“Bartering” by Karl Hess

About 10 years ago, back in the days when I worked for Republican politicians battling Democratic Presidents, constant harassment by the Internal Revenue Service caused me to snap my twig and just stop paying taxes altogether. I won’t go into the tedious details, but I will note that I announced my decision to the I.R.S. by sending along a copy of the Declaration of Independence. By return mail, my tax collector informed me that a lien would be placed against all my property–that they would take every cent, literally 100 percent, of every penny I might earn and that they could discern.

I asked, then, how they would handle it if I decided to just barter for a living. They had a ready answer: “If you get some turnips for your work, we’ll take the turnips.” Fortunately for me, either the I.R.S. is surfeited with vegetables, or turnips are a good deal more difficult to track down than cold cash.

And so I survive. The other day I welded up a fish-smoking rack for a family in Washington, D.C. It will earn me a year’s supply of smoked fish. At about the same time, I helped a friend dig a foundation. He’ll help me lay the concrete blocks for a workshop. Part of my pay for a lecture at a New England college was the use of the school’s welding shop, to make some metal sculptures. Three such sculptures have paid my attorney’s fees in maintaining the tax resistance which is the reason barter has become such an integral part of my life.

Cash is not altogether gone from my existence. First of all, the taxpaying lady with whom I live generates a bit. Second, there are jobs I can do for hard cash, getting the money before the tax collector. Of course, although I don’t pay my taxes, I dutifully file tax returns, publicly discuss my tax resistance, and always overstate, rather than ever try to hide, or falsify, income. Otherwise it wouldn’t be tax resistance, but simple fraud.

But barter, when you get into it, beats cash all hollow.

For all its practical uses as a formalistic place to “store” labor, cash becomes after a while a symbol without substance. It should always represent something: work, exchange, And yet it doesn’t for so many. It didn’t for me. I used to think of it as a value in and of itself.

With barter, the symbol can never outpace the source. Work is exchanged for work, value is exchanged for value. Furthermore, if freely given to someone, work, or an object, represents a true transfer of something of value. Sharing your food with a neighbor (barter charity) is an act both personal and understandable–and expectantly reciprocal, should you sometime be the needy one. There is no hint of undignified pleading as with a person facing a welfare bureaucrat. But in money-charity, say, involving the impersonal billions of the Government welfare system, values are hard to keep straight.

Perhaps that is what being “reduced” in part to barter has taught me most strikingly. Being part of a nation is like being part of a bookkeeping system in which you are a mere entry.

Let me give you an example. Recently, my drivers license expired. (Well, actually, when I went to renew my license, I was informed that the District of Columbia had instituted a new regulation: I needed to show my Social Security card. Since I had lost my card, I had to fill out an application for a new one–which could not be processed, I was informed, for at least a month. Eventually, it arrived in the mail. By then, of course, my license had expired.)

Now, this fateful license is not just a vehicular adjunct to my life. It is my only, absolutely only, piece of official identification. The reason is–you guessed it–my long-standing tax resistance. That means no bank account, no credit cards, nothing in the way of usual identification. Just the driver’s license.

As it happens, I was recently summoned to lecture at the University of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. Where there, I was given a check for expenses, to enable me to return to Washington. I needed cash. The check, I was told, could easily be cashed at the bank handling the university account. Up to the window, hand over the check. Then the voice of doom. “May I see some identification, please.”

I offered up my one, my only piece of identification. “I’m sorry, sir,” she reported, “we can’t accept this item of identification. It has expired.”

It dawned on me that I did not exist for the bank, excepting only as an unidentifiable object. To the bank, the license, the photo, the description–and, therefore, the person–had ceased to be recognizable as of the expiration date of the license.

“Well,” I said, “the license may have expired but I haven’t.” The cashier really had to think about that She did. Then she started to chuckle. Then she agreed. And I got my cash! But I knew that, for the bank, my identity had expired.

Needless to say, this sort of exchange would be inconceivable in the bartering life. Being part of a transaction of barter means that you are an equal person, fairly exchanging. It is flesh and blood, human, face to face.

Of course, to the extent that money does represent just the sort of barter exchange that I have been practicing, there seems to me to be no objection to it. Indeed, I still use money whenever necessary, as in buying airline ticket to reach a college where I may earn an honorarium for a lecture. The cash thus earned, because it is the immediate exchange for a job of work, seems fairly meaningful to me.

But in the days that such cash got deposited in a bank account–where it began a wild arithmetical dance with debts–the idea of money as an exchange value got lost, as I recall. This or that piece of debt did not seem to represent this or that specific amount of work. It was all just numbers.

Now, for a bookkeeper with a very sharp pencil, there might be one great disadvantage to barter. Its dynamic seems to press you toward wanting to be always just a bit on the short end of the deal; that is, to be in a position where you try to do a bit more than you receive so as to relieve any gnawing doubts of irresponsibility. It is my experience, however, that everyone involved in bartering feels the same way, and so the system remains dynamic and satisfying, not stultifying and worrisome.

This is not a system that every American could follow–heck, it was forced on me–and, anyhow, I wouldn’t seek to impose my economic life-style on others. But it works for me. It is important for me to know that the money from this essay, if i can find someone to cash the check for me, will be directly and personally transformed to trade goods in my neighborhood–payment for work done by me which will help some neighbor, then pay for some work done by someone else.

It will have been a living process all the way.

Originally published in The New York Times November 9, 1975.