The Triumph of the United Order, Part I

James Lucas is an attorney in New York and co-author of Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh was more than a recognition of a pioneering innovator in the international war against poverty. It was also, albeit unknowingly, a significant validation of the principles of the United Order as given in modern revelation.

Yunus and his Grameen Bank are the first and still largest of what are today thousands of organizations around the world engaged in what is variously referred to as microcredit, microlending, or microfinance. The news reports on the Nobel Peace Prize have given nice summaries of how microcredit works. See here and here. Another succinct summary of how microcredit works was given in 2000 in a speech at the National Press Club by the head of an organization which has extensive involvement with microcredit:

We are already engaged in micro-credit undertakings, whereby small amounts are loaned to those for whom a hundred or two or three hundred dollars can spell an actual change in their future. When given such credit these people become entrepreneurs, taking pride in what they are doing and lifting themselves out of the bondage that has shackled their forebears for generations. From a bread shop in Ghana to a woodworking business in Honduras, we are making it possible for people to learn skills they never dreamed of acquiring and to raise their standard of living to a level of which they previously had little hope.

The speaker was President Gordon B. Hinckley, and the organization was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See about mid-way through the speech. In the same speech he describes what was to become the Perpetual Education Fund as a variation on the microcredit concept.

Some years ago at the international microcredit summit conference in New York City I was surprised when the principal speaker announced the ten largest private donors to microcredit and heard the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”included as the only religious organization among the ranks of major banking and world-renowned philanthropic foundations which support microcredit to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Somewhat better known are BYU’s deep involvements in microcredit. It hosts the leading academic journal, the leading academic conference, and one of the leading academic centers for the study of microcredit. Inspired originally by Marriott School professor Warner Woodworth, many Latter-day Saints have set up new microcredit efforts, and BYU graduates can be found on the staffs of numerous international microcredit organizations. On a personal level Muhammad Yunus was the principal speaker at BYU’s August 1998 commencement and has returned frequently since then (see here for example). Less publicized are Yunus’ regular visits with the First Presidency of the Church during these trips to Utah.

Of course, microcredit has attracted broad support in the two decades since Yunus launched the Grameen Bank, including such figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. However, microcredit has and deserves more special support from Latter-day Saints because its success can be traced directly to its implementation of the basic principles of the United Order.

If one carefully analyzes both the foundational scriptures and the full historical experience of the effort to start united orders in both the 1830s and1870s, some basic principles emerge which go far beyond popular LDS memories of the aborted Missouri efforts or the rather atypical kibbutz at Orderville:

(1) The initial consecration is a free will offering of as much property as one wishes to consecrate to the poor (D&C 42:30). This is made to the bishop or such other officers as may be designated (D&C 42:31). At the time of this revelation the “bishop”was not the head of a congregation, rather he was the equivalent of today’s Presiding Bishop, the chief officer of the Church for temporal affairs. Although Mormon folklore envisages a return of the united order consisting of everyone turning all of their property over to their ward bishop, the revelation actually accommodates much broader circumstances and methods. Indeed, even by the 1870s, when the office of bishop had moved into its present position of congregational leadership instead of administration of temporal affairs, the larger united order efforts were often lead by non-priesthood professional management.

(2) These offerings were not to remain in the hands of the Church, but rather to be immediately turned back over to the Church members in amounts sufficient for the support of every family (D&C 42:32). These stewardships were deeded back to the united order participants as private property which they retained even if they left the Church (D&C 51:5-6).

(3) Any excess funds went into a “storehouse”or “treasury.” However, this treasury was not the equivalent of today’s centrally controlled Church welfare funds (all modern Church funds are administered under the very different revelatory regime established by D&C 119-120). The united order treasury was to used to provide additional new stewardships as needed (D&C 42:33-34), but more importantly was to be used to finance the operation of the various privately owned businesses of the united order participants (D&C 104:73). This united order financing institution was to be funded by consecrations of the surplus from the successful businesses of the united order participants (D&C 104:68-69). Moreover it was governed by the “voice and common consent of the order”members (D&C 104:71). This economic self-government is in marked distinction to the top-down financial administration by the priesthood hierarchy established by D&C 120.

(4) The end objective of the united order was to eliminate poverty, for if we do not care for the poor among us, we are not Zion and the Lord can not receive us (D&C 105:3-5). However, the elimination of poverty was to be achieved not through a dole or handouts, but rather by assuring that everyone would have the opportunity to work (D&C 42:42) and be self-supporting.

Coming in Part II: How Microcredit works.


  1. This is a very powerful message. Thank you for writing this up, Jim.

  2. James,

    It’s great to have you in the bloggernacle. Your Working Towards Zion influenced me as few have; thanks for writing it.

    I was pleased that the Nobel committee finally recognized the terrific and important work Yunus has done. Just when I’m ready to write them off as dolts for people they’ve awarded with the Peace Prize, they finally choose someone praiseworthy. Microcredit was an important development to extending capital and credit to everyone everywhere, and the five-peer social model is compelling.

    What caught my eye in your post was Section 4. Empirical studies suggest that upwards of 35% of people are unable to be “self-supporting.” Most of those are children, of course, but somewhere between 6 and 15% of adults are believed to require permanent assistance. For that reason the United Order model, to the degree it requires all adults to be self-supporting, would be insufficient to “eliminate poverty.”

  3. But, Matt, there is provision for the poor at two points:

    First, in the difference between the initial free-will offering Jim describes in paragraph (1) and the amounts returned to the contributors as stewardships in (2). The difference would go to the bishop’s storehouse for the care of the poor.

    Second (something Jim didn’t refer to in this post) is the annual contribution of the surplus generated by the members’ successful management of their stewardships to the bishop’s storehouse, again for the care of the poor.

    Thus, the United Order does not suppose that all adults will be self-supporting.

  4. Jim, great post. One of the things I like about the micro-credit idea is that it is something I could probably afford to contribute to. It’s easy to be impressed by big schemes and the work of billionaire philanthropists — but it’s easier (for me) to be impressed by an approach where everyday people (including myself) might be able to help make a difference.

  5. One of the other great samll scale very helpful philanthoropies is heifer international.

  6. Jim,

    I’ve seen your book but never read it. The United Order is such a fascinating topic that it is interesting to get someone’s take on it.

    As for microcredit, I do a fair bit of stuff on it in my development class. We use Morduch’s book on the Economics of Microfinance, which is a little basic on the theory but still very informative.

    Microcredit is really pretty funny, as it splits people down very different lines compared to most poverty programs. Obviously, a program to give out loans at a 40% interest rate is going to striek some people as usury, not charity! On the other hand, others see it as a wonderful way to let people decide how to spend the money in a productive way, rather than creating a dole.

    But in the world of 3rd world development, microcredit comes across really well, because so many other approaches are such an unmitigated disaster– lining the pockets of government officials rather than doing anything for the poor. In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!

  7. Any tips on where we can go or to whom we can donate to directly benefit Latter-day Saint micro credit agencies? I remember hearing Mr. Yunus speak when I was at the Y five years ago. I enjoyed his book. BYU’s work in regards to micro credit makes me proud.

  8. Re: #7

    Part II has several leads for further information as soon as Steve Evans gets around to posting it.

  9. Frank, is microcredit a market or non-market solution?

  10. Steve Evans says:

    I’ll post Part II tomorrow. You have to keep the readers guessing!

  11. I understood that the microlenders have very low default rates, because of the community aspect of the lending/repayment processes. If repayment rates are in fact high, I would think that enterprising lenders could easily undercut the 40% interest rates (are they really that high?) and still make a pretty good return on investment.

    Which makes me wonder if the 40% is a good number.

    On the other hand, 40% may seem like a bargain compared to other sources of funds available in third-world countries. In the Philippines, for example, the lenders on the street would typically offer “5 for 6”, where a loan of 5 pesos (or whatever they are) today would be repayable one week from today at 6 pesos. I’m too lazy to compute the interest, compounded for a year–someone else can open Excel and do it–but it makes 40% look like free money.

  12. Matt,

    On the demand side, it’s a market based solution, in that you are selling these loans and so you get all the nice features of people selecting whether or not to take them. The problem is that these countries have such poor property right and contract enforcement that court and law based techniques for dealing with default don’t work too well and you can’t make a profit unless you come up with new ways to suppress default.

    On the supply side, Grameen, for example, receives a lot of donations and subsidies, without which they would not be able to stay in business charging the rates they charge. This is true of lots of these groups. On the other hand, if you move up the economic ladder just a bit, you find banks that make some profit without subsidies by not concentrating on the very very poor.

    Also, a lot of groups have other missions beyond just loans, some of which are market based and some look more like standard charity. But even private charity is pretty “market based” compared to government programs.


    Moneylender rates vary widely and can sometimes be really high (100s of percentage points). There are lots of reasons for this having to do with default and lack of contract enforcement that leads to monopolistic pricing. Basically you only lend to those you know and have power over.

    One of the innovations in microlending was to successfully steal ideas from other lending institutions (formal and informal) about how to get default down and keep down the paperwork and fixed costs of loans. So in the case of these loaning groups, you use other borrowers as contract enforcers– thus getitng back to lending to who you know and have power over. Also, you concentrate on women who are easier to find, punish, and browbeat should they try to default. Here you are capitalizing on gender inequalities in order to help the poor. Cue Alanis Morrissette, “Isn’t it Ironis?”

    But even then, the Grameen reported default rates are actually inflated (or were in the late 90s). They would report rates of 95%+ repayment when a more typical accounting standard would have them a fair bit lower– maybe 75-80% in some years? That’s still a massive improvement over govt loan programs in the third world, but not quite the Zion community it is made out to be by some.

  13. FWIW, I believe that the reason women were generally chosen as lendees was the widespread perception that they were more responsible with money in the cultures where Grameen operated.

  14. Jim,

    I loved your book. I had the opportunity to be in a class with Warner Woodworth that used your book as its text. It was a great experience. I only wish I actually practiced more of the principles and helped out more.

  15. I read a pamphlet/book about applying Zion principles to helping the poor in third world countries by Warner Woodworth (anyone know what that was called?) when I was in India working in and studying charity programs there. I became very frustrated by the immense amount of charity that was really doing nothing to help anyone in that country. This book had a profound affect on me.

  16. And my point was…I look forward to reading Jim’s book as well to further my understanding of all this. I look forward to the next post.

  17. Oh…is is possible they are the same book (like I said..this was six years ago and I found the book on the nightstand of a humanitarian service missionary couple in Chennai..I really didn’t/don’t know much about it)?

  18. I loved the book when it came out. Christianity in action, with accountability.

    President Romney said in his April 1966 General Conference address entitled “Socialism and the United Order Compared” the following: “In the meantime, while we await the redemption of Zion and the earth and the establishment of the United Order, we as bearers of the priesthood should live strictly by the principles of the United Order insofar as they are embodied in present church practices … if we were of a mind to do so, [we could] implement in our own lives all the basic principles of the United Order. … What prohibits us from giving as much in fast offerings as we would have given in surpluses under the United Order? Nothing but our own limitations.”

    These principles undergird all that is happening in microcredit and other similar practices today. I hope it will continue to grow.

  19. Jim, thanks for the post. Anyone who reminds Mormons to think about the United Order is always on the right team.

    I have real doubts about your description of the United Order, however. One of the earlier comments mentioned the ongoing donations of all surpluses to the United Order, even after the initial set-up of the system. This is a key element of the institution — the United Order is an ongoing effort to eliminate not only poverty but inequality (See D&C 49:20; 70:14; 78:6-7).

    Second, as a historical economic institution, a key feature of the United Order was that it institutionalized community control of major capital investments. This kind of control was crucial because the Order wasn’t just about helping individuals; it was about building a community as a Kingdom of God.

    In other words, the United Order was a system of ongoing, annual donation by the participants; of equality and not merely povery elimination; of communitarian control of major economic decisions; and with a vision that included transformation of individuals but also extended to a kind of collective outcome that fits awkwardly in more modern ideas about the economy. This kind of system only resembles your four points in some (in some ways superficial) respects. The United Order was a far stranger, less modern, creature than I think you want to depict it as having been.

  20. Great to read your fine thoughts, Jim!

  21. J. Nelson-Seawright and Frank McIntyre nicely illustrate the situation microcredit proponents find themselves in of opposition from both the left and the right (an observation which Frank himself made in his first comment). Those on the left who value community are disturbed at the central role independent individual entrepreneurship plays in microcredit and the lack of a need for active government involvement. Those on the right who would love to promote the market as the solution to all problems are disturbed by the microcredit sector’s substantial dependence on charitable funding to achieve its rapid growth, which makes it less than ideal as evidence for purely market-based solutions to poverty. Much could be said here, but I think at this point I would just make a couple of points:

    Microcredit interest rates are within the range of commercial lending rates for their localities. One of the articles about the Nobel Prize award noted that the Grameen Bank charged 20% per annum whereas commercial lending rates for rich people in Bangladesh are running about 15%. If there is some place where microcredit interest rates are 40%, I suspect that you will find an inflationary economy or other local conditions accounting for that. The important points are: (1) Microcredit borrowers would never get credit at rates that low, if at all, without the presence of microfinance institutions. (2) Charging real market interest rates consistent with the economy in which they are operating encourages microentrepreneurs to develop viable businesses and enables them to become real independent economic players in their localities. This carries unmeasurable but very important psychological and social benefits as well as economic ones.

    Much of my understanding of the United Order is based not only on the abstract sturcture laid out in the revelations, but also on a study of the practical implementation of these principles during the united order efforts of the 1870s, when the abstract structure of the revelations confronted the modern industrial economy. Although there was a “Central Board of Trade” established to try to coordinate the united order efforts, they were mostly independent local ventures, usually set up as corporations owned by the participants rather than the Church. In fact, even Orderville was a duly formed corporation created pursuant to the Utah Territory’s then newly enacted general corporation statute. I do not dispute that the United Order might operate very differently in some millennial setting, but I find that the lessons of the 1870s point to the desirability and possibility of doing what we can in the real world economy even if every aspect of the united order can not now be accomodated. I try to elaborate on that point some with regard to microcredit in Part II, whenever Steve puts it up. In the meantime, thank you all for your insightful comments. I hope the discussion here will continue.

  22. JWL,

    You misunderstand the right if you believe they’re reluctant to promote something simply because it relies on charitable giving. No one believes the market is a suitable mechansim for feeding babies, for example, or anyone else unable to produce.

  23. Oh, but babies sell cuteness. That’s their market commodity. =)

  24. This idea really excites me. I want to add it as a line item on my tithing slip, same as the PEF, which I avidly support. The Relief Society so needs to be involved in this! It’s women and families and homes. It’s in our charter!

  25. In a way, Tatiana, the RS used to be involved in this. The RS would frequently give loans to sisters so that they could go to nursing school in the late 19th century.

  26. Jim,

    I think Matt is right. There are people who don’t like charitable giving at all, but I would guess the vast majority of conservative Mormons at least are very much in favor of private charitable giving. I think the problems “from the right” within Mormon circles probably come from some combination of:

    1. Failure to carefully explain the market failure being solved– namely government’s failure to enforce contracts wreaks havoc with the credit market.

    2. Overwrought claims about the financial viability of the model. This mostly just makes people roll their eyes. This is a great way to lose money slowly. It ain’t the next stock market bubble.

    3. Overwrought rhetoric about how this is better than “traditional economic” thinking. This is a little silly. The market failures in these markets were identified and laid out decades ago. When I teach this stuff to students I am using ideas straight out of the intermediate microeconomics core. It is not “neoclassical” but it certainly isn’t fringe.

    On interest rates, you’re right– Grameen is charging 20%. I was conflating them with other microcredit groups who charge higher rates ranging from 20-55% (although nominal interest rates are not as informative as real rates). I think the point about the commercial lending rate being 15% exactly gets at the problem. These countries do not have well-functioning credit markets and even charitable organizations end up charging rates that would make a knee-jerk lefty cringe. Me? I don’t cringe. I’m fine with 20%.

  27. #25 — These sorts of loans, often in the form of co-ops, go back more than a century in various institutions. The problems that we seek to solve are not new, and the solutions are often not quite as new as people think– just reinvigorated.

  28. Frank —

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were personally opposed to charitable giving, but there are critics of microcredit who seem to want it to be more purely market driven. And some microcredit supporters have certainly made over-enthusiastic claims (although puffing one’s product is real life free enterprise).

    I am curious about one of your points, although it may be more complex than blog comments allow. Do you really feel that government failure to enforce contract is the principal defect of less-developed economies? I certainly agree that less-developed economies are characterized by inadequate commercial legal systems, but I would argue that that is a symptom rather than a cause.

    Here I have to tip my hat back to J. Nelson-Seawright, who correctly points out that equality is a principle of the united order revelations and social and economic inequality is decisively condemned (“it is not given that one man should possess that which above another, wherefrore the world lieth in sin (D&C 49:20 and almost innumerbale Book of Mormon passages). Now early Church leaders from Joseph Smith on were unanimous in eschewing the leveling ideology of the leftists of their day, but they were equally unanimous in condemning the pride and greed that created and preserved social class and privilege.

    I would argue that the fundamental defect of less developed economies is at least partially moral in that usually a ruling elite controls and hoards the society’s economic resources. The power of favoritism and connections among the upper classes is what distorts the administration of justice. It also distorts the allocation of economic resources, limiting them and keeping them away from the lower classes. Speaking in terms of failure to properly enforce contract rights isn’t wrong, but it lacks the moral and social power of modern scripture which denounce the pride and greed which underlie many of the social behaviors which limit economic development.

  29. ed johnson says:

    Regarding the causes of high interest rates in developing countries…

    I recently came across a World Bank working paper that explores the reasons for the seeming inefficiency in the Ugandan lending market. Apparently the “spread” between bank lending rates and deposit rates in Uganda has been around 20% (!), so in that environment Grameen’s nominal rates look quite good.

    In the conclusion the authors speculate on the “weak contractual and informational frameworks” that might cause such high spreads, including but not limited to “deficiencies in the legal system:”

    The absence of credit information sharing ties borrowers to one institution thus undermining competition for clients and increasing hurdles for new institutions to come into the market. Deficiencies in the legal system result in the preferred use of debentures that comprise all of a debtor’s assets, thus again tying borrowers to a specific lender. Reforms in the contractual and informational frameworks such as the ongoing establishment of a credit bureau can enhance competitiveness. Broadening the financial system to Tier 2 (bank-like institutions) and Tier 3 (microfinance deposit-taking institutions) by including these institutions in the payment system and efforts to unite banks under one ATM network are other measures that can help enhance competitiveness and thus efficiency.

    (Found via a post at the Mahalanobis blog.)

  30. JWL, I’m not at all opposed to microcredit; I think it’s a great idea, and probably a very helpful component of any global effort to end poverty. It just isn’t very much like the historical practice of the United Order — which I think you’ve mischaracterized in some important respects. The two programs share a common goal of helping the poor, although within that goal the emphasis is quite different. In other respects, the two programs aren’t terribly similar.

    I’m not only talking about the revelation; in actual, implemented practice, in Ohio/Missouri and in Utah, my understanding is that the historical research suggests that the United Order placed control of capital investments in the hands of the head of each local group (See Arrington and Arrington, Fox, and Feramoz). The annually donated surpluses were preached and often practiced to include each business’s capital investment fund; reinvestment could only take place on community approval. Entrepreneurship in the sense of individual generation of economic ideas was important, but entrepreneurship in a variety of other senses including risk-taking, economic self-direction, and so forth was not really a central part of the package.

    Furthermore, it’s noteworthy that the United Order didn’t require repayment of stewardships. The future solvency of the system was to be based on the generosity of the transformed, non-economistic individuals assumed to be operating within the system.

    None of this is to say that modern efforts, working within a social-scientific understanding of the economy, aren’t worth pursuing. They’re just fundamentally not the United Order. I worry that equating the two may muddle our understanding of our own historical experience. There’s plenty of scripture commanding us to do whatever we can to help the poor; we don’t need to draw debatable historical parallels to legitimize such efforts.

  31. Jim,

    You’re right, it is too much to take up here and now (for me anyway, I have to prep a lecture on the economic underpinnings of microfinance :)

    Real quick though:

    “The power of favoritism and connections among the upper classes is what distorts the administration of justice. It also distorts the allocation of economic resources, limiting them and keeping them away from the lower classes.”

    This only works because institutions are arranged in ways that this is an effective way to get gain. In the U.S., effective property and contract rights help channel that desire into less destructive means. Thus we get Walmart lowering prices and increasing the real wage of the poor, instead of Montesinos embezzling funds.

    Second, the only reason to do microcredit is if you think there are efficient (ie, welfare enhancing) loans to be made that are not getting made. But that only occurs if there is some failure of the assumptions of the neoclassical model. THe neoclassical model can handle greed just fine. WHat it can’t handle is unenforced contracts. In credit markets, the usual answers require some failure to enforce credit contracts (default) mixed with large informational problems that create bad incentives.

    So although fixing greed would fix poverty, that is not the motivation for doing microcredit as opposed to some other form of welfare. The motivation for enhancing the credit market is because there is something wrong with the credit market.

  32. By the way, BCC readers take note: I completely agree with much of what Frank says in his last comment. In particular,

    So although fixing greed would fix poverty, that is not the motivation for doing microcredit as opposed to some other form of welfare. The motivation for enhancing the credit market is because there is something wrong with the credit market.

    I think this is exactly right. Microcredit isn’t a blanket solution to poverty. Instead, it’s a solution to that component of poverty which is produced by faulty credit markets. Poverty produced by a lack of human capital, by bad labor markets, by inequities in global trade legislation that impose unilateral penalties on agricultural exports, by the consequences of environmental degredation, by chronic illness, and so forth aren’t going to be easily remedied by microcredit. Microcredit is one helpful component of a global strategy against poverty.

  33. “I completely agree with much of what Frank says in his last comment. ”

    Must be sunspots.

  34. Actually, Frank, I’m a bit worried about you. Are you feeling okay today?

    Cheers, man. We should agree a bit more often!

  35. JN-S,

    Oh good, I get to split hairs and disagree with both you and Frank. I do not think that fixing greed would automatically fix poverty. Poverty is caused by lots of things unrelated to greed, some of which you name – physical or mental illness, crop failures, environmental degradation, and so on. It is no doubt true that if we all had less greed there would be less poverty, but it is not legitimate to assume that because poverty exists, somebody is being greedy.

  36. Mark IV, the problem is that, in pretty much every case, poverty — regardless of its causes — would be cured by someone being generous enough to donate the resources to solve the underlying problem. The only issues are (1) motivating the donations, a problem that seems nearly insurmountable, and (2) employing the donations in an economically and politically rational way, so as to avoid moral hazard, corruption, etc.

  37. JN-S, I am fascinated by your thoughts in this area and probably agree with you in broad terms, so I hope you don’t mind if I continue to raise objections and questions.

    I think anybody who has tried to help somebody they know and love out of poverty understands that it is very difficult to do, even with lots of money, generosity, and good will. I have struggled to see any progress at all with my own siblings and with some of the families I have home taught. I really am stumped by this problem, almost to the point of despair.

    All this is a way of saying that I don’t think your (1) above is the real problem, but I agree completely with your (2).

  38. Eugene V. Debs says:

    The left critique of efforts like microcredit is better understood in light of the left critique of the World Bank. Leftists–those of us not ashamed to be called socialists–realize that the World Bank comes in and bribes third world governments to dismantle their social safety nets–luxuries like free public education–in return for loans. These “austerity mesures” evantually drives down standards of living, as they found out in Argentina and elsewhere, and creates a cycle of borrowing and dismantling that turns governments into hollow shells of themselves. So, the left perspective sees a larger problem than the inability of the poor to get loans. It’s wonderful that a seamstress in Pakistan can get a small loan to purchase equipment, but this does not solve the larger structural problems and inequality of the “global” economy. Zion cannot be created in an economic system that would make the whore of Babylon apoplectic with envy. For a real leftist, in other words, microcredit is a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

  39. Mark, the problem with donations is actually far more serious than you think. Take, for example, the Perpetual Education Fund. To date, the fund has only enough resources to support cheaper vocational school education and “a limited number of new loans… for university degrees,” in spite of the fact that an eventual expansion to include university and professional education was part of the program’s founding vision. Evidently, there just isn’t enough money. More donations are needed to make the program meet its goals.

    Second, the resources needed to end poverty, even on the small or the individual scale, are a lot more extensive — and expensive — than most individuals can manage on their own. You or I, as individuals, can give money, encouragement, advice, and so forth. It’s a lot harder for us to provide job skill training, affordable housing, training in scheduling and life management, cultural socialization, psychological therapy if needed, and the rigorous and institutionalized individual incentives to avoid shirking. For these reasons, while individual effort is certainly important and profoundly Christlike, it’s best understood as a stopgap rather than a solution. Our best bets are going to be collective and organized, not individual.

    Brother Debs, I might disgree with some of your particulars, but I feel to sustain the spirit of your remarks.

  40. Mark,

    I think that another part of the greed that needs to be abolished is the greed for leisure among some poor people. Thus, some poor would be greatly helped by a donation, others essentially need to be supported because they are incapacitated, a third group needs to get up and work. This is more an issue, I think, in the first world than in the third. But yes, this is just as much a part of building Zion as the part where the rich become more willing to share. Hence sacriptures about idlers not eating the bread of the laborer.


    “the World Bank comes in and bribes third world governments to dismantle their social safety nets–luxuries like free public education–in return for loans.”

    Certainly there is more than enough incompetence at a huge bureacracy like the World Bank to provide hours of enjoyable mockery. But you’re not even hitting the hoop, let alone scoring points. Maybe we can have the World Bank conversation another day.

  41. I think this is the first time I’ve had to disagree with JNS *and* Frank:

    “Fixing greed would fix poverty” — what??

    This certainly isn’t true historically, and even today, the wealthiest day in the world’s history, if we were to divide the world’s wealth six billion ways, each person would be left with as much wealth as the average resident of the poorest county in the poorest state in America. Anyone have the numbers? What’s the global per capita income?

    There were no poor in the City of Enoch because everyone was “rich” — most days they got 1200 calories.

  42. Matt, I agree with the implied idea in your comment that the best approach to poverty is to increase the aggregate of human wealth while distributing the new wealth in such a way as to raise up the poor while leaving the rich relatively unaffected.

    On the other hand, food distribution (referenced in your closing line) is a good example of why I think that poverty is at least as much an issue of bad distribution as of inadequate aggregate wealth. The world as a whole produces more than enough food for everybody on the planet to be adequately nourished, yet millions starve notwithstanding. That’s an issue of greed and inefficient distribution, not merely of inadequate total wealth.

  43. Steve Evans says:

    Matt, I think you’re off. Basically, if you fix greed, then the definition of poverty disappears.

  44. JNS, where have you read that PEF aspires to fund professional schooling? I’ve heard them express hope to expand it laterally, not vertically.

  45. JNS, it seems to me that current distribution of food suggests greed is not the cause of poverty. The kids in Bangladesh aren’t starving because the kids in Omaha are greedily consuming french fries. There’s more than enough, and to spare, so to speak, even if Americans eat _all they want_ (i.e., are food greedies).

    The problems in distributing food, and otherwise eliminating poverty, are caused primarily by political fights that erect barriers between the poor and the market. And while some political fights are motivated by greed; they’re also motivated by pride, racism, priestcrafts, ideology, etc.

  46. Steve, that’s only true if you define poverty so that if everyone lives in poverty, no one does.

  47. I would say that greed does cause a lot of these problems but that greed has always been with us and we will be unable to eliminate till JC comes. Capitalism is essentially greed at its core but when capitalism is used properly and its excesses tempered it sure does distribute food pretty good.

    Most starvation as I can tell since about 1900 are due to the factors that Matt mentions. North Korea being a classic example or The Ukraine in the 1930’s, China in the 1960’s etc. Notice that these few examples are in nominally socialist states?

    I would be curious as to the last time a country that embraced Western Style capitalism experienced Famine. I am sure there may be one so let me know.

  48. Matt,

    I don’t know about JNS or Steve, but I was using “greed” as a shorthand for natural man behavior– as opposed to the behavior you’d get from somebody living as Christ would live. So all that political fighting and all the corruption I envisioned as going away.

  49. ““Fixing greed would fix poverty” — what??

    This certainly isn’t true historically,”

    In which historical periods have we fixed greed?

  50. Steve Evans says:

    Frank, ditto.

  51. HP,

    Matt’s point about history is that it was not until recently that the world pie was big enough that one could theoretically raise everyone out of subsistence living just by redistribution. Before that, the pie was not big enough.

    Obviously this depends on one’s definition of poverty, but I think Matt has a valid point that the pie did not used to be anywhere near as big as it is now.

  52. bbell, the best research on famines is probably by Amartya Sen. His ideas are really interesting; he posits that famine is produced by an unequal distribution of economic capabilities. There’s virtually always enough food, often even within the country where the famine happens; the problem is that many or most people aren’t given the opportunity to buy that food. They don’t have economic opportunities, or food distribution is terrible.

    Sen also suggests, as you do, that famine doesn’t happen in democracies because such regimes are responsive to political pressure. On the other hand, large-scale starvation does happen in poor democracies because of chronic malnutrition.

    The greed that’s relevant in understanding food distribution isn’t food greed; it’s money greed. People who die of starvation typically can’t buy food, even though there’s plenty of it in the shops near them.

  53. Thanks, Frank. That makes much more sense.

    A question for all you economists and sociologists out there, and in asking this I do not wish to sound like a New World Order-hating, basement fallout shelter building, militia dude. My impression is that the reason there is so much more wealth now than there has been in the past is because we stopped tying major currencies and some industries to actual, physical objects of value.

    1. In the space given in a blog comment, is this true?
    2. If we are dealing with, primarily, paper money, why is its proliferation germane to a discussion of combatting poverty? People who are starving or exposed presumably don’t need a stock portfolio; they need a steady source of meals and shelter, right?

  54. “My impression is that the reason there is so much more wealth now than there has been in the past is because we stopped tying major currencies and some industries to actual, physical objects of value.”

    I don’t see how this matters. We could very well produce lots more carrots if people wanted carrots. Instead they want services. It is not obvious to me that there is any obvious reason why that matters. Our increased productivity, by the way, certainly is not confined to services. Agricultural productivity has gone through the roof in the last 300 years.

  55. TO supplement JNS’s point, many large famines are the direct result of government action or interference, such as China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward or, if I remember right, Ethiopia. Governments can be marvelous killing machines when they put their minds to it.

  56. Don’t forget Stalin’s starving 7 mil in the Ukraine.

    My point was that an increase in monetary worth is not necessarily co-equal with an increase in ability to care for the poor, which, I think, demands actual goods. Of course, I may be wrong.

    Also, is the overall increase in wealth due to our untying it from actual goods? I really am curious about that. Working in the academic humanities, I am fascinated by economies that have no actual value :)

  57. Hey HP/JDC, You New World order-hating, basement fallout shelter building, militia dude,

    I once raised this exact question in an econ class, and the following conversation ensued:

    Me: Currency doesn’t mean anything because it has been detached from objects of value. It’s all just paper.

    Prof: (Walking down the aisle towards me) If you really believe that, then please open your wallet and give me all those worthless green pieces of paper.

  58. That’s a good story.

    Of course money means things. I wouldn’t argue otherwise. What I am trying to ask is does the proliferation of it (through inflation or general increase in wealth) come as a result of it not being tied down to specific objects of value.

  59. HP, the short answer is no. That’s just crazy-talk.

    The almost as short answer is: Inflation is what we use to keep track of adding bills without stuff. But that is entirely separate from the massive increase in real wealth over the past 200 years. Now it is true that lots of wealth is used for services, but if what we wanted was more goods, we could readily produce them instead. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something (probably Gold :)).

  60. ed johnson says:

    I think HP’s question is a valid one, and to answer it you need to distinguish between different concepts of “wealth.”

    Most important, our society is “wealthier” in that our total “income” is greater than ever: because of technological progress, society can every year produce a lot more valuable stuff that than ever before. This technology, along with the institutions and human skills that support it, is itself a kind of wealth.

    Also, our store of “real wealth” is greater than ever before in the sense that we have more nice goods lying around: bigger and better cars, houses, hospitals, ipods, etc.

    Finally, there is purely financial wealth: some people have a lot of “money” or other purely financial assets and obligations (bonds, bank loans, future social security payments). These assets do not represent “real wealth” from a societal point of view—it’s just a bunch of IOUs that give some people the right to claim goods in the future. I think HP is right that this type of wealth doesn’t directly help eliminate poverty.

    It’s clear that the first two types of wealth have increased. I’m not sure how much purely financial wealth has increased in comparison to the other kinds (probably depends how you measure it), but for the questions of this thread it is the first kind of wealth that matters. That’s what we mean when we say the “pie is bigger.”

  61. HP:

    Time-series data are available on, e.g., the total calorie count of the world’s food production and the total pounds of industrial goods produced per year. These series are consistently increasing.

  62. Frank,
    But isn’t there a limit to how many goods can be produced, should we desire them? Whereas the only limit to speculation is nerve or sound advice, depending on who you ask.

    Thanks, ed. That is what I was trying to distinguish.

    ed made the distinction I was trying to make. I am curious if “purely financial” wealth is increasing at a higher rate than the two data you mention.

    Finally, I don’t much see the point in sitting on a big pile of gold for security. If the dollar tanks, who is going to buy it from you? People want to eat prior to wanting jewelry.

  63. JNS —

    I have to disagree somewhat with your understanding of the historical united order. Coordination of economic efforts was a part of early Church policy quite separate from the united order, and was pursued for reasons of group survival, unity, and priesthood control without relying on the united order revelations per se. Those revelations explicity provide for control of united orders by “the voice and common consent” of the order members. This is actually in sharp contrast to the kind of central communal economic control you are ascribing to the united order. That kind of control is how tithing funds are administered. D&C 120 gives control of those to the priesthood hierarchy without any reference to approval or control by the Church membership, very different from the democratic economic self-government suggested by the revelations and actually practiced in the brief real world united order efforts. During the 1870s united order campaign, there were efforts at economic coordination, but those same efforts existed before and after the united order effort, and were motivated by the program to achieve economic independence and self-sufficiency, not the program to achieve the united order. When speaking of the united order, Church leaders from the beginning have been opposed to central economic control, in favor of private ownership, and consistently hostile to leftist communal ideologies. We cite all of these early sources on this topic extensively in Working Toward Zion. (My personal favorite of many is Lorenzo Snow pounding the pulpit at a stake conference in 1878 declaring “The United Order is not French Communism!”)

    The united order was not about acheiving communal econmic control. What the united order was about was acheiving a more moral economy. The only central control was a one-time voluntary redistribution of goods to establish privately-owned living situations for the poor. After that the principles allowed for a wide variety of structures, tending more toward worker cooperatives and employee-owned companies as the 1870s united order effort confronted the demands of the industrial economy. These were independent private businesses intended to function successfully in the market economy.

    There may be some idealized millenial time in the future when the economy would operate communally, but in this world, the idea of any kind of ongoing communal economic control never was a part of the united order, except as it was also linked to the pre-existing economic self-sufficiency program, and to the extent that it was imported into united order efforts for these other reasons, it was among the first aspects to be shucked away when trying to come up with united order inspired efforts to work toward a more righteous economy in the real world. My fundamental argument here is that the is not any one correct form of “United Order,” but rather a body of principles which if applied in the real world economy can help achieve fairer economic situations for God’s children. As I argue in Part II of this post, this is why the success of microcredit is a success for the united order, not because it is the United Order (for indeed there is no such thing as a comprehensive single structure for the United Order) but rather because it shows that some of the principles outlined in the united order revelations can produce effective results in fighting poverty, which is one of the primary purposes of the united order.


  1. […] This post is a continuation of yesterday’s review of microcredit and the United Order. […]

  2. […] For readers and bloggers of By Common Consent, my goal is this brief piece is to simply share a few examples of what you may consider doing, through stories and websites where more information may be accessed. I’ve been impressed by seeing the articles of my co-author and friend, Jim Lucas. Together we wrote Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World, and I continue to admire his thinking. […]

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