In Leonard Reed’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” he marvels over the cooperation and collaboration involved in the assembly of a simple pencil — a complex coordination that is quite miraculously uncoordinated.
In a short video from economist Alex Tabarrok, the same lesson is applied to Valentine’s Day roses:
“Behind every Valentine’s Day rose, there’s an extensive network of people from all over the world,” says Tabarrok, “from the farmer to the shipper to the auctioneer to the retailer—all cooperating to produce and transport roses from field to hand in a matter of days.”
But though these countless creative partners are surely acting out of some degree of self-interest, and though (in this case) they are working to enable and empower what we presume to be “loving” exchanges, there is something deeper going on throughout the activity.
As Evan Koons writes in For the Life of the World, God gave us a “gift nature” not that we might plod along as cogs in some grand, well-coordinated machine, driven blindly by self-interest and self-interest alone. God gave us this nature that we might participate in God’s movement of divine generosity and vast abundance, serving our neighbors in any number of ways:
In giving us work, God invites us to blend the creativity of our minds with the labor of our bodies and then to share the products of this work with one another in free exchange —to make real our communal nature, our gift nature, through our personal callings. We must never see our work as simply a way to gain. We must never see our labor as an impersonal force of efficiency. We must never see our work merely as a mechanism we might control with levers and switches of power.
All our work together, what we call the economy, that’s not a machine, either. Work is always personal, because work is always relational…So let us cherish our work as the glorious gift it is — the opportunity to join with others, literally millions of others, in a divine project of vast creativity, vast abundance for the meeting of needs, for the flourishing of cities, for the life of the world.
So while there are plenty of partners in the global economy who may care less about the “personal” nature of our work, by participating in networks of exchange, they are partaking in and contributing to this aspect nevertheless. It would be a stretch to presume this is “love,” but for any economy to be successful at meeting the needs of society, it must be infused with a perspective toward service.
Watching the global economy seamlessly deliver fresh roses from Columbia to wintry Chicago is an awe-inspiring thing, to be sure. But how much more wondrous might it be if we, ourselves, became more attentive, more intentional, and more discerning in the work of our hands and the exchanges that follow?
How much more beautiful would it be if we opened our eyes to God’s design for our trades and exchanges and responded with the love they deserve?
Where do we find the core of life's meaning? Right on the job! At whatever work we do -- with head or hand, from kitchen to executive suite, from your house to the White House. New Foreword by Stephen J. Grabill and Afterword by Greg Forster