In this time of economic uncertainty and crisis, it seems perhaps worthwhile to reflect on our basic theological orientation toward capitalism. After all, some aspects of late 20th-century and early 21st-century capitalism seem to be responsible for our recent run of investment bubbles and collapses, and for the current credit crisis that has placed the U.S. at greater potential economic risk than at any other time in recent memory. How does the Mormon gospel see the seemingly imperfect but nearly ubiquitous economic system that we call capitalism?
Hugh Nibley has famously and extensively argued that capitalism is incompatible with, or perhaps even antithetical to, the gospel of Jesus Christ; several of Nibley’s classic essays in this vein can be found in the volume, Approaching Zion. In the opposite corner, and writing in explicit rebuttal to Nibley, BYU professor Phillip J. Bryson has a BYU Studies article from 1999 which argues that LDS church leaders have regularly and uniformly spoken in favor of capitalism as a system. How are we to approach this debate?
One interpretive possibility is to decide the matter by reference to the scriptures. After all, the standard works are canonized by a process of common consent, and therefore are collectively binding on the Latter-day Saints in a way that other texts in our tradition are not. While all of Bryson’s quotes are drawn from the speeches and writings of general authorities, few are drawn from the scriptural canon. Likewise, few of these remarks clarify whether the leader is speaking as a man and offering personal opinions or is speaking as a prophet. To the extent that such semi-ephemeral remarks contradict scripture, the standard works ought, perhaps, to win.
It is worth remembering, at this point, that the scriptures have rather harsh things to say about a great many aspects of current mainstream American (and to a substantial extent global) economic practice. Our scriptures categorically object to economic inequality (see, for example, 4 Nephi 1:3; D&C 49:20; D&C 78:5-6), refusal to give generously — indeed, perhaps to give everything — to the poor (e.g., Matthew 19:21; Mosiah 4: 16-23; D&C 56:16; D&C 104:16-18), desire for economic goods we do not currently possess (e.g., Exodus 20:17; Mosiah 13:24; Matthew 6:19-21 — note that the first two of these citations reflect the unfortunate worldview in which women are property), and self-interest (e.g., Luke 10:27; Mosiah 23:15; D&C 59:6; D&C 82:19). These passages amount to a thoroughgoing rejection of much of the way most of us live our economic lives. Do they also amount to a rejection of capitalism?
The answer, I think, is messy. It depends on how we define capitalism.
Bryson’s article provides an implicit definition of capitalism by choosing specific topics and themes in his selection of quotes from general authorities. Capitalism for Bryson, it would seem, is any system characterized by private property, money as a circulating medium, entrepreneurship, and market mechanisms for distributing goods and services. This is in fact quite a modest and inclusive definition of capitalism By its restraint, this definition manages the feat of including (much of) 19th-century Mormon economic history under a capitalist rubric. (Exceptions include some episodes early in Utah and during the United Order period when the existence of private property became ambiguous, as well as the persistent problem in 19th-century Mormon history that money was rare and much exchange had to be managed through credit or barter. Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom has the details.)
Indeed, adopting Bryson’s implicit definition, there is no reason to see the scriptural passages cited above as contradictory with capitalism. After all, there is no logical reason that a system characterized by money, entrepreneurship, markets, and private property must necessarily lack economic equality. Likewise, such a system could certainly have inhabitants notable for their radical predisposition toward charity, reluctance to acquire material goods, and lack of self-interest. So one may well conclude that Bryson’s capitalism (as well perhaps as that of the church leaders he quotes, most of whom do not speak of capitalism per se but rather address narrower economic points) is in fact compatible with Mormon theology. However, one would be compelled to conclude that this Mormon-friendly version of capitalism would be radically different from the economic world we live in today.
Indeed, many or most analysts of capitalism see it as a system with additional defining traits beyond those central to Bryson’s analysis. Consider the following relatively well-known quote from perhaps the first great theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith:
…man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 2)
Most discussions of capitalism — and, one might note in passing, virtually the entire analytic apparatus of economic theory — incorporate this idea that capitalist economies are coordinated by the self-seeking actions of individuals. Indeed, self-interest is such a fundamental part of how most people understand capitalism that it even has a euphemistic name which it can use in polite company: the profit motive. The idea that self interest, or the profit motive, is a necessary definitional trait of capitalism is so common as to be nearly ubiquitous. Hence, in lieu of serious argumentation on this point, I will simply point you to this cartoon, designed for 11th-grade American history students, in which the profit motive is one of five definitional pillars of capitalism.
This raises some difficulties. While self-interest is a nearly universal defining trait of capitalism and is surely a preeminent characteristic of current economic life, it is also thoroughly opposed by the scriptures and is not generally supported by LDS church leaders. The principle of self-interest contradicts the gospel teaching that we ought to value the well-being of others just as much as we value our own well-being. It conflicts with the scriptural message that we ought not to acquire material treasure. It is the polar opposite of D&C 82:19’s instruction that we should all seek the interests of our neighbors and of God — not our own interests.
What would a capitalism that was friendly with Mormon theology, a capitalism without self-interest, look like? Property would have private owners, but those owners would be motivated by the collective good rather than their own personal good. Hence, private property would be managed as if it were the property of the collective. Regulation of private property by democratic political processes would be unnecessary because it would be redundant; private actors would anticipate the needs of the broader society and would act against their own self-interest for the collective good before any regulation was ever introduced.
Money would exist largely to facilitate spontaneous and ubiquitous transfer payments from the temporarily fortunate to the currently unfortunate — since the categories of rich and poor would broadly lose their meaning due to universal equality. Consumer and household debt would vanish as categories, since those who had resources would simply give to those in desperate need and those not in such need would never attempt to acquire goods of any kind.
The criteria for entrepreneurship would change radically. The entrepreneur would no longer seek investments with the highest possible expected rate of personal financial return. Instead, the entrepreneur would be motivated solely by the opportunities to create jobs and to fill some as yet unfilled social need. Hence, entrepreneurial activities would be designed to provide work for the maximum number of sustainable, productive employees, rather than to provide the highest realizable rate of return on the initial investment.
Markets would continue to function, but the criteria used by consumers acting in a market would also change dramatically. Rather than seeking the best good at the lowest possible price, people would seek to make the purchase that would be best for everybody. They would select the good that came closest to meeting the joint goals of best value (so as to save as many resources as possible for consumption by others), most creation of productive work opportunities for others, and fewest negative side effects for the community in general. This more complicated market calculus would profoundly change our relationship with the environment, the viability of advertising as an industry, and our current corporate culture.
The gospel as we have received it in the scriptures may or may not be antagonistic toward capitalism; this depends entirely on how capitalism is defined. Yet it seems to me that the revelations we have been given are profoundly and persistently critical of capitalism as we live it today. I stand implicated; I would seek repentance and further light and knowledge.