The Christmas season is all about gift giving. In the Christian tradition, God gave us his greatest gift in the form of his son. In the story of the nativity, the three magi honor the birth of Jesus by arriving in Bethlehem and bearing presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We exchange our own gifts with family and friends.
Surrounding it all is the familiar event described in Luke 2:14 (King James Version), when angels celebrate the arrival of Jesus in our fallen world with a song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
The custom of giving gifts in the Christmas season can be understood as a form of charity: the act of giving without expecting anything in return. The people we often regale with gifts—our children—have no way of paying us back, at least not in the standard sense.
Yet the phrase “good will toward men” can mean many other things, including the exchange of goods and services in a robust and orderly system of free trade.
This is commerce, not charity—and we may resist thinking about its inherent goodness because commerce can seem so grubby. Who among us has not bemoaned the appearance of Christmas decorations in retail stores before Halloween?
The Bible warns us in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is the root of all evil” and that in its mad pursuit, some “have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” We must always guard against materialism, acquisitiveness, and manipulation.
Yet commerce in fact can have a strong charitable dimension. If you’re willing to pay a little bit more for tools at your downtown hardware store because you want to support a local business, you’re engaging in an act of commerce that both serves your needs and contributes to a greater good.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many people who kept their jobs made a point of ordering takeout food from restaurants, not because they wanted to indulge themselves but to help the owners and workers make it through a difficult period.
The vast majority of trading relationships involve a clear benefit on both sides of the exchange. When I shop for food at the grocery store, I gain the supplies that my family needs each day by handing over the money that keeps people employed.
These transactions always depend on practicing “good will toward men.”
This is especially true for farmers like me. In the United States, we sell a huge portion of what we grow to customers abroad. In 2021, agricultural exports broke all previous records, as we shipped farm and food products worth $177 billion to China, Mexico, Canada, Japan, the European Union, and elsewhere.
These exports support hundreds of thousands of jobs—and more of these jobs are off the farm than on the farm.
The total value of global trade in farm and food products easily tops $1 trillion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. This is about four times greater than what it was just a generation ago.
What a blessing. Despite our recent challenges with inflation, food is more abundant and affordable for many than at any point in human history.
We’re achieving the modern miracle of feeding a world whose population now exceeds 8 billion people—and we’re doing it through the innovations of new technologies as well as the ability to trade across international borders.
At the heart of this accomplishment is “good will toward men.” International trade is the opposite of coercion—it relies completely on the free choices of men and women who wish to help each other through commerce.
That’s why trade agreements between nations are so important: They create the opportunity for more people to practice “good will toward men.”
In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, a pair of economists point out that global trade is “a medium through which we honor others as our neighbors.”
They point to the command of Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In the spirit of Christmas and as we begin a new year, let’s resolve to love our neighbors more—and trade with them as much as we can.
Finally, as my family and I celebrate God’s gift of his only son, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, healthy, and safe New Year.