you want a bed, but the only bedmaker in town is a vegetarian. What do you do then? You would have to figure out what the bedmaker wanted (maybe tofu), and then find someone who had tofu and wanted meat. If you couldn't find that person, you would have to find a fourth person (someone who wanted meat, and had the hats that the tofu maker wanted), or try to convince the vegetarian bedmaker to take the meat and trade it for something else.
Meat, however, spoils, and so the bedmaker would have to unload it pretty quickly. So, unable to get your hands on anything the bedmaker wants to consume, you trade your meat for some salt and approach the bedmaker.
"Look, I know you don't want salt, but think of all the people who do. They use it to preserve their meat and flavor their soup. And this stuff is nonperishable, so you can hold it as long as you want. And if, when the tofu dealer comes through town, he doesn't want salt, you can explain to him what I've explained to you - he can use it to buy something he wants."
If you and the bedmaker agree, you've just created money. Organically, more people in your community begin taking salt for payment, even if they have no intention to use it, because they know others will accept it.
But – and this is important – the value of salt money is not entirely dependent on other people accepting it as payment. If, for some reason, folks stopped taking salt as payment, you could use it as, well, salt.
Salt was a pretty good currency, especially before refrigeration, because it was widely demanded, divisible down to the grain, very portable, easy to weigh, and could easily be tested for counterfeit by tasting it. Romans used salt for money.
But just because salt served as money didn't mean there would be no other form of money in circulation. Tobacco leaves might be widely accepted as payment. So might gold or silver.
The Greatest Invention Ever?
The point is that money arises naturally in society, as a way of aiding in voluntary economic transactions. It was one of the greatest inventions ever. Money not only made it easier for people to buy what they wanted, it also made saving much more possible – you could accumulate excess money to spend at a later point.