To that end, I now give out free links when I have the opportunity and a relevant website to put them on
Always done it that way. And never exchanged links.
But that links become a currency is not because of Google. It is like IRL, to make certain people talk about your product, they want to see cash. Meny others will talk about it, because they liked it (or not). Links is the same.
Waiting not for buying "Likes" in packs or 1000... ;)