Economics

An Ancient Parable that Explains the Beauty of Cooperation (and Free Markets)

Source: Foundation for Economic Education

August 23, 2018

Joe Carter

“How can we explain this emporiophobia—a fear of markets—given the overwhelming evidence that such institutions provide the greatest wealth, health and happiness for humankind?” When economics professor Paul Rubin asked that question he answered by saying that we need to shift the metaphor of markets from “competition” to “cooperation.”

Cooperation isn’t just more important in the economic sphere—it’s also more common. We cooperate with everyone involved in making all the products we buy and sell, millions of people we’ll never know.

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This discussion may seem semantic, but words have meaning and power. People would feel much more favorably toward a “cooperative economy” than a “competitive economy.”

To emphasize the cooperative aspects of the market in order to provide a more accurate perspective requires that we apply new metaphors and symbols when explaining how markets work. A story I believe can be especially helpful is the “parable of the long spoons.” Caritas Internationalis created a video about the allegory that brilliantly emphasizes the utility of cooperation.

The message of the video is about how we can end hunger through cooperation. This is certainly right and noble as applied to hunger relief efforts. But the parable can also be used to show why most of us never worry about hunger at all. It is in the market that we see two God-given interactive tools for human flourishing—cooperation and comparative advantage—combining to ensure we have access to food.

Instead of using competition metaphors (such as sports, with its winners and losers), champions of markets should consider using stories like the parable of the long spoon which better reflect the cooperative nature of free enterprise.

Here’s a text-based version of the parable:

An old woman is nearing the end of her life. As she closes her eyes one night, she sees a bright light and is transported to another realm. She doesn’t pass away just then, instead, she returns to the living world to find her family gathered at her bedside. She smiles and whispers to her children, “I have seen the great hereafter.”

“The great whereafter?” her son asks.

“Heaven and hell. I have seen them both.”

The old woman goes on to explain, “I came upon a door, and behind it was hell. What I saw there confounded me. There was a dining hall filled with rows of tables, each table teaming with a magnificent feast. It looked and smelled delicious, yet the people seated around the tables were emaciated and sickly, moaning with hunger.

“As I came closer, I realized that each person held a very long spoon. With it they could reach the feast, but the spoon was too long. Though they tried and tried again, they couldn’t bring nourishment to their mouth. In spite of the abundance before them, they were starving.”

She continued, “I left this horrid place and opened a new door, one that led to heaven. Inside, I was surprised to see that very same scene before my eyes, a dining hall filled with row upon row of tables, and on those tables, a marvelous feast. But instead of moaning with hunger, the people around the tables were sitting contentedly, talking with one another, sated from the abundance before them.

“Like those in hell, these people were holding very long spoons. As I watched, a woman dipped her spoon into a bowl of stew before her, but rather than struggling to feed herself, she extended her spoon out and fed the man seated across from her. This person, now satisfied and no longer hungry, gave thanks and returned the favor, leaning across the table to feed the woman.”

“I suddenly understood the difference between heaven and hell,” the old woman said to her family. “It is neither the qualities of the place, nor of the abundance of resources, but the way people treat each other.

“In hell, we are selfish. We would rather go hungry than give the people we don’t care for the pleasure of eating.”

“But in heaven, we feed each other. We put trust in those around us, and never go hungry.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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