Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I’m Not Sure I’m OK With This…

Written by: on January 30, 2015

Not Sure If I’m OK With This.

Adam Smith suggested that the division of labor in society was dependent upon the existence of markets, or, as he put it, upon man’s “propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for another.” This phrase was later to yield the concept of the Economic Man. In retrospect it can be said that no misreading of the past ever proved more prophetic of the future. For while up to Adam Smith’s time that propensity had hardly shown up on a considerable scale in the life of any observed community, and had remained, at best, a subordinate feature of economic life, a hundred years later an industrial system was in full swing over the major part of the planet which, practically and theoretically, implied that the human race was swayed in all its economic activities, if not also in its political, intellectual, and spiritual pursuits, by that one particular propensity.1

I do apologize for the lengthy quote right out of the gates but for me, this statement is critical.  Critical in that it effectively dismantles much of what I have accepted as “gospel-truth” with regard to free markets and a market-economy, that man has always pursued personal gain through barter for gain.  Essentially Polanyi is asserting that Smith and his ilk, by their misinterpretation of human history related to transactional relationships, shaped the global economy into the very system that they could most benefit from — market capitalism.  And while they may not have fully reaped the benefits of their influential work, we live in the aftermath to this very day.

As long as I have been old enough to consider the issue of financial gain, I have been numbered among the capitalists.  Whether I was stealing flowers from old lady Cleveland’s rose-bushes and selling to the neighbors or negotiating for a favorable per yard rate to trash out foreclosures, I have assumed that work for money, hours for dollars, an exchange has always been the way of things…  Apparently, I was misinformed.  Polanyi’s arguments are compelling.

His reading of human history interprets man’s economic behavior as inclined toward reciprocity rather than barter and gain, this is a different set of lenses through which to examine that economic behavior than I have ever worn.  I have always embraced the view that since things are this way now, they must have always been this way, we have always been market-oriented whatever the market may be — goods, labor, land, whatever…  However, Polanyi argues convincingly that “never before our own time were markets more than accessories of economic life.”2  Man has not always been driven by the pursuit of gain, that seems to be a fairly recent development on the timeline of humanity’s development  So, how does that impact us today?  Or, does it impact us at all?

Is there something to be adjusted?  Since we can see that man’s primary motivation has not always been to secure a meaningful gain for himself, do we attempt to adjust back to a more “primitive” mode of being?  Does the fact that we are different now than we were 400 years ago argue for a return to the older, more ancient ways of being?  If so, is it even possible?  At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I have to say in my opinion, the answer to that question is no.  We can’t go back, we’re too far gone. I’m pretty settled on that.


What I’m not so sure about is whether or not I’m ok with that.


1. Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press. Kindle Edition) 45-46.

2. Ibid. 71.


About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

13 responses to “I’m Not Sure I’m OK With This…”

  1. Mary Pandiani says:

    As a recovering-capitalist, I struggled with your statement: “Man has not always been driven by gain” as purported by Polayni. I can’t seem to get my head around changing my thinking with regard to my hereditary belief that always seemed to capitalize (ha! that word again) on people’s desire for more, always more. So then what do we base on economic system on?
    By the way, did you ever go back to old lady Cleveland? Maybe that’s where some of it starts – confession, forgiveness, working together.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Mary, I did not go back to Old Lady Cleveland I am embarrassed to say. She always grew the most beautiful roses! They fetched quite a tidy sum on the flower market there in the little town of Winston, OR in the late 70’s…

      Recovering capitalist… I LOVE it!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:


      Love, love your word, “recovering-capitalist”…
      We should desire more and more of Christ, verses more and more of things. Economic systems all try to give people more, while delivering higher quality to their lives. So far, our systems have failed, because our definition of “more” is wrong. I agree that the best system is one where we confess our wrongs, forgive one another, and work and support one another.


      • Brian Yost says:

        “So far, our systems have failed, because our definition of “more” is wrong.”
        Way to cut to the chase. Those who get the “more” that they are searching for soon discover that it is not enough and does not fulfill. It is interesting to see how those who have nothing according to the world’s standards are often the richest of all.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, I have always wondered what Ecclesiastes 5:18 means. “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them–for this is their lot.” I wonder what this means about barter and gain vs. reciprocity and community? I wonder how much a “middle class being created” and the affects of being middle class has on the market system? It is absolutely powerful reading all of our posts from this book, i think our most difficult read, has truly deeply affected us most or at least has got us all thinking. What gives with that???

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil, I don’t what gives but something gives! The idea of reciprocity was made real to me last summer while on mission in SE Alaska, a tribal area. Part of what we came to realize was that it is customary, that if you merely mention to a friend that you like something he has, or comply complement a piece of jewelry or article of clothing, they would simply hand it to you and say “here, you can have it.” The understanding is that at some point along the way, you will have something they like and you will just hand it over, no questions asked and without feeling in any way taken advantage of… reciprocity on display.

      Now, these are not savages running around half naked… these are city managers and construction workers and teachers, wearing very normal, American clothes, driving very normal vehicles. Somehow, the concept of reciprocity has persisted even while much of the rest of their economy is typical hours for dollars exchange, barter, etc. I was thinking back on this in light of our present reading assignment.

      Fascinating stuff!

  3. Nick Martineau says:

    Jon…Along with you and others I’m having difficulty agreeing with Polanyi’s statement “Man has not always been driven by the pursuit of gain..” That’s just so hard for me to wrap my mind around. It’s so deep within me. And I agree with you…I’m not sure we can go backwards to a time when that wasn’t the case.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Nock, the more I dig around in his work, the more apparent, and striking, it is to realize that he is right! Prior to the Industrial revolution, the capitalistic drive just wasn’t a major factor in economies. To have enough to “household” (term from the book) and enjoy day to day living was really what drove most vocational decisions

      This goes so opposite of my personal bent, it is hard to get my head around. It is, undoubtedly, an artifact, I mean we can never go back there even of we wanted to, but interesting nonetheless.

  4. Dave Young says:

    Jon… I think it was Adam and Eve who thought they could do better and be better if only they were more like God. They traded their current life in hopes for something even better. Ultimately that didn’t work out.

    Man has always wanted more, wanted better – it always seems like the grass is greener and we’ll make the necessary trades to get to their idealized version of self, of life, of what have you. I’m not convinced that the behavior was “behavior as inclined toward reciprocity”. It seems like the heart of man has always been bent toward gain. What do you think?

  5. Jon Spellman says:

    Dave, my instinctive reaction would be to agree but Polanyi makes such a reasoned, researched, fact-based argument it is hard to hold up my anecdotal evidence against his work. I do think man wants to be more comfortable and endure less struggles, but is that the same as “gain” in the purest sense? I think for most of human history, reciprocity was the vehicle that afforded comfort, safety and provision… A community view of sorts. If the community is better off, safer, well-taken care of then individuals within the community are by extension. Is that gain individually? Maybe so… I think we have to ask is “gain” pursued for its own sake or is safety, comfort and provision pursued and the most recent vehicle to deliver these ends happens to be barter toward gain BUT it is a recent adaptation of mankind. It has not historically been this way, according to Polanyi anyway!

    My head hurts

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Unfortunately, the days where man can have comfort, safety and provision without toil and defense is long gone. Do you think that our insecurity, combined with greed, is what drives us to continuously seek more?

      In America, most of us haven’t really gone without basic needs like food and shelter. However in the last few years more and more people are finding themselves in a position of risk. Now, Americans are beginning to place a higher value on their things, and they are beginning to think about what they value the most. Priorities are being set. What do you think will happy to the consumer mindset if money starts to flow more freely again? Would this really be a good thing in America?

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    Jon shame on you for stealing those flowers and selling them, repent. lol. I dont think there is any possibity or returning to an economic market like years of old. I believe that the bible will be fulfullid and that we are headed to a one world system economically. Its no reason for people living in third world countries to be starving when we through away food just about every day. I think that capitalism had its day durning the early 19th and 20th century of America but today it is not helpful or as effective when our country was in the growing years. I watched the men who shaped america, J. P. Morgan Chase, Andrew Carnegie, and a few others who capitalized on the American economic and industrial revolution. But its hard for people today to do that because there are laws governing cornering a market like they did. Blessings Jon and plant some flowers and give them away! lol

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