Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2017
This paper offers an increasing returns model of the evolution of exchange institutions building on Smith's dictum that ‘the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market’. Exchange institutions are characterized by a tradeoff between fixed and marginal costs: the effort necessary to execute an exchange may be economized by up-front ‘investment’ in strategies to facilitate the publication and accounting of trading histories. Increases in the size of the exchange network select for higher-fixed-cost exchange institutions, beginning with autarky, through various intermediate stages, and finally to mass monetary exchange. By identifying the relevant fixed costs of money and its institutional substitutes across time, the paper both accounts for the persistence of pre-monetary exchange institutions, despite the ‘inevitability’ of monetary exchange that seems to be a feature of traditional models of the origin of money, and illuminates the forces driving the transition from one to another.