Economics 101

How Free Trade Makes Christmas Possible

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Editor’s note: The IFWE blog will not be publishing tomorrow in honor of the holiday. We pray you and your family have a wonderful Christmas!

The Ghost of Christmas Present showed Ebeneezer Scrooge a wider world.

Charles Dickens tells us in his Christmas Carol that Scrooge’s cramped vision hardly ranged from his counting house. He and the spirit wouldn’t need to travel far.

Scrooge’s line of work wasn’t the problem. As most people who have bought cars and houses know, creditors play an important economic role. Scrooge’s problem was mistaking wealth for all that mattered.

As his one-time fiancée said upon leaving him, he had made gold into an idol. He had come to see people only as troublesome objects.

Now Scrooge had a chance to revise his outlook.

The spirit took him into the dark and snowy streets of London, circa 1840. He saw people who were “happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.” The gladness of the Christmas season accounted for much of this.

But their gratitude was also linked to material things—things that would have been unthinkable in mid-winter London a few generations before. Amidst the snow and cold, Scrooge saw a shop with “pears and apples…clustered high in blooming pyramids”; he saw oranges and lemons; and he saw bunches of grapes that made mouths water. Fresh fruit in the middle of winter!

And there was tea and coffee, neither of which are produced anywhere near London, and whose scent “were so grateful to the nose.” There was sugar, cinnamon, and spices—foreign luxuries a couple centuries before, but now household commodities among ordinary folk.

When, as Dickens reports, the church steeples “called good people…to church and chapel,” they were grateful for God’s work—the gift of his son.

They also had cause to be grateful for the wonders of an economy that made it possible on a long, cold night to nibble an orange (perhaps from Italy) and sip tea (from India).  Among Scrooge’s faults was an inability to delight in the real benefits of a global economy of trade.

Then the ghost drew Scrooge’s attention to a scene at sea: a helmsman at a ship’s wheel and maritime “officers who had the watch.” Scrooge contemplated “what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss.”

Dickens doesn’t make a direct connection between ships’ work and the London shops he describes, but we can.

The oranges and grapes and tea and coffee had not arrived in London by magic. They had arrived in London because of things people did—investing, building, trading, dealing, sailing, moving, stocking, and selling.

The goods came from Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the Americas, and they improved the quality of life for London’s people. They created jobs for dockworkers, deliverymen, and many others.

It’s not that this economy didn’t require reform. Indeed, the need for reform is a key theme of Dickens’ stories. But the people of London and, in time, Scrooge himself could still appreciate what a modern economy made possible. The hardships Dickens so often describes were themselves mitigated and eventually nearly wiped out, thanks largely to the wealth created by fair and just trade.

At the end of story, a reformed Scrooge sat down with his formerly abused assistant, Bob Crachit, over “a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop”—a drink made of red wine, oranges, sugar, and spices: a concoction made possible only by international trade, by the mingling of goods from, say, France, Morocco, Kenya, and China.

There was a Christmas Eve when I was a sailor at sea—aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger, peering into an empty radar screen somewhere in the Pacific, listening (against the rules) to vaguely festive Polynesian music, the only tunes I could find with my console’s radio.

There were other sailors in the room, but our collective feeling that night was loneliness.

So far as I knew in those Cold War days, I was helping to defend the world from communism. I wish I had known that I was also helping to keep the world’s shipping lanes open and free, and so in a small way I was helping to make possible the Christmas folks back home were enjoying.

So I raise my England-made cup filled with Guatemalan coffee to the sailors, civilian and military, who make sea trade possible.

And I thank the truck drivers and store-shelf stockers, the dock workers and warehouse personnel, the mechanics and forklift operators, and all the others, who make our economy work—and who, in the process, reflect the creativity and desire for usefulness the Lord has given us.

These wonderful people make life in general, and Christmas in particular, a lot sweeter.

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