Many people assume that Father Adam was the author of the theory of comparative advantage, but this is incorrect; Smith was the driving force behind its predecessor–absolute advantage. It would be another 40 years or so before Torrens and Ricardo would demonstrate that, while Adam was a prophet, he was not infallible.
Suppose that you are a Bishop, and suppose that you have a calling to fill–perhaps that of Gospel Doctrine Instructor. As the saying goes, revelation/inspiration is at least partly information and perspiration, so how do you approach this decision? What information do you consider? Employment considerations? Family considerations? Professional or vocational background? Prior callings? As you pray for guidance and stare at the mass of names stuck to the wall with Velcro, who are you looking for? The answer, of course, is “the best person for the job.” What I want to talk about is what we might–or should–mean by “best.”
In economics, the theory of absolute advantage set forth by Father Adam suggests that society benefits from specialization: Everyone should do what they’re good at. In its essence, absolute advantage dictates that the individual who can perform a task with the lowest absolute cost—whoever is “the best”—should perform that task: Kristine Haglund should always involved with the music programs. Kevin Barney should always teach Gospel Doctrine. Unfortunately, this theory, if taken to its logical extensions, would result in 4-5 people doing everything, because they’re simply bigger/faster/stronger than everyone else. Folks like Aaron Brown would never have a calling.
In contrast, the theory of comparative advantage—while acknowledging the need for specialization—suggests that absolute cost is the wrong measure and need not benefit all parties in a community. Instead, the proper metric is relative cost, or opportunity cost: It doesn’t matter good Steve Evans is at peeling bananas if he’s the only one who knows how to wield the bannination stick, because any focus whatsoever on bananas will result in a blog overrun by trolls. Through comparative advantage, every single individual in a community can be the “low opportunity cost” (or low OC) provider of something.
Consider all of the individuals that currently serve in one of the Stake Auxiliary presidencies in your stake. I am willing to be rebutted if evidence should be presented, but I’d be willing to wager a hefty sum that nearly all of them are people who—setting personal likes and dislikes aside—are generally considered highly faithful, highly capable, and highly experienced members of the stake. These callings are virtually all staffed with former Bishopric members, former leaders in ward Relief Societies, Sunday Schools, Elders Quorums, High Priest groups, and Youth programs. This form of staffing is perfectly in line with Father Adam and absolute advantage: because all of these callings require people with teaching, administrative, and leadership skills, calling individuals who have a proven track record of specialization in those areas will result in quality output.
But here’s the rub: These callings have almost no discernible responsibilities. At most, these stake auxiliary leaders are asked to speak in an occasional Sacrament meeting, teach an occasional ward-level auxiliary lesson, and carry out an annual activity or two. While I don’t mean to suggest that “bringing greetings from the Stake Presidency” or “supporting ward auxiliary leaders” or “meeting at least monthly as a presidency” aren’t important and worthy tasks, I suspect that there is not a soul among us who sincerely believes that fulfilling these obligations is even close to a full-time job, and doesn’t require even a fraction of the time the analogous ward-level auxiliary callings require.
By staffing according to absolute advantages and ignoring opportunity costs, this calling allocation under-utilizes high-performance individuals. While this is tragic in its own right, it is really only one side of a very ugly coin. By plucking the most capable fruit from the ward tree, wards are deprived of significant leadership, experience, knowledge, and talents. This distortion, in theory, can reverberate through every ward organization.
What About Releases?
One of the difficulties in viewing calling allocations as a function of comparative advantage is that of rotation: If we are asked to serve in the callings in which we have the lowest respective opportunity costs, then wouldn’t releasing us decrease the total utility or efficiency of the organization? I think that there are at least a couple of possible explanations here.
First, supply generally exceeds demand. Although it can be the case that people are asked to serve in multiple callings, there are almost always members of a ward or stake without a calling. As such, rotation could be viewed in the same way it is viewed in little league baseball: everyone gets to play at least three innings, regardless of skill level. This possibly does decrease efficiency on one front, but it likely increases efficiency on other fronts such as retention (Just as guaranteeing some playing time increases the likelihood of lower-skilled players signing up for the team year after year).
Second, opportunity costs are dynamic with experience and effort. As two individuals serve in different callings, they obtain and refine certain primary skills, while also growing in secondary skills. Additionally, other skills will likely wax rusty and stagnant. For example, as an adult Gospel Doctrine instructor, you would (hopefully) grow in your ability to understand the scriptures, explain the gospel to others, and relate to different people. Ceteris paribus, as this growth takes place, releasing you becomes increasingly costly to the ward. However, these skills are needed elsewhere in the Church—the Young Men/Young Women programs, seminary, ward mission, and in virtually all areas of leadership. While the individuals currently serving in all of those other callings are likely also experiencing growth, there is no reason to assume that the rates of growth are identical, because effort is not uniformly distributed. In other words, as long as there are different degrees of calling-magnification, comparative advantages will be constantly changing. This virtually guarantees that the low-opportunity-cost-provider in one calling will not remain such indefinitely.
Third, in a closed economy, comparative advantages are subject to changes in the population. As noted above, supply often exceeds demand: There may 10 low-OC instructors in a ward, but if there are only 8 teaching positions to be filled, two low-OC instructors will be distributed to the next-lowest-cost opportunity. However, anytime people move into or out of the ward, members go inactive or are reactivated, or if there are new converts, all comparative advantages must necessarily be reevaluated. Given the nearly constant state of churn that exists in most LDS wards, it’s likely that the comparative advantages underlying our current callings are out of date almost as soon as we receive them.
Lastly, there is appeal in the simple notion of novelty. As our productivity in callings is partly a function of effort, there almost always comes a time when our output will suffer simply because we’ve lost interest and need a change of scenery.
More Generally Speaking
While I used Stake callings above as an example, the situation plays out similarly for every calling in the Church: If a person serves in Calling A, that person cannot serve in Calling B. While information about members’ comparative advantages is certainly incomplete–in fact, our knowledge of our own comparative advantages is incomplete, the overarching point is that ward, stake, and even general leaders must consider opportunity costs when allocating callings. Failure to do so needlessly risks decreasing the quality of all programs.
 The effects can be more or less disastrous, depending on the nature of the calling in question. For example, if the lowest OC instructors are sapped from a ward, this is compounded by the fact that we would then spend 2/3 of our meetings listening to bad teachers.
 This can actually backfire. True story: When I was in 7th grade, I played football. Because it was a public middle school, there were no tryouts, and consequently we ended up with about 800 kids on the sideline. Since playing time was given only to about 14 guys, we literally played a “5th Quarter” at the end of every game. It didn’t count in any way, but it served two purposes: a) it placated the parents who were still convinced that their child was a special athlete, and b) being forced onto the field during the Pity Period introduced most participants to a level of humiliation sufficient to ensure that only about 35 kids showed up for football in 8th grade.
 In addition to simple changes in population, changes in demographics are also extremely relevant. Some callings are structurally dependent on certain demographics like age and gender—youth leaders need to be adults, high priest leaders need to be men, Relief Society instructors need to be women, etc… Other callings require similar demographic considerations simply on the basis of credibility and ability to relate—it’s rare to see senior citizens serving in the youth programs, single young men teaching Marriage Improvement classes, etc…
 This continuous fluctuation, combined with the presence of transactions costs such as interviewing, setting-apart, training, and trust-building, suggests that rotation should be done based on long-term evaluation of comparative advantages and not on the basis of weekly spikes in productivity.
 Indeed, while some may view the heavily American and Caucasian demographics of the Church’s general leadership as purely a reflection of cultural sluggishness, comparative advantage provides a logical—though perhaps not entirely satisfactory—explanation: If General Authorities are pulled from the ranks of the culturally-diverse-but-ecclesiastically-weak-and-understaffed regions of the world, the cost to that region (through the loss of scarce leadership) is more devastating than the benefit gained by the entire Church from having an incrementally more diverse leadership body. To say it another way, it’s not that white folks from America are “chosen” at all—it’s that white folks from American can’t effectively replace local leadership in Africa, Asia, or South America.