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The beauty of trade: How sharing creates civilization and culture

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In our complex and globalized economy, it can be hard to remember that trade and markets are fundamentally about relationships—channels for human interaction in pursuit of goods and services. That basic reality may be easier to see and feel at the local farmer’s market or the neighborhood diner, but it nonetheless translates across more intricate and extensive networks of exchange.

Likewise, when it comes to what occurs within and throughout those trading relationships, it isn’t just a petty transfer of material stuff—and that’s true from the bottom to the top, from the local to the global, from the tangible to intangible. It’s a creative exchange among creative persons, driven by service and, ideally, love of neighbor.

Through this lens, we see a beauty and transcendence in very things that others regard as cold and transactional. Indeed, such beauty can be observed by beholding the simple and spontaneous flow of goods and services from here to there:

Over at EconLog, Pierre Lemieux finds something similar in somewhere less expected: the line-item logs of UPS package tracking.

After ordering a customized ThinkPad laptop from China, Lemieux beholds a seamless succession of middle men.Despite the interference of two customs bureaus, one in China and one in the United States, not to mention the mountains of regulations in each place, trade had worked its magic,” he concludes.

 

Again, whereas some may see the simple or “impersonal” efficiency of supply chain and logistics, Lemiux spots the civilizing and socializing aspect of it all:

In John Hicks’s extraordinary book A Theory of Economic History (1969), one sees beautiful trade as an essential part of the modern economy. In the primitive economy based on custom or command, Hicks writes, “[t]here are farmers, and soldiers, and administrators; but there are no traders, no one who is specialized upon trade.” There are no middlemen. The modern economy, on the contrary, is filled with middlemen, from traders of raw materials, to stock exchange traders, a multitude of component and service suppliers, shipping companies, and at the end of the long chain, Amazon or Best Buy for the typical computer buyer.

The reason for the beauty of trade lies in its bringing utility to the individuals involved and, in the long run, to most if not all individuals in society. Even monks benefit from trade. At any rate, there is no way to know if a poor of today would have been happier in a pre-modern economy; he might as well have been a serf.

This is not just an economics lesson in the mutual benefits of voluntary exchange. It provides a picture of how trade orients our work toward relationship and fellowship. For all our talk about work as a means for service, it is trade that connects the giver to the receiver.

As Lester DeKoster writes in Work: The Meaning of Your Life, “work creates civilization and culture,” but this doesn’t occur if we’re only working for ourselves. Detached from community, DeKoster writes, “people have to do everything for themselves”:

Civilization is sharing in the work of others. It is a circle we will finally see close: Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind…

The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain people create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever that explanation, the power lies in work.

We see the beauty of trade in its power to amplify the service aspect of work. It is here, in the sharing, that the modern economy finds its flourishing.

The more we trade, the more we specialize our service. That creates “value,” but the bigger story and the better aesthetic is not in the value of the material stuff, but in the fellowship behind it.

Image: Commerce on the Water, Xu Yang (Public Domain)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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