Acton Commentary

Made to Trade


 

Something as mundane as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich has something profound to teach us about the social nature of the human person. We were, to put it bluntly, made to trade. God created us to live in community with one another and placed within us a disposition both to give and receive good things from each other.

We have all experienced the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. In the case of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the anticipation builds as the jelly is spread on one side and the peanut butter is smoothed out on the other. When the two come together a miracle of minor proportions occurs, as the providential mixture of fruit and nuts creates something approximating the perfect food. I may be waxing just a bit nostalgic over something as common as a PBJ sandwich, but there is something intrinsically gracious in something as common as the bread we eat every day.

So a PBJ sandwich that I make for myself to eat is something really good. But something strange happens when someone else makes a sandwich, just how I like it, and gives it to me: the sandwich tastes even better than it does when I make it! Recognizing the satisfaction that comes from such a gift of service from another person illustrates an other-directed disposition that is a deep and constitutive part of human nature. There are many things in this world that we enjoy only out of the gracious work of others, and some things that we find greater satisfaction in when we receive from others.

The fact that a PBJ sandwich tastes better when someone else has made it shows the inherent grace present in the act of giving and receiving. Jesus taught us that it “is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This blessing is often shown in gifts, but there’s an element of this present in common exchange as well. Voluntary exchanges, or trades, where each party is made better off, are instances of God’s order of grace, to provide for our daily needs and enjoyment of his bountiful creation. The seventeenth-century Reformed jurist Johannes Althusius put it this way: “The body of the commonwealth cannot be healthy without commerce. The necessity and utility of this life have therefore contrived a plan and procedure for exchanging goods, so that you can give and communicate to another what he needs and of which he cannot be deprived, any more than can you, without discomfort, and on the other hand receive from him what is necessary and useful to yourself.”

The reciprocity of trade is at the core of recognizing that we were created to, in part, “truck, barter, and exchange,” as the political economist Adam Smith writes. “Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer.”

Mainstream economics is sometimes criticized for its abstract and individualist account of human beings. The model of ‘economic man’ (homo economicus) is focused on maximizing his own utility. Theologians, however, have often observed the social nature of human beings, created in God’s image, in relation to him and to one another. Often lost between these two views, which are best understood as complementary rather than antithetical, is the created purpose of productive service that is oriented towards the individual good of others.

In exchange there is usually some element of reciprocal communication that helps us to understand what others consider to be good. For instance, if someone were to simply make and give me a pimiento and pickle sandwich, it might be a gift of sorts, but it wouldn’t be something I would enjoy. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; I do not like pimiento and pickle sandwiches. When we trade willingly, such as when I trade you my pimiento and pickle sandwich for your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we are both pleased with the exchange.

Much of our daily work is taken up in creating things that we may not especially like or could not possibly consume or enjoy even if we did. The fact that we were made to trade with others puts that productive work in the broader context of gracious giving and receiving, and a world in which, as Althusius puts it, “peace and concord are often acquired through commercial pursuits.”