Excerpt from Chapter 5, by Brian Hollar
Not only is there little exchange going on in The Walking Dead, but there is also nothing resembling money in the show. In fact, the show never mentions money of any kind at all. Without money, people can only trade by bartering—that is, exchanging one good for another—a highly cumbersome method that [Adam] Smith characterized as “very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations.”3For barter to work, you have to want what someone else is willing to trade at the same time he or she wants what you are willing to trade. Bartering is inefficient because it only allows you to trade with people who both want what you have and have what you want. Money gets around this by allowing you to sell your goods to someone who wants them and then use the money you made to buy goods from someone else.
For example, imagine a survivor in the zombie apocalypse who has lots of canned food but is running low on ammo. He encounters a family that has lots of ammo, but isn’t interested in his canned goods. In Smith’s word, “No exchange can, in this case, be made between them. He cannot be their merchant, nor they his customers; and they are all of them thus mutually less serviceable to one another.4 Without money, the survivor has to first figure out what the family with ammo would accept in trade for it, then find someone with that good who is willing to trade it for canned goods. Suppose the family needs medical supplies. With luck, the man with canned goods manages to find a woman who has extra medical supplies and needs canned goods. After making that trade, he must then go back to the family with ammo and hope the family is still willing to trade the ammo for the medical supplies. Money simplifies this process tremendously. With money, the survivor only has to find someone willing to buy his canned goods and someone else willing to sell ammo. Money helps make trade easier by allowing people to trade any good for money and then trade money for any other good. This eliminates the need to spend time and energy finding someone who wants to trade the goods you want for the goods you have.
Money is also much easier to store and transport than most other goods in an economy. To illustrate, imagine raising a herd of pigs in the zombie world that you plan to use for food and to trade for ammo and medical supplies. In order to grow your herd, you have to expend many resources (food, water, land, labor, etc.) simply keeping your herd alive and well fed prior to the time of trade. Without money, it would be incredibly difficult to amass much trading power through livestock. A sudden zombie attack could force you to flee at a moment’s notice, possibly losing your entire herd to hungry zombies. If you were fortunate enough for your herd to live long enough to trade for other goods, you would still have the problem of safely transporting your livestock to the location of trade, facing many risks along the way. In contrast, money holds its value over time, is easily portable, and can be exchanged for nearly any other good.
So this raises the obvious question: why there is no money in The Walking Dead? Didn’t the characters have experience living in modern America before the zombie outbreak? Why don’t they just choose something to use for currency? Why not continue to use dollars as money?
The difficulty is that money has to be something other people will recognize and accept as having value. In other words, everyone thinks money has value because everyone else thinks money has value. In a society without a central government, it would be difficult to kick-start a process of developing a currency others will accept. Instead, people would likely turn to some commodity that has inherent value for use as money. As Smith put it, each person will tend to collect “some one commodity or other, such as he imagined few people would be likely to refuse.”5 One advantage of this sort of commodity money is that because the commodity has intrinsic value itself, it can always be consumed by its owner or bartered for something directly if others don’t accept it as a form of currency.
Besides inherent value, other characteristics of good commodity money include divisibility, uniform quality, and high value relative to weight. Possibilities of potential commodity money in The Walking Dead might include gasoline, bullets, canned food, batteries, and so on. Gas is divisible, but probably has low value relative to weight. Bullets are divisible and have high value relative to weight, but are not of uniform quality. Canned goods and batteries are getting closer to the mark, but would have to be checked for quality prior to trading, which could become time consuming when it comes time to trade.
A historical example of commodity money is cigarettes being used as money by Allied prisoners in German prison camps during World War II.6 Cigarettes met all three criteria of commodity money—divisibility, relatively uniform quality, and high value to weight. They also had the inherent value of being able to be smoked and enjoyed if a prisoner could not find something to trade for them. Also, if another prisoner would not accept them as currency, an owner of cigarettes could still trade them through barter just as they would any other good.
So why has no commodity money emerged in The Walking Dead? In this post-apocalyptic world, there is little contact between survivors, and when there is contact between strangers, it tends to be violent. This low frequency of interaction with others and the high risk of these encounters may create a situation in which a form of commodity money never has the opportunity to emerge. However, this may be one element that the show actually gets wrong in its storyline. There is no reason to expect the natural human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” to suddenly disappear in a post-apocalyptic world. When strangers meet, they would likely be much more predisposed toward trading than the show portrays.
3. [Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations, 5th ed., ed.
Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1904 ), Library of Economics and Liberty
e-book, http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html%5D, I.4.2.
4. Ibid., I.4.2.
5. Ibid., I.4.2.
6. Postage stamps in contemporary U.S. prisons are another, more recent example of commodity money.