Having a small child in the home gives the opportunity for exposure to things you might otherwise never have reason to see. Such is the case with the VeggieTales in my house. We have “King George and the Ducky” on VHS, which gets occasional play on the set. The story itself adapts the tale of David and Bathsheba, but before the story gets underway, there’s a brief prelude.
Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are the stars of the VeggieTales, but two of their friends who don’t usually take center stage give telling a story about selfishness a try. What they come up with doesn’t meet the VeggieTales standards, but it does help tell us something about the way the market works in the real world. Jimmy and Jerry Gourd tell the tales of “The Englishman who went up a hill (and came down with all the bananas),” and “The Swede who went up a hill (and came down with all the strawberries).”
The Englishman has taken all the bananas, “leaving of course the inhabitants of the hill with no bananas and therefore bestowing the term ‘selfish’ upon myself” (QuickTime video here
When asked if he’s going to eat any of the bananas, the Englishman responds that of course he can’t eat any, because you can’t have bananas without strawberries. “You’re soooo selfish,” cries a voice from off-camera.
The Swede who went up a hill does the same thing as the Englishman, but with strawberries instead of bananas. And the Swede will not eat any strawberries, because you can’t enjoy strawberries without bananas.
When the Englishman and the Swede see that the other one has what he needs to enjoy his own fruit, they ask in turn, “Might you spare a banana/strawberry?” But each character is so selfish that he is unwilling to part with any of his own fruit, and so both the Swede and the Englishman are left unable to enjoy their fruit but unwilling to simply give away his own fruit to make the other better off.
This brief story ends with Jimmy and Jerry Gourd moralizing, “Don’t be selfish.”
Needless to say, Larry and Bob are not satisfied with this tale, and go on to tell the story of King George and the Ducky. Part of the reason Jimmy and Jerry’s tale doesn’t work is that it is too simplistic and unrealistic.
That is, it doesn’t take into account the way in which market mechanisms can redirect selfish behavior into something that does benefit both parties in an exchange. The situation Jimmy and Jerry sets up simply has each possessor of the fruit ask for the corresponding fruit, implying a reliance upon the charity of the other party.
But what is much more likely to happen in a situation like this is that the Swede and the Englishman would engage in a trade, so that each would give their own fruit to get the other fruit, and in the end both would be able to enjoy strawberries and bananas. There’s no need to depend on or appeal to the charity of the other party in this situation. And an unwillingness to trade would make the lot of both the Swede and the Englishman worse off, as they would each be left with unusable and rotten fruit.
The incentive for their own material benefit would be to trade. In this way the market mechanism can function to take selfish action and make it serve a mutually beneficial purpose. In doing so there is an element of public, civic, or social good that is performed, irrespective of the selfish motivations of the parties involved.
None of these observations do anything to mitigate concerns about the ways in which the Swede and the Englishman went about obtaining their monopoly on the respective fruits. Nor does the material benefit created in the exchange obviate the need for charity and love in human social relations. And furthermore we certainly can’t say that because selfish behavior resulted in some material good that somehow selfishness is to be understood as a virtue in the truest sense. At best brazen selfishness can manifest itself as external righteousness, civic virtue, or a public good and is to be distinguished from true righteousness, virtue, and good. Selfishness is still sin.
But what such an exchange does show is that even in a world marked by sin and depravity, some good can come out of evil. As the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter has written,
If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men.
In this sense, the market mechanism functions as a sort of preserving grace by which material wealth is created and enjoyed, allowing human beings to continue to live and even flourish. But rather than being the end of human activity, such material prosperity is a foundational reality necessary for the actualization of greater goods, a necessary but not sufficient condition for human happiness.