A proverb is a succinct statement about the way life normally works, and all languages and cultures have them. Possibly due to Americans’ fixation on productivity, many of our proverbs deal with efficiency, money, employment, or contentment.
One common American proverb is “A stitch, in time, saves nine.” In other words, if you see a cloth beginning to tear and stop to repair it now, it will prevent a much larger repair job later. This proverb uses the language of needlework, but it applies to any situation—car maintenance, home repair, human relationships—where a little forethought and intervention will prevent a larger clean-up later.
In my informal study of economics, I’ve found parallels between some proverbial principles of economic theory and wisdom as taught in the Bible. The principle of comparative advantage is one such example.
What Is Comparative Advantage?
Not unlike Solomon’s illustrative stories to his son (Prov. 7:6–23), American children’s stories often teach principles of industry and productivity. In fact, our children’s literature is a hidden wealth of economic illustrations; their authors, perhaps subconsciously, have recorded and passed down our national story of economic progress.
Take the 50-year-old classic The Cajun Night Before Christmas, for example. The book asks, “Why does Santa use flying reindeer?” He could employ alligators. But if you look at the delightful pictures, you’ll see it’s a lot easier for Santa to get down a chimney when he lands on the roof than it would be for him to have alligators boost him up the side of the house.
This funny little story illustrates the economic principle of comparative advantage: individuals, companies, and even nations specialize in producing certain goods and services. One economics textbook says it this way:
When people specialize [in the production of goods and services they can provide at a low cost], they can then sell these products to others. Revenues received can be used to purchase items that would be costly to produce themselves. Through these exchanges, people who specialize in this way will produce a larger total quantity of goods and services than would otherwise be possible. Economists refer to this principle as the law of comparative advantage. This law applies to trade among individuals, businesses, regions, and nations.
Consider how this applies to international trade. If you buy athletic shoes, they’ll probably be made in China, Vietnam, or some other East Asian country. For the most part, the supply chain and labor costs in these countries allow for a comparative advantage in the low-cost production of footwear.
How Does Comparative Advantage Apply at Home?
What does this look like in everyday life—in home economics? I like math, and I’m very detail-oriented when it comes to money. I opened my first bank account when I was 6 years old. When I was in sixth grade (age 11), I went to a summer camp. I remember the camp had stations where you could learn new skills; I signed up to learn how to record checks in a register and balance a checkbook.
When I married my wife, she didn’t know how much money was in her checking account. She doesn’t have the same affinity for managing personal finances that I do, but she has other strengths. She’s a gifted musician and a good decorator. She likes moving furniture around, painting new colors on the walls, displaying new artwork, and the like. (Left to myself, I’m content with mediocrity in the home decorating department.)
In our home, I have a comparative advantage in math and finance. I’m good at it, so I do it. My wife, on the other hand, has a comparative advantage in decorating. She’s good at it. Our home works better when I focus on what I do best and she focuses on what she does best, within limits of course.
Is Comparative Advantage Biblical?
Do we find the economic principle of comparative advantage in the Bible? Yes, in many places.
Our home works better when I focus on what I do best and she focuses on what she does best, within limits of course.
When Solomon needed a great amount of high-quality timber to build the temple (1 Kings 5), he didn’t cultivate cedar trees in supersize, ancient greenhouses. Instead, he traded with King Hiram of Tyre to the north. Solomon traded wheat and olive oil (for which ancient Israel had the comparative advantage) for lumber (for which Tyre had the comparative advantage).
The principle of comparative advantage also applies in the spiritual realm. In 1 Corinthians 12–14, we see there are different spiritual gifts in the church (different spiritual comparative advantages!), with the localized body of Christ functioning better when we exercise our gifts with diligence and humility—valuing and honoring the different gifts of those around us. In 1 Corinthians 12:17–18, Paul asks,
If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
Pass Along Modern Wisdom Literature
In many ways, American economic proverbs are like biblical proverbs, but there’s one major difference—biblical proverbs are inspired by God and, thus, inerrant Scripture. The Bible approves what God approves of, and it disapproves of what God disapproves of. Such isn’t always the case with modern economic “wisdom literature.”
The authors of Scripture are consistently concerned with equity, fairness, and justice. When a nation or region’s comparative advantage arises from enslaving or mistreating workers, a biblical worldview condemns it.
However, when the modern economic “wisdom literature” of classic American children’s stories parallels biblical principles, we should be grateful and eager to pass them along. Perhaps, just as the Midianite Jethro came and gave Moses practical advice about how to organize his overwhelming judicial demands (Ex. 18:1–27), we can still learn a great deal from economic principles even when they don’t explicitly parallel Scripture.