Political Economy and the BOM

On July 13, over at By Common Consent Taryn Nelson-Seawright posted about the nature of economic and political liberalism and leftism amongst Mormons. The post and the related 127 comments can be found here.

I am not going to comment directly on the post, though I agree with much of its sentiment and the author’s frustrations. The comment stream seemed to focus on whether the Book of Mormon supports socialism or not. This is my concern.

The Book of Mormon does not support socialism. It also does not support capitalism. I say this because the civilizations discussed in the Book of Mormon are primitive societies where the modern/contemporary theories of socialism and/or capitalism would be completely foreign.

However, I do think that the Book of Mormon can be useful in gleaning principles of political economy that should or could be useful to us today. I argue this from a perspective of social justice which is more concerned about principles of justice rather than specific forms or institution of politics and economics.

What are the principles of just political economy found in the Book of Mormon?

Equality: Jacob 2:17 exhorts us to think “of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.” I take the idea of making our brethren as rich as we are as being a strong call for a type of equality that would require redistribution of the wealth beyond tithes and fast offerings. This verse also introduces the philosophical idea of reciprocity.

Human Dignity: Alma 1:30 supports the concept of universal respect for the human dignity of all human beings. It also teaches that such a respect requires caring for the poor.

Popular Sovereignty: Mosiah 29 includes the beautiful introduction of representative democracy to the Nephites. It includes a hopeful disposition towards the ability of the people to govern (verse 26). It also provides a well reasoned argument against monarchy (made by a king no less) which stands along side with similar arguments made by the likes of Thomas Paine.

Social Unity: 4 Nephi provides the ideal of Zion in clear form. Here we see the principles of equality and a respect for human dignity in perfect form.

There is obviously more to say about each of these principles and there is surely more principles that could be outlined.

The key in evaluating political economy today is not whether it is liberal or socialist, libertarian or conservative, but whether it lives up to such principles. The United States surely does not.

13 Replies to “Political Economy and the BOM”

  1. Chris, I think your summary of the economic principles that the Book of Mormon endorses is quite useful. But the quick point that I’d make is that the set of four principles you’ve outlined also makes for a fairly decent definition of pre-Marxist Christian socialism.

  2. RT,

    While it does resemble non-Marxist socialism (I am not particularly familiar with “pre-Marxist Christian socialism”), these principles are also consistent with most contemporary liberal theories. The key being that liberalism does not put a heavy emphasis on the privatization of key industries (though not all liberal theories are opposed to government control of certain industries). These BOM principles do not demand public ownership though they, like liberal egalitarianism, do not strictly prohibit it either. One thing that I think separates these principles and early Christian populist socialism and early “United Order” thought is that communalism is not required. I personally think that too many place an emphasis on this communalism rather than on the basic principles.


    The redistribution of wealth does not require some form of socialism. You never attended my Rawls lectures. All modern economic systems contain some form of economic redistribution. This could take place via a welfare state or some other form of income transfer which would not necessarily constitute socialism (or at least it would not be to a socialist). Granted, my form of liberalism would be viewed as “socialist” by the average person with the Mormon community. Also, liberal egalitarianism is closer to socialism (in the non-Marxist sense), than it is to libertarian versions of liberal thought.

    I hope that this is not too boring for everyone.

  3. Chris, you seem to be placing a lot of weight on a distinction between socialism and liberalism that may not bear up at the margins. Some socialists consider the prioritization of equality the defining trait of socialism; in that case, what we’re left with is a debate among socialisms, and your version of Rawlsian liberalism may end up as one flavor of socialism according to such a definition.

    For instance, consider the United Order. Yes, those institutions used market forces for regulating prices and trade outside the community. And, yes, those institutions featured private ownership of capital. But, at the same time, the United Order featured community control of capital investment. Finally, enough redistribution is ensured to maintain a general pattern of equality. We might call this package a “socal market economy,” “socialism,” “economic democracy,” “egalitarian liberalism,” or a range of other titles. None of those titles is inappropriate; what we need to do is simply reinforce the fact that Mormon tradition emphasizes somewhat different variants of these institutional packages and economic values than other traditions.

  4. RT,

    I agree that these distinctions may not matter that much in the real world. However they do to me. Socialists do not have a sole claim to equality. Especially after Rawls. I tend to agree with Will Kymlicka that most socialists (Gerald Cohen would be an example) are now liberal egalitarians. I guess it is a matter of perspective.

    we need to do is simply reinforce the fact that Mormon tradition emphasizes somewhat different variants of these institutional packages and economic values than other traditions.

    I guess in many ways I view the world more as a Rawlsian than as a Mormon. In many ways I feel that Mormons have just about destroyed the “Mormon tradition.” I am not sure if I even understand what I am trying to say. In so many ways Mormons (at least as a cultural group) are the enemies of economic and political equality.

    What does it mean to “not bear up at the margins”?

    BTW, I just figured out that you are Taryn Nelson-Seawright’s hubby. (Of course, correct me if I am wrong).

    If you think this is incoherent and unorganized, imagine how my students feel during lectures.

  5. Chris,

    If socialism is defined as prioritizing equality, then socialists do indeed have sole claim to equality–since everyone who prioritizes equality is a socialist, whether they realize it or not. My point here is that the argument about whether the Book of Mormon represents socialism or not really revolves around contested definitions, not the substance of the book’s argument. I’m not, of course, suggesting that your argument is incoherent or unorganized–just that people with different definitions might find it somewhat unhelpful.

    When communicating with people who aren’t familiar with current political and economic philosophy, it seems that “socialism” may be a label that communicates more effectively than “liberalism”–which suggests to some listeners “partisans of the U.S. Democratic party” and to others “advocates of laissez-faire capitalism.”

    With respect to the “bear up at the margins” phrase, the point is that some self-identified socialists and some self-identified liberals may hold beliefs such that they cross your dividing line and end up in the wrong category.

  6. With all my heart I believe that if men were Gods, already perfected in love and unselfishness, then every man and woman would be equal in material possessions and wealth. Further, this equality would be the result of completely voluntary giving and sharing.

    At the same time, because men are not yet perfected in love and unselfishness, and because it is pretty obvious that some men never will be, there can be no equality of material possessions among men unless they are forced to give and share involuntarily by some outside force such as laws backed up by government power.

    Any form of socialism, which is the involuntary redistribution of wealth, is evil, in my opinion. I feel exactly as Ezra Taft Benson did about socialism. I believe that God feels exactly the same way that Ezra Taft Benson did about socialism. Forced charity, giving and sharing is not loving and unselfish. It is tyranny. It is bondage. And it offends God for men to be put into bondage by other men.

    But from the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, it is clear to me that all men should share so generously with the poor that they are just as rich as those who are doing the sharing. Of course, we should also have the faith to move mountains, heal the sick, raise the dead, and repent so perfectly of all our sins that there is always perfect harmony and love in our homes at all times, something that would require a miracle comparable to the more dramatic miracles mentioned.

    We should not love our stuff more than our neighbors, and yet nearly all of us do. This is even more true of those who grew up in contemporary American culture than among those brought up in most other cultures. We are idolaters because we worship our stuff more than we worship God.

    Of course, I know a lot of wealthy Mormons who are very unselfish and generous. However, I have yet to see one of them who gives the widow’s mite in his generosity. At best they just toss a nickle here and there to those for whom a nickle means a great deal more for want of pennies. I myself have been very generous with the poor by means of the fast offering fund. But, I cannot brag. I have been far more generous with myself than I ever have been with my neighbor. And that seems to be pretty common among the “righteous” saints who somehow manage to always be a lot richer than their neighbors.

  7. HP: “I’m confused. How does redistribution of wealth not equate to some form of socialism?”

    The critical difference between the BofM model and socialism is that in Zion the redistribution of wealth is motivated by an abiding love between all the members of the Zion society. Socialism is not based on everyone being of one heart and one mind. Conflating the two seems to miss the central point of Zion. What am I missing?

  8. I’m with HP on this. Perhaps it’s best to say that there are “good” forms of socialism (ala your description of Zion), and “bad” forms of socialism (ala the kind that is forced upon people). Freedom (or a lack thereof) seems to be the crux.

  9. I believe that the modern distinction between Church and State, even when combined into the same institution is a fundamental one. Church is all about persuasion, and long suffering, and charity, service, sacrifice, and love unfeigned. The State is a backup for the Church – to handle the most basic principles of law and order when religion fails.

    The Church is essentially voluntary in nature. The State is essentially coercive in nature. Now I believe that it is the will of God to minimize the State. However, as long as their are wicked people, internal and external threats to basic civil order, coercion will always be necessary as a last resort.

    This sort of coercion – which is the police power and the military power, is righteous and just when exercised correctly. In fact I believe it is a priesthood responsibility in times of exigency or emergency, or in a full blown theocracy.

    However, coercion is definitely not supposed to be business as usual, the way to celestial equality is ultimately to change the culture, not the government. Some laws and regulations stand in the way, but if the culture changes, those minor laws will follow.

    Large scale redistribution of wealth at the point of the sword, on an ongoing basis, other than in a famine, etc., to me is a perfect example of Satan’s plan.

    The gospel doctrine of property is not as a natural right, it is as a stewardship – every citizen and Saint needs to understand that principle – that their property is not strictly theirs, it is a blessing to be used first to satisfy ones own basic needs and wants, according to the principle of individual self-stewardship, and then to be shared with or at least managed for the benefit of others, loving them as thyself.

    No amount of state action, guns, and swords, and sheriffs, is going to being that sort of society about. It requires the preaching of the word unto a change of heart.

    Now we may despair at the current inequities and wonder how than can ever be fixed without state action. I say, do our duty as missionaries, saints, and citizens and let God worry about that. The scriptures indicate that just prior to the millennial era he is going to turn things upside down in a big way, eventually leading to exactly the sort of justice we want.

    I have a few ideas about reform of our current social and economic institutions that require (or would greatly benefit from) a change in the laws as well as a change in the culture, but I am afraid they are so radical they have no present chance of passage. They hardly correspond to the typical socialist mode, however.

  10. If the word “socialism” is used to refer to any system where there is redistribution of wealth, then we are just disagreeing about a tautology, which is rather uninteresting. If that is the case, please forgive me for speaking up before understanding the point under debate.

    Over at the BCC thread referenced by this post, no one really bothered to agree on a definition of socialism before arguing about it (in fact the discussion quickly veered elsewhere anyway). The same may be true here, or it could be you all know what you mean by “socialism” and it is only me that doesn’t. If that is the case, I apologize.

    Chris H’s response to HP pointed out that redistribution of wealth can be accomplished by various mechanisms, not all of which require a form of socialism. I think I agree, but I am not sure. What does “socialism” mean in the sentence above? Does it refer to a lack of private ownership, or the existence of central planning for the redistribution, or something else?

    To me the “why” of the redistribution is as important a distinction as the “how” of the redistribution, but both are relevant.

  11. John W. Redelfs:

    “I believe that God feels exactly the same way that Ezra Taft Benson did about socialism. Forced charity, giving and sharing is not loving and unselfish. It is tyranny. It is bondage. And it offends God for men to be put into bondage by other men.”

    I could not disagree more. Poverty is far greater threat to freedom than Sweden. Comparing heavy taxation to slavery is ridiculous. As for ETB, he was talking about Soviet-style Marxism and at the same time attacking the Great Society. He was right on the Soviets. He views on American politics were nothing short of scary and wrong.


    “Socialism is not based on everyone being of one heart and one mind.”

    True. Yet, leftist thought, whether we want to call it liberalism or socialism, includes some sort of universal respect for others. This may not be love or charity, though love and charity may be beyond the scope of politics and economics.

    David J:

    Yes, there are good forms and bad forms of socialism. The same applies to concepts such as liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, or even Christianity. That is why I emphasize good or just principles rather than specific types of institutions.

    Mark Butler:

    “I say, do our duty as missionaries, saints, and citizens and let God worry about that.”

    THIS OUR DUTY. Check out D&C section 134:1.

    Your distinction between ways of the church and ways of the state is important. The extent to which the Church relies solely on persuasion is sometimes in doubt.

    Everyone else:

    The distinctions between socialism and liberalism and whether there really is one has been a sticking point. I do not have room of space to provide what is hours of lecture on the topic. I think that is why this is only one of my few posts.


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