Money and the Kingdom of God

Last week, I was involved in a Twitter discussion that at least implicated questions of economics, government spending, and private spending. A couple of the interlocutors seemed to be arguing under two assumptions: (1) there are only two economic systems, capitalism and socialism, and (2) there’s something quasi-divine about capitalism, and unrestrained capitalism is the only moral or effective economic system.

Now, this post’s purpose isn’t to argue the first of those two points.[fn1] I do, however, want to suggest that we, as Mormons, need to think much more carefully about money than we usually do.

If my experience at church is at all representative, when we talk about money at church, we talk about two things. The first is paying tithing and offerings, and the second is avoiding debt. Online, the discussion usually devolves into the benefits or the evils of capitalism.

Neither is inherently a bad discussion,[fn2] but neither engages with most of our dealings with money. Sure, debt and tithing are relevant, but I spend a lot more of my earning- and spending-money time in situations that involve neither debt nor tithing. Similarly, I’m personally going to have very little impact on whether our economic system is capitalist or socialist or something else. (That’s not to say I can’t engage in that question! It’s just to say that answering that question isn’t my day-to-day relationship with money!)

So let me offer a hot take: neither capitalism nor socialism is the economy of heaven. Capitalism can’t be, because it relies on a selfish, rational natural man, who is, as scripture tells us, the enemy of God. But that’s not to say that a command-and-control economy therefore must be somehow celestial. In fact, there’s no economic system we could currently implement that could replicate celestial economics.

Why not? Because our economic systems necessarily allocate scarce and finite resources. I can’t imagine that, in the next world, resources will be scarce or finite. It should be a post-scarcity economy, something we can imagine, but something we can’t achieve.[fn3]

So our financial system is imperfect, reflecting the imperfect world we live in. That doesn’t give us permission to throw up our hands and abdicate our responsibilities for living economically and financially moral lives.

But we need to figure out what those lives are. See, even if we believe that our current system is too capitalist or too socialist or too third-way or too whatever, it’s the water we swim in. We can work to change it, but until it changes (and even after it changes!) we have to live morally in the system we’re in. And paying our tithing isn’t enough. And paying our taxes isn’t enough. And giving to people on the street isn’t enough. What is enough?

Probably nothing. But earlier this year, the Vatican released an encyclical trying to engage with the idea of a moral financial system. The encyclical fails in many ways, but it succeeds in at least one important way: it represents a real engagement with the idea of morality in economics. It doesn’t try to delegate that responsibility to Capitalism or Socialism. And that’s something we need to do too—it’s not enough to say capitalism has raised more people out of poverty than any other economic system, and it’s not enough to say capitalism exacerbates inequality and magnifies poverty. Both are probably true, but neither helps me live a moral economic life.


[fn1] (though both are myopic at best, and almost certainly wrong: having just spent some time in China, there’s a clear alternative to capitalism and socialism, and frankly, that’s not the only system that’s neither fully capitalist nor fully socialist, so if you’re arguing some kind of binary either-or, I’m already bored with your argument)

[fn2] Though both can end up being kind of lame.

[fn3] Note that even the various attempts that the 19th-century church made at implementing some kind of communitarian economics fails in the same way: there’s something fundamental about scarcity in earthly economic systems, and their big job is to allocate those resources. Capitalism theoretically chooses efficiency as its guiding principal, while socialism theoretically chooses equality. Neither necessarily chooses morality or justice.

Comments

  1. Dante's Shadow says:

    I believe you meant exacerbates instead of exasperates in your second-to-last sentence.

    As far as the morality of an economic system goes… as a financial economist, I believe that any system cannot be “moral” in a world without perfect information. A lack of knowledge of the true value of resources and the actual costs of externalities will make it so a moral or “fair” price or equitable distribution of resources cannot be achieved.

    With perfect information (for all parties) a social planner could equitably allocate resources and others could verify the equity of their allocation. With perfect information (for all parties), market economy there would be a consensus on fair or moral prices for all goods and services.

    With world without scarcity there is no need for the allocation of resources, or the fair pricing of goods. But that negates the need for an economic system in the first place.

    Without perfect information and with scarcity, an economic system’s morality depends on the morality and knowledge of the system’s participants.

  2. Dante’s Shadow, I tend to disagree that we need perfect knowledge to have a moral system; in all sorts of arenas, we implement (hopefully) moral legal systems even in the absence of perfect information. (Moreover, perfect information doesn’t of itself lead to a moral system–we have to make the decision that we want our financial system to be moral.)

    That said, I believe we have a religious and social obligation to act morally, even within a framework that is a- or immoral. And that’s my main point here: whatever the morality (or not) of our financial system, and whatever we want it to be, we have to currently act within it, even with imperfect knowledge. And we need to address the theological (and practical) question of what that means, a question that we tend to elide or avoid.

  3. I love this post, Sam. It reminds me of conversation I had when I was at BYU where I argued capitalism’s commitment to self-interest meant that it was fundamentally incompatible with the gospel, and I was immediately and vociferously accused of supporting soviet-style communism, which of course, I don’t, and hadn’t in that conversation. My point was that I agreed with my friend’s critique of communism, and that a moral economy would be neither that nor capitalist, but based on consecration.

    I think it’s interesting how section 104 deals with the problem of scarcity. It takes a pretty ambitious stance that while resources might be finite, “there is enough and to spare,” suggesting that the scarcity problem we have is one of deciding how to get food into everyone’s hands, not a problem of deciding who gets to eat and who has to starve. Where resources are finite there’s always an allocation problem, but one where there’s enough if it were allocated fairly and one where there just isn’t enough are two different view of the world that I think affects how you think about distribution.

    The other thing section 104 does is that it expressly advocates redistribution: “this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” Now, it doesn’t prescribe the method for redistribution, and we can argue about the best way to do it, but I think it’s interesting that section 104 pretty clearly does not call for something like a rising tide that lifts all boats; it calls for a leveling. (I get frustrated with lessons that quote “but it must needs be done in mine own way,” but then spend the rest of the lesson talking about self-reliance and the evils of welfare. I mean, self-reliance can be prudent, and welfare can be abused, but none of that has much at all to do with “mine own way,” which is, plainly, redistribution).

    In my experience, many members of the church don’t really know what to do with section 104, and just sort of assume it’s a relic of the united firm and not really applicable to us, at least not unless in some future millennial time the church brings back some kind of united order-style communalism (often mistakenly confused with the law of consecration).

  4. Sorry, I posted too soon. I meant to say that I think it’s a mistake to think of the principles of consecration as having been “suspended” until the church brings back communalism. The principles in 104 give pretty specific guidance and warnings to anyone who “partakes of the abundance” of the resources we have that can be applied, at least on an individual basis, in a capitalist system as easily as in a communalist system.

  5. nobody, really says:

    We have a system in place for consecration and communalism. I’ve known people in the past who paid 10% tithing and 40%-60% in fast offerings. They had a modest house, careful investments made over the decades, and they were in a position to “float” all the fast offering needs in the entire ward.

    Amazing how forty years of owning and operating a medical supplies manufacturer can put a person in a position to help hundreds of others. The sad thing was they kept their donations very quiet – the people denouncing them in Elder’s Quorum as selfish capitalist pigs were the same people getting help from them for utilities and rent.

  6. Dante's Shadow says:

    @nobody, really: Wow. Just wow.

    @Sam: agreed.

    I guess I was thinking of a moral economic system as one that ‘gets it right’ all the time. If instead we are talking about a system that can be as fair and equitable as possible, then I think we can have (hopefully) moral economic systems today–but only when the individuals involved are moral themselves. For instance, I can’t think of any economic system that when run by immoral people would still be moral. So in that regard, I think economies are largely amoral.

    “And that’s my main point here: whatever the morality (or not) of our financial system, and whatever we want it to be, we have to currently act within it, even with imperfect knowledge. And we need to address the theological (and practical) question of what that means, a question that we tend to elide or avoid.”

    I like the above quote by Sam, and I like JKC’s as well. Bottom line: How do I spend my time and money in the economy I am in now, and how does that reflect my discipleship of Christ?

  7. Thanks, Dante’s Shadow. I totally agree with that (and it looks like we were closer together than I realized).

    nobody, forgive me if I’m a little skeptical. It is, of course, possible that this happened. But it doesn’t reflect my experience in the church. I can’t imagine, in any ward I’ve ever been in, hearing anybody accuse anyone, much less a fellow ward member, of being a capitalist pig. Even if they were thinking it, a combined Mormon and American reticence to avoid conflict would, I suspect, keep it in the individual’s head. Moreover, there’s an insidious practice in the US of demonizing those who receive aid as lazy, ungrateful, and entitled, and I want to push back against that type of characterization. It rarely, I suspect, reflects reality.

    Of course, your story highlights the potential economic divides we can fact, even among our fellow-Saints, and our lack of a coherent concept of economic morality.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    My take:

    Reflecting the God-given descriptions we have of a future Zion and of past Zion-esque cultures from scripture, I think it is clear we ought to be practicing a form of economic socialism amongst ourselves. It is rather plainly spelled out in all books of scripture. The caveat in that is that we need to do it OF OUR OWN FREE WILL. We need to choose to share/give/receive/consecrate or it means nothing at all.

    And because we need to be free to do it of our own choice, I think it is also abundantly clear that therefore the gov’t system that we need is capitalism. We need the gov’t to leave us to do what we want with out time/energy/resources and then we need to choose to share/consecrate them to our community of Saints.

    As we currently understand/practice those two systems across the globe (socialism/capitalism) neither one fits very well with our theology. The socialists largely want to give everything to the gov’t, while the capitalists are largely too greedy. Really we need both…. Gov’t that guarantees our freedom to enter into a socialistic society among the willing.

  9. Thought-provoking post and comments. They both illustrate the futility of trying to debate the morality of one’s politics regarding economic systems. Whatever system you choose is only as moral as the administrators and the people under it. JKC I agree with you on Section 104. Is it a relic of the united order or a general principle that we’re expected to conform to as best we can in whatever economic system we’re under, that will eventually be returned to explicitly in time? You would think that some very anti-redistribution-of-wealth Church leaders had never read it. But I get that they would say that it has to be practiced voluntary.

  10. First, unrestrained capitalism is unbelievably amoral. If a person can be enslaved, they will be. Laws and rules constrain capitalism to allow people “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If you think of these laws and rules as “socialistic,” then, IMHO, you have a problem. These laws and rules really are constraining on the freedoms of individuals to pursue profit by whatever means.

    It has always been my perception that as an economy expands, some of the expansion should be extended to the most vulnerable. Some of the rules and laws need to allow for a minimum of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for the very least. What that minimum is can certainly be a matter of debate. And how we achieve this minimum quality of life is an economic question.

    In heaven there is no economy, I am pretty sure. I assume there is plenitude in whichever dimension of existence you can determine. There are no servants because it is a place of perfect freedom. No misery because of perfect love. I am pretty sure there are replicators there to supply all our physical wants and needs. In heaven our personal value depends on our internal traits, who we are and who we have become, rather than the external traits of where we are and how much stuff we can command.

    “Star Trek” has many of the characteristics of heaven but with finite individuals.

  11. I think frugality and conservation are critical elements of the discussion of morality wrt money. If abundance characterizes a celestial state, then we’re clearly moving away from that state through waste and rampant consumption, because our resources are indeed limited.

    From a social perspective, this morality comes into play when we produce limited and valuable resources (e.g., oil) cheaply and consume them inefficiently, because even when these resources seem infinite to our generation, they aren’t necessarily to subsequent generations. From a personal perspective, it comes into play in how we choose to spend and consume. For example, money we spend lavishly now is power that we no longer have to prevent suffering or exert influence later.

    I don’t think an economist would want to assign moral values to frugality and conservation, because spending money stimulates an economy, and as the economy grows, wealth actually increases for all participants. But the resource underlying that economy can still be consumed.

    Btw, I consider myself to be a capitalist and a moderate environmentalist, but I do believe that God intends us to be good stewards over everything He entrusts in us. That makes conservation and frugality a moral issue, even if we don’t have bright lines to clearly delineate boundaries.

  12. If we’re going to talk about moral systems, let’s begin by trying to understand the payments to the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). Or providing according to need rather than want or merit (if I can extract one economic principle from scripture, it would be that “according to need”).

    I’m not sure we can get there in anything larger than a small mostly agrarian community. Size really matters, and the lure of capitalism is the invisible hand that seems to scale quite readily. On the other hand, I’m of the opinion that capitalism is the least like a moral system of any that I’ve seen.

  13. Michael H. says:

    When it comes to politics and getting into heated (and generally always pointless) discussions, I’m a raving lefty; but what I really like about your post, Sam, is your emphasis on personal morality. I believe I’m accountable to a certain (relatively eentsy-weentsy) degree for the world, or my country, state, or municipality, but I’m nearly entirely accountable for myself. I believe–and as you at least imply–I will go before the judgment bar of Christ and have to answer for how I handled my resources and stewardships in relation to my brothers and sisters, per DC 104 and reams and reams and reams of other scriptures, and per my own understanding of morality in general, my Jiminy-Cricket conscience, my testimony, the promptings of the Spirit, etc., regardless of how my country’s politicians and their corporate masters molded and gamed the economic system, whether I lived in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, China, Cuba, or wherever. Those politicians and their masters and their preferred systems may make it easier or harder for me, and I think that’s where they’ll be accountable, too, to varying degrees, for my successes and failures in the matter. (See Henry V. I believe Shakespeare gives Williams the better argument–“It will be a black matter for the king””–in Act IV, Scene 1, though he lets the king get in the last word, which he kind of has to.)

    I like nobody really’s reply, too, though I’ve never heard anyone say anything out loud about “selfish capitalist pigs.” I’ve only heard people, very often, say the opposite: “lazy, good-for-nothing poor people.” However, I myself have said “selfish capitalist pigs” in my heart, and while that’s mean and petty, it is arguably a fair description of many Mor– . . . er, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who seem never to have read or heard of Mosiah 4:17-18. But–as nobody really describes–there is invariably that very prosperous but entirely unpretentious couple who secretly go way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty, who regularly contribute thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to the poor in the ward or branch, and secretly make ends meet so that young men and young women can go on their activities. There’s been at least one such couple in every unit I’ve ever been in.

  14. It shouldn’t be too hard to believe that there are very generous, yet quiet individuals living amongst us. Dave Ramsey has been preaching this exact principle for a long time, “live and give like no one else, so you can live and give like no one else.” I like the churches new self reliance courses that teach basic budgeting, work, and learning principles. Basic economics and thrift are lessons we all need to learn if we are to prosper. Don’t forget that we need to work and earn a living.

    Handouts don’t really help build a prosperous society, you only need to look at the debacle that is Social Security to see how giving people money has turned into a bad idea.

  15. Christian, there is a case for providing for wants and not just need, in Mosiah 4, the famous counter against not supporting panhandling chapter. Verse 26: “And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you–that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God–I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.“ But it seems to point to individual not institutional responsibility.

  16. Kind of a King Mosiah slant on Carl Marx’s maxim “ from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. “

  17. Mark L, the thing is, it’s not at all clear to me that the moral move is to create a “prosperous society” (at least, if that means the society that operates efficiently to create the most wealth possible). Like I said in the OP, the creation of the most wealth doesn’t have any inherent relationship to the allocation of those resources.

    And, entirely tangential to the post, I’d probably avoid using social security as an example of how handouts are a bad thing, because (a) social security isn’t handouts, and (b) it’s been an enormously huge success, almost the polar opposite of a debacle.

  18. Michael H. says:

    Thanks for your just-above comment there, Sam. Right on point. And, though it’s a staggered, generations-removed sort of investment, Social Security doesn’t have a fraction of the overhead of private investment.

  19. Geoff - Aus says:

    This is a subject where your political prejudices can get in the way of facts very quickly. I think a moral system would create enough wealth for all and distribute it as evenly as possible. Then is the question of wealth or income, because wealth can just mean real estate is expensive.
    Conservative governments tend to make the rich richer and reduce services to the poor, but to different degrees. The US is one of the most capitalist countries, is in top 10 for gdp per person, and but has the poorest distribution.
    A list of countries by median wealth per adult, has much of Europe ,Australia, and Canada ahead of America. The gini index for most of the higher countries is in the low 60s compared to Americas 80+. Comparing minimum wages is similar most around $18 compared to America.
    I personally vote for the party attempting to provide more equal distribution of wealth. What many refuse to recognise is the wealthy, and higher income get handouts, that cost the economy more than supporting the lower income does. How much does Trumps business tax cuts cost, compared to unemployment benifits?

  20. “Both are probably true, but neither helps me live a moral economic life.”

    True, but understanding the good and bad about the system you have to live within can help you make the best possible decisions. Too many people are so hopelessly dependent on our existing systems that they’re unable to even consider other ways. Consequently, opinions that differ from how they see things are met with suspicion and even hostility.

    “having just spent some time in China, there’s a clear alternative to capitalism and socialism”

    Yeah, there’s a lot you can do when you don’t actually care about people.

  21. nobody, really says:

    I will grant that I never heard the phrase “capitalist pig” about this elderly couple, but I did hear “filthy rich” and “selfish” and “no poor among them”. Since the guy had done medical sales, I don’t think he owned a suit that ran less than a grand. He also drove a really nice car, but when you reach 6’8″ or so, there are a limited number of cars with enough room to be comfortable.

    And as far a Social Security being such a success? We have multiple people in my ward who think “disability” is a career goal. There are two sides to it – one where you work for decades and get a small return on the 15% or so that you put into it, and another side where able-bodied people won’t look for or accept work because they risk losing benefits if they earn over $2200 per year.

  22. I’ve found one of the hardest thing to overcome is that, though there are people “gaming the system”, there are far more people who are involuntarily dependent on both the government and charity to survive. I live in fear of the day that my chronic condition will become enough that I’m no longer able to work. To me, this is where “the love of many shall wax cold”. We see so many “taking advantage” that we decide it’s better for “a few” to starve than let these “undeserving poor” take what they don’t deserve.

  23. This is like tossing a rock into the ocean, but here goes. There are of course more economic systems than capitalism and socialism (a term that can describe everything from the Soviet Union to Denmark to the local library), but let me address briefly the dichotomy most conservatives prefer. Socialism (meaning communism) and capitalism (American-style) may be opposites in many ways, but they are also both authoritarian systems in which capital is owned and controlled by a small group of powerful individuals. This means that most people are also owned and controlled by that same small group. As such, capitalism (as practiced today) is incompatible with American political and social ideals. If we were serious about applying our political values to economics, we would insist on turning most of these authoritarian businesses into some form of worker-owned cooperatives. Worker ownership is the only form of business that recognizes the values and goals of our political system. Instead, we have the tail wagging the dog; wealthy authoritarian businesses are exerting undue influence on our political system and our politicians. And the GOP is all in favor of increasing that influence. Consequently, we have a government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation.

  24. The problems the left assigns to capitalism (greed, envy, selfishness) are not characteristics of capitalism, but rather human nature. The chief virtue of capitalism, is that in order to fulfill your own desires you have to serve others who can choose not to do business with you. Everyone is better off when they have to freedom to choose which products and services to use.

    It is always morally wrong to take other people’s money! Mob rule is never about justice.

  25. Geoff - Aus says:

    Many mormons vote on what they see as moral issues, like abortion, and gay marriage, neither of which is likely to change, these should be balanced against 20 million people living in poverty.
    There are countries where people have sufficient love/trust that they agree to pay higher taxes to help their fellow citizens who are struggling. A much more Zion like society. There are countries where your tax is itimised ie, 3% defence, 5% police, 20% education, so during an election the politicians can say we intend increasing the age pension to x so will increase spending on social security by 1%. This way you agree to have your money spent for you, and feel a sense of community.

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