According to David Graeber in his fantastic book Debt: The First 5,000 Years,
The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.” (Kindle Locations 662-664)
He continues to describe the “myth of barter” as one of the largest fallacies in economics.
He then points out all kinds of interesting connections between the concept of debt and how we treat others and view human nature. More particularly, he examines how debt is closely tied to guilt and has often been used throughout history to control and punish people, often very cruelly, with the moral justification that debtors owe their creditors and society more broadly.
If one were looking for the ethos for an individualistic society such as our own, one way to do it might well be to say: we all owe an infinite debt to humanity, society, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else could possibly tell us how we are to pay it. This at least would be intellectually consistent. If so, it would actually be possible to see almost all systems of established authority— religion, morality, politics, economics, and the criminal-justice system— as so many different fraudulent ways to presume to calculate what cannot be calculated, to claim the authority to tell us how some aspect of that unlimited debt ought to be repaid. Human freedom would then be our ability to decide for ourselves how we want to do so.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever taken this approach. Instead, theories of existential debt always end up becoming ways of justifying— or laying claim to— structures of authority. The case of the Hindu intellectual tradition is telling here. The debt to humanity appears only in a few early texts and is quickly forgotten. Almost all later Hindu commentators ignore it and instead put their emphasis on a man’s debt to his father. (Kindle Locations 1453-1462).
I have to admit that I have always found the language of debts owed to be rather ugly and disgusting, so this language appeals to me. I generally don’t think of it in terms of money, but moreso the existential debt he describes. This often bleeds into every interaction and relationship we have with others, particularly those who claim to be closest and most caring to us.
How often do we owe our parents, family, and friends for past “gifts”? How often do we owe our partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, fiance, or spouse? How often do we feel we owe our employer, city, state, or nation?
We do not owe them for the past or present. We were not asked about whether we wished to come into existence and we often do not ask for the gifts “freely” given to us. To expect an IOU in return for receiving these “gifts” is, as I said above, ugly and disgusting. Give freely or don’t give at all, but don’t expect a debt in return either way.