Trade 101: Lessons from a Craigslist Veteran

What can Craigslist teach us about the beauty of trade? Some basic economic principles we may have forgotten, says the Acton Institute’s Joseph Sunde.

“…[B]ottom-up trading tools like Craigslist serve a bigger purpose than ridding our attics of stinky old mattresses,” he writes. “There’s something special about hum-drum personal exchange that reacquaints our economic imaginations with [the] basic beauty of it all, cutting through and tearing down whatever pessimistic zero-sum mythologies we may be constructing.”

Here are this husband and father’s five principles of trade from Craigslist:

1. Value Is Subjective

I’ve long thought the success of certain high-end brands is rather persuasive in proving this theory, but nothing quite tops seeing those same brands being given away for free on Craigslist.

2. Trade Empowers the Little Guy

To my delight, with enough patience and persistence, the little cash I’ve allotted to Furniture X or Yard Tool Y is often all someone cares to request….Having the opportunity to trade empowers me to find this rare match and, over time, inch my way above and beyond the perceived constraints of my situation.

3. Trust Matters

It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something striking about buying a used lawnmower and having relative confidence that the seller isn’t out to burden me with his useless junk. I’ve long believed trust to be essential for economic flourishing, but Craigslisting has made me wonder how much it’s fed from the other end. Trust breeds trade, but trade also has the potential to teach plenty of trust.

4. Trade Connects Unlikely Friends

Trade does, after all, connect actual people, and that means there’s much more at play than petty self-interest….Every time I hear that tired-but-true boilerplate about “peace through trade” with China, I still shout “amen,” but I prefer to think of peace through trade with my biker buddy, Fred.

5. Exchange Is a Social Thing

Perhaps the one thing that ties all this together is the obvious but underappreciated notion that interaction and exchange is interaction and exchange. All of the bigger economic arguments about mutual material benefit and the way trade connects Person X with Product Y or Service Z are important and compelling, but they represent neither the arc nor the end of the story….In connecting us with different people from different places, and in producing value and fostering trust throughout the process, trade brings with it a heavy social dynamic.

When we think of economic opportunity and envision making people’s lives better and easier, we ought to look at what is going on right under our noses. Ordinary people voluntarily engage in millions of transactions daily, parting with a smile or a handshake. The beauty of trade is that human beings instinctively know how to do it. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that what I don’t need someone else may want―and to offer it at a price they’ll pay. You don’t need a government economic plan to stimulate that kind of business activity, either. All you need is something to sell, a slight sense of adventure, and the savvy to close a deal.

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3 Responses to Trade 101: Lessons from a Craigslist Veteran

  1. Neil Huff says:

    Wait until Walmart and lobbyist for other retailers weigh in with Congress on all this untaxed buying and selling going on unregulated over the Internet. As their own bottom lines begin shrinking (i.e. from the depression) big business will find a way with the assistance of our Govt to curb Craigslist and other similar means of trade and sales bypassing the big retail chains.

  2. R Ferris says:

    Neil you are missing the boat. Government has already seized these tax receipts and it is clearly illegal in California to buy on craigs list and not submit appropriate taxes to the state.
    So, all that is lacking is the state’s enforcement effort, which will have zero to due with the wishes of big chain stores, but will be 100% to give government more dollars to spend on corruption

  3. Neil Huff says:

    If the Govt is already taking their cut from Craiglist sales, then I don’t suppose the retailers will be far behind if its use grows to the point they view it as a challenge. By the way Govt really needs that additional revenue! They have another war to fight.

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