When I think of strangers, I think of people I’m supposed to avoid altogether. Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of the ’80’s. Hall & Oates scored a 1982 pop hit with “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, a sentiment reinforced by the elementary school mantra “stranger danger.”
Those were different times. It may not feel like it, but violence is lower than it has ever been in human history.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has been documenting this conclusion in his work for many years now. I don’t agree with some of Pinker’s reasoning about why levels of violence are lower, but I do see truth in some of his other claims.
Pinker argues violence is down on all fronts, including war, military conflict, torture, genocide, and homicide – and commerce is one reason why. He and I would agree on this point although he would never claim it as a biblical and economic insight.
It absolutely is.
Commerce and Comparative Advantage Combine to Produce Cooperation, Safety
At its core, economics is about making good decisions with limited resources. For believers, this is always about good stewardship and being responsible to God for the marching orders he gives us in Genesis 1:27-28 to be fruitful, multiply, and fill and subdue the earth.
We carry out these marching orders through our professions. Our professions allow us to serve not just our friends and neighbors, but strangers, too. God made us limited and diverse beings, which is why we must live by comparative advantage. We provide certain goods and services at a relatively lower opportunity cost than other goods and services. It benefits us to discover our comparative advantages and use them as the basis for trading with one another.
I like coffee. I need it in my life. But I’m terrible at growing coffee beans. To solve this problem, I trade my skill and labor as an economist for a salary and use that money to buy coffee. I can consume and enjoy coffee without having to make it from scratch.
Our diversity and our limitations bring us together to trade with others, strangers included. Trade would be limited if we only traded with our friends and relatives. I’d be without coffee every morning because I don’t have any coffee producers in my personal network.
Yet I’m undeterred in my quest for coffee because it’s for sale everywhere. I can go to Starbucks, the grocery store, or any local restaurant and select from a wide variety of coffees. Strangers make this entire process possible. I will never meet most of them, but I can enjoy coffee each and every day because of their efforts.
“Stranger Danger” Is a Thing of the Past
We need to live in a setting that allows us to discover and hone our skills so we can serve others. Such a setting brings us into the market process, where we regularly buy and sell from strangers.
Trading skills is a cooperative and pacifying process. When nestled within the rule of law, property rights, and limited government, market exchange allows us to depend on strangers. In this, we are set free.
We’re freed from wasting time trying to do things we’re not so good at doing. We’re free to direct our talents towards those activities we are relatively better at doing. This freedom allows us to serve others and be served by them, whether we know who they are or not. A cooperative, peaceful society is one where most people wake up in the morning and ask, “How can I serve my fellow stranger?”
“Stranger danger” is being relegated to the past. The more we embrace commerce, the free exchange among strangers, the more peaceful and cooperative strangers will be.