I often hear religious people regretting the expansion of the global economy. They say it alienates us from our neighbors and drags the unwilling into the cash nexus, spreading a virus of greed. This strikes me as a conclusion that can only be dreamed up through an ideological lens of bad economic thinking. In truth, the expansion of the division of labor—locally, nationally, or globally increases opportunities for human cooperation to the betterment of all.
What about this idea of making things locally? Professor Kelly Cobb at Drexel University had the idea of having her students make a suit of clothes from materials and labor found within a 100-mile radius. In the end, they couldn’t do it without having the project linger on for a year and a half. The 92 percent they were able to complete took three months working full time. The time costs alone came to $11,500 dollars.
They began with three local sheep to provide the wool. A team of weavers turned it into fabric for pants. A local shoemaker made the shoes, but only after a long search to find local leather. All dyes had to be done by hand. The tie, too, had to be made from wool, since local silk was not to be found. The shoes smelled like wood smoke, and the dyes produced an aesthetically unappealing result.
If all the clothes in the world had to come from a 100-mile radius, it’s very likely that we would be back in animal skins rather quickly.
This is only a small illustration of how we all need each other to create a thriving economic life for ourselves. The larger the sphere of the division of labor, the more we can specialize and everyone’s talents can be put to good use. Likewise, there is no faster way to drive an economy into a primitive state than to require local production only.
Religious leaders need to think more carefully before making economic policy recommendations. This is what the Acton Institute hopes to inspire with the work you so generously support.