Solving the Valuation Disparities of Voluntary Barter in a Fractured Economy

A breakdown in the viability of a national currency might cause dissonance in prices for goods and services which, under normal circumstances, tend to remain relatively uniform from region to region. For example, the price of an hour of labor performed by a cabinet maker, or the price of a gallon of gasoline normally do not deviate dramatically from one region to another due to the factors which contribute to price stabilization. However, if the economy suffers from a monetary crisis like hyperinflation, those factors contributing to the relative stability of prices in a competitive market would cease to be effective.

Price stability in an economy arrives by the influence of several different factors; expectations for the future, the market’s ability to connect coincident needs, the predictability of behavior, the availability of accurate market information, and the minimization of government controls. First, the expectation that overall circumstances are not going to change in the immediate future establishes confidence for both households and firms, such that prices will not incur a risk premium. Without reasonable certainty about the future of the economy, firms who deliver goods to the point-of-sale might charge higher rates for their services, which would increase prices faster than inflation. The application of risk premiums is arbitrary, and would not occur uniformly. This would further undermine consumer confidence as markets begin to fracture.

The reliability of delivery systems, the modes of transportation for goods and services, allows firms to replenish their inventories incident to consumer demand in an efficient manner. The more efficient the delivery systems are, the better the market will be able to respond to the problems associated with unusual shortages or adverse supply shocks due to a crisis. Hyperinflation might eliminate the incentive for firms to attempt to restock their inventories because the uncertainty in the economy reduces the opportunity cost of shutting down and riding out the event. In such a case, the firms which provide transportation and delivery of resources might also curtail their services, thus inhibiting the firms which do want to remain open from replenishing their inventories. This too would not occur uniformly, and it places even greater upward pressure on prices as commodities become even more scarce.

Even with persistent inflation over long periods, people tend to behave predictably, provided there is relative certainty about future events. In the absence of a crisis, and with no articulable, ubiquitous reason for a dramatic price increase, consumers would predictably reject the decision by a firm to overcharge. There would be no greater perception of need, nor would people forego rational economic decision-making if there were no desperate circumstances to negotiate. Even though it is rational for a firm to dramatically raise prices in response to dramatic increases in  demand, during hyperinflation, firms may abandon rational behavior and make decisions based upon fear. They may raise prices independent of demand-pull inflation, or they may restrict sales, simply because they don’t know how to respond to such extraordinary circumstances. This behavior might fracture the relative uniformity of prices from region to region.

Being able to accurately survey price trends can lend support to the decisions that firms make when deciding how much to charge for their goods and services. The availability of accurate and up-to-date economic data facilitates this process. During hyperinflation, with the loss of the other factors which help maintain price uniformity across different markets, no reliable information would exist for firms to use in determining how they would adapt to the circumstances.

Additionally, absent the excessive government regulations and command-and-control measures used during times of national crisis, business firms are able to effectively respond to incentives. This allows a natural fluctuation of prices that doesn’t jar individual expectations with respect to value, or derail the natural process of economic decision-making. Hyperinflation might trigger government intervention in the form of price controls, or other punitive actions against business firms. In such a case, there would be no occasion for allowing the market to function based upon the laws of supply and demand, and no rational price-setting could occur anywhere.

The occurrence of hyperinflation may well remove these factors which insulate prices from rapid, unpredictable changes. If it became the mission of a few entrepreneurs to attempt to achieve price stability at the local level for basic necessities, they would likely consider the use of intrinsically valuable coins. Once a community is committed to this endeavor, the question of how those coins will function becomes critically important.

Depending on the severity of the economic crisis, there may be hundreds or thousands of individual markets in which improvisational currencies are being used. It would not be the first time in American history that such monetary improvisation occurred. In her book, The Forgotten Man, Author Amity Shlaes discusses the spontaneous use of improvisational barter as a solution to the monetary problems the nation was facing during the winter of 1932-33. Due to the death of large quantities of the money supply, Americans in thirty states stoically established autonomous barter systems as a means of subsisting:

The notion of scrip seemed enormously satisfying. Holding one of the slips of paper, one could feel the pleasure of people who, lacking a basic thing once supplied by a faraway bank, had now crafted it for themselves on a small scale. There was also the pleasure of establishing value where there had been only paper before. Citizens liked the idea of reverting to pioneer mode, of confronting economic problems and working them out themselves. [1]

In the case of scrip, paper was substituted for paper. But because there was a need in the regional markets for a medium of exchange that people trusted, they were willing to instill in the scrip the faith that it represented value. But what amount of purchasing power did the individual units of scrip represent, and how was that determined?

Americans who do not believe that they would be better off under the command and control of the government during a crisis, who feel that they are better suited to take care of themselves, could mutually agree at the local level that silver indeed represents genuine value for their labor and wares, as well as a reasonable chance of retaining their independence. The same principles of faith governing the acceptance of scrip during the Great Depression would apply to the acceptance of all the pre-’64 U.S. silver coins, (or any other commodity based coin system.) Before these coins could be brought out of private collections and recirculated, all the local participants would have to agree that they could functionally represent value.

Once that leap of faith is made, the matter of determining market prices denominated in silver would first depend on the quantum of silver available to be circulated. It would be important to survey which types of coins were available; Roosevelt Dimes, Washington Quarters, Franklin Half-dollars, and Kennedy Half-dollars would be the most common of the pre-’64 remnant. The monetary architects would then have to determine a threshold for the minimum number of coins needed in order to create a provisional economy. A regional conference would have to be convened, composed of the firms and households capable and willing to participate. The site of a previously established swap-meet or farmer’s market would be the most suitable location. An open invitation would go out to the extent that available communication would allow, asking everyone with pre-’64 silver coins to participate.

In this scenario, we would have a gathering of hardy individuals and families willing to tough out the instability who were also smart enough not to have sold their old coinage. An accurate account of the available silver would have to be taken. The monetary architects would have to establish a clear understanding between firms and households, first and foremost, that what they were about to engage in was purely voluntary, and that all agreements should be honored in the interests of mutual benefit. Then, all the participants would have to be briefed on exactly which coins are qualified for circulation, how to identify them, and provided a careful certification that each private possession of coins conforms to this standard. Every coin owner would have to have his collection inspected.

A directory of available labor would have to be compiled, detailing the specific skills of the workers willing to accept silver, as well as a separate directory of vendors, and the goods and services they were offering. Only if there is a diverse enough pool of available firms and labor to trade for their goods will this endeavor have a reasonable chance of success. The alternative to government dependency would serve as a great incentive and the word would surely spread fast, quickly bringing together larger and larger numbers of individuals with marketable skills, increasing both economic diversity and the quantum of tradable silver.

At this point, the natural forces of the free market could go to work. Coincident wants and needs could be met through the exchange of silver coins. Under these circumstances, there would be the greatest need for subsistence goods, namely, food, water and clothing. Beyond this, firms requiring intermediate goods to manufacture their finished products would likely find the combination of an extremely adverse supply shock in their industry, and the breakdown of modes of delivery of materials to be insurmountable. They would have to modulate their business models according to the new market parameters, finding new ways to utilize their expertise, or they would have to fold.

The firms in the best position to succeed in this extreme environment would be those offering raw material goods, most notably, food, and services performed by hand. Some individuals or households might have the expertise to produce manufactured products out of available raw materials, developing new industries. Once a functional amount of money in the provisional economy is accumulated, firms and households would now have to decide what their silver is worth.

But what if one firm decides to valuate silver coinage at 1500% face value for commercial purposes, and another firm valuates at 1200%? (A 1956 25¢ silver Washington quarter would then be worth $3.75 and $3.00 in purchasing power, respectively.) Will this create an obstacle to efficient economic activity? In another hypothetical scenario, writer David M. Brown discusses the functioning of the free market during an adverse supply shock. In his article published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute [2], Brown argues that price controls serve to exacerbate an already frantic situation by destroying the incentive for firms to expend the effort to remain open for business despite the difficult circumstances.

Brown illuminates how different normative arguments are made regarding the prerogatives of firms to set prices according to opportunity and circumstance: during episodes of normal economic activity, there seems to be no moral objection to a business owner responding to incentives to raise or lower prices. However, during an adverse supply shock such as that which would occur during a hurricane or hyperinflation, it is morally unacceptable for that same business owner to raise prices sufficiently to accommodate the extraordinary demand arising as a result of the regional exigency. This duplicity in moral perspective serves as the impetus for price-fixing by government, as well as the derision by members of the local media.

Excluding the propensity for irrational behavior, the ability of firms to appropriately raise prices in response to extraordinary increases in demand means that they will have more incentive to expend the extra effort and capital to attempt to replenish their inventories, and consumers will be forced to be more economical in deciding what quantities of available supplies they can really afford. This provides those with the greatest, most urgent need with the greatest possible opportunity to find products that would otherwise have been quickly depleted from shelves due to price controls.

Brown states:
Nobody knows the local circumstances and needs of buyers and sellers better than individual buyers and sellers themselves. When allowed to respond to real demand and real supply, prices and profits communicate the information and incentives that people require to meet their needs economically given all the relevant circumstances. There is no substitute for the market. And we should not be surprised that command-and-control intervention in the market cannot duplicate what economic actors accomplish on their own if allowed to act in accordance with their own self-interest and knowledge of their own case.

Any attempt to fix the purchasing power of commodity based coinage would create a situation where firms could not acquire enough revenue to  accumulate what they needed to subsist, let alone replenish their inventories. Those businesses would be scuttled, and more people would be forced out of the system and into FEMA camps. The idea that this system is based upon voluntary barter indicates that valuation should be as flexible as is necessary to connect the coincident needs of market participants. Hypothetically, it may be possible for the equivalent market price of silver in some areas to skyrocket to $100 or $500 per troy ounce if not higher under such circumstances, simply because demand for value in the midst of great scarcity of silver coins will have been that extraordinary.

There could conceivably be dozens, if not hundreds, of regional economies concurrently utilizing silver or other commodities on a voluntary barter basis in the event of the death of the dollar. As fractured markets rebuild and grow larger and more complex, a more comprehensive inclusion of disparate systems and valuation formulae can be managed by economists, with the endorsement of the local governments, for the purposes of efficiency. The eventual reestablishment of a unified currency can and will occur as regional economies expand and annex one another.

The question of determining the purchasing power of exchange media should best be sorted out by consumers and firms. The best, most efficient monetary ideas should be allowed to gain primacy through natural competition, lest arbitrary boundaries erected by bureaucracies, however well-intended, interrupt the consonance of the components of the free market.

[1] Shlaes, Amity (2007). The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper Collins. pg.139.

[2] Price Gouging Saves Lives, by David M. Brown. August 17, 2004. Ludwig von Mises Institute.