Economics 101

Market Trade & the Path to Flourishing

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Despite the unique challenges that exist all around us, Christians are called to bring hope and flourishing to the modern world. For human beings created by a loving God, this is both a calling and privilege.

In the last article of this blog series, we examined the hope we have in God, how this hope impacts the world around us and leads to flourishing, and the evidence of flourishing in the modern world. Now, we will explore the role of free markets and learn how they specifically generate hope and flourishing in the world today.

The Power of Market Trade

In his Nobel Prizewinning essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” F.A. Hayek quotes Alfred Whitehead in his work, An Introduction to Mathematics:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking about what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Hayek uses this quote to demonstrate the astounding power of the market process. He continues by saying that “we make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess.”

In this essay, Hayek helps us to understand the awe with which we should embrace the modern market as participants. Though we consume products, gadgets, technology, food, and medicine, we are free to be ignorant beneficiaries of all these things.

For example, most of us have no idea how a thermostat works, nor do we need to possess that information. We simply need to know how to adjust the device so that the temperature changes. When it breaks, we call a specialist who has invested much time and many resources to be on call to respond to our heating and cooling needs.

Here is a small thought experiment that may help us to understand the blissful ignorance that modern markets afford us each and every day: try to make a list of the things you do before you leave your house each morning.

A sample list might include turning off the alarm, getting out of bed, walking to the bathroom, showering, brushing teeth, taking vitamins and prescriptions, getting dressed, feeding and clothing children, brushing hair, feeding and walking the dog, making coffee, doing devotions, eating breakfast, checking email and Facebook, and getting in car.

The Benefits of Market Trade

We do all of these things daily without ever thinking about them. Market trade affords us that luxury. C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Weight of Glory: And other Addresses, put it this way:

Few of us have followed the reasoning on which even ten percent of the truths we believe are based. We accept them on authority from the experts and are wise to do so, for though we are thereby sometimes deceived yet we should have to live like savages if we did not.

This is a drastically oversimplified list which glosses over millions of details required to bring every item into our homes that we need to carry out such simple functions. Let’s start with the seemingly “simple” items. We brush our teeth with a brush and “paste,” simple tools that we have no concept of how to make on our own.

We wash our hair with shampoo made by people across the country or the world. We brew coffee imported from across the globe without the need to ever grow or cultivate a coffee bean. We live in such wealth that we keep pets in our home as companions and feed them special food that we took no part in creating.

Thinking about the “complicated” items is even more mind-boggling. You voluntarily get in a car with your spouse or children or loved ones and travel fifty miles per hour down the highway, most of the time feeling perfectly safe. You have no idea who built your car nor are you aware of their race, gender, or religious faith. Yet you trust that your car will do its job of keeping you safe most of the time.

What about that tiny belt across your lap and chest? That was engineered by people who you do not know and most likely will never meet. The computer-sensor-driven bag of air behind your steering wheel and in your door panels further protects you and those in your car.

Serving Others Through Market Trade

These modern marvels are brought to us by anonymous participants in the market who are pursuing their jobs and skills as they see fit. We all wake up every day wearing proverbial blinders, caring for our families, and working in specific industries. We are largely unaware of the broader context of what is happening around us.

Caring for local needs first is biblical (Prov. 13:22; 1 Tim. 5:4). In his book, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth, author and theologian John Schneider states that the biblical concept of caring for our family before extending our charity to others is known as “moral proximity.”

When the extent of the market is limited, this compromises our ability to care for and serve others. Modern, global markets open up a world of opportunity for us to care for and serve people whom we will never meet.

Markets, then, are one way to live out the great commandment: to love God and our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). How do we love them? One way is by serving them and meeting their needs. Each day when you get up to do your job, whether you work as a software engineer or a sous-chef, you are serving others.

Modern global markets provide countless ways for us to bring our varied and unique skills to serve others. They provide a setting for us to live out our talents and create real value. Considering how new global free markets are in human history, this is a wonderful thing.

In the next article, we will learn how our individual gifts and talents can bring hope to the world around us. 

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, “The Market Process and the Path to Flourishing,” by Dr. Anne Bradley. Read the full paper here.

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