The Economics of Conversation

You probably don’t think of economics when you think of having conversations with friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers. According to Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans from 1856-1902, you should. Writing in the January 1862 edition of the Southern Presbyterian Review, he reminds us that there is an economics of conversation:

Political economy teaches that material products derive their value from barter and exchange. The earth is divided into zones and climates, that there may be no perpetuated schism between the races of mankind. Diversity of wants induces that mutual interchange and supply, by which the families of man are drawn together in bonds of brotherhood. The staple, for example, which blooms upon our Southern fields, is but a useless weed until it is transported to the factor, who sells it to the foreign purchaser. The spinner converts it into thread, and the weaver into cloth. The merchant spreads the beautiful fabric upon his shelves; the tailor shapes it into the elegant costumes which we wear; and each prospers, as the product passes through his hand.

So there is a commerce of the mind. The facts of nature lie distributed in magnificent profusion through the universe, which patient observation gathers up, and silent thinkers elaborate, until the accumulated treasures of science are poured forth upon the world, to form a portion of its mental wealth. Let it be remembered, however, that great thoughts lying in the mind, like ore in the earth, do not constitute this wealth. They must be circulated as living truths, and possess an exchangeable value, before the world is enriched. The iron and the coal sleep for ever useless in their subterranean beds, till the miner sinks his shafts, draws them to the light of day, and converts them to the practical uses of life. So the sublime conceptions of poetry, the brilliant speculations of philosophy, the patient inductions of science, and all the images of beauty that fill an artist’s dreams, must be rendered palpable in speech, or int he creations of the pencil and the chisel, which are the dies of the mint, impressing a marketable value upon each. They grow, in bulk and value, as they pass from mind to mind, waking up dormant thoughts in all; and, as exchangeable products, swell the volume of our common civilization and refinement.

In this intellectual barter, conversation plays an humble, but most important, part: as the circulating medium. Books, indeed, are useful as the depositories of knowledge, like the secret vaults of a bank, in which the bullion is safely kept. But the bullion must be converted into coin for the purpose of exchange; and conversation, in all the degrees of the scale, from the large discourse of the schools to the small talk of the saloon, forms the medium through which knowledge is distributed, from the pennyworth of the child to the princely portion of the sage. We do not insist, in this connection, upon the higher offices of conversation, in cementing society together, through the affections. It is the vehicle of all those courtesies and amenities of life, and of those countless sympathies by which individuals, like separate threads, are woven into a common brotherhood. It answers all the ends of argument and illustration, to signalize its power as a great distributing agent, by which the treasures of individual thought are made to flow together, and form a community of wealth.

(from “The Art of Conversation,” Southern Presbyterian Review, January 1862, 550-569)

How are you improving (for the good of yourself and others) what you know, and what others know, by the conversations you have each day?


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