Friday, March 29, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, part 2

In my previous post in this series I outlined some of the 19th Century efforts by early Mormons to live the law of consecration. I also stated that I was somewhat dissatisfied with the stock explanation that all of these efforts failed due to the sins of greed and laziness.

A relatively well known story from the Orderville communal experiment will help illustrate part of the reason for my conundrum. Almost a decade and a half ago Henry B. Eyring, then a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric mentioned this story in a general conference talk.

Bishop Eyring confirmed that Orderville residents were poor, but he felt that their relative poverty was actually a blessing that fostered gratitude. When a mining boom improved the economy in surrounding communities, some residents of Orderville started to feel deprived. Bishop Eyring explains:
One ingenious boy acted on the discontent he felt when he was denied a new pair of pants from the Orderville factory because his were not worn out yet. He secretly gathered the docked lambs’ tails from the spring crop. He sheared the wool from them and stored it in sacks. Then, when he was sent with a load of wool to sell in Nephi, he took his sacks along and exchanged them for a pair of store pants. He created a sensation when he wore the new-style pants to the next dance.
The president of the order asked him what he had done. The boy gave an honest answer. So they called him into a meeting and told him to bring the pants. They commended him for his initiative, pointed out that the pants really belonged to the order, and took them. But they told him this: the pants would be taken apart, used as a pattern, and henceforth Orderville pants would have the new store-bought style. And he would get the first pair.
That did not quite end the pants rebellion. Orders for new pants soon swamped the tailoring department. When the orders were denied because pants weren’t yet worn out, boys began slipping into the shed where the grinding wheel was housed. Soon, pants began to wear out quickly. The elders gave in, sent a load of wool out to trade for cloth, and the new-style pants were produced for everyone.
So, what we have here is one greedy boy that inspired other greedy boys to upset the tranquility of the commune-ity, right?

It might help to point out that a relative of the boy later explained that the rapidly growing teen had gotten too big for the pants he had. But he didn't qualify to get a new pair of regular pants from the order because his pants were not yet worn out.

Given the way sheep operations of that era functioned, the lamb tails collected by the boy were likely considered worthless garbage. It took too much effort to make much use of them. But this enterprising boy saw the tails as something useful, even if his elders didn't. He put a fair amount of labor into sheering the tails so that he could trade the wool for a pair of pants that fit him.

Calling this greed doesn't seem quite right to me. In fact, I'd love to teach my children to be this enterprising. The boy used his free time to take something that seemed worthless to others (discarded lamb tails) and turn it into something of value (new pants). Think of that. Instead of whining to his parents to buy him clothes he actually needed (albeit in a style he wanted), he earned the clothes through hard work. If this is greed, we need a lot more of it in our society.

Of course, under the communal system, not only did the trash belong to the commune, the boy's labor, which he could have used for leisure instead, also belonged to the commune. The collectivist ideology raised the perceived good of the community and complete equality among its members to overriding virtues. Nothing belonged to the individual. The system called for sameness in everything: food, housing, clothing, labor time, leisure, etc, to ensure equality.

In the communal system the enterprising boy was in the unenviable position of having stolen his leisure time from the collective and having misused it for labor. Thus, it was ruled that the pants, which had been bought with the communal properties of trash and the boy's free time, belonged to the commune and not to the boy.

Heaven knows we wouldn't want kids using their leisure time for self directed productive labor. They might form gangs that go around mowing people's lawns or cleaning their windows FOR PAY! And that might lead to the gross sin of inequality.

While the boy was rewarded with the first pair of the new style of pants manufactured by the order, he was punished for his ingenuity, industry, and initiative. The mixed punishment/reward given to the boy did not foster more productive ingenuity among his peers. Rather, they ended up employing destructive ingenuity to get what they wanted from the collective.

When I lived in Norway years ago, I was stunned by the level of vandalism of public property in that society. Personal property was held inviolate (although that is no longer the case). The number of people that felt like they were owed something amazed me. They had no problem turning to destructive means to express their frustrations when the collective failed to provide for their (sometimes rather esoteric) wants.

The stifling of productive ingenuity and the promotion of the learned helplessness of dependence are among the problems endemic in all collectivist systems. F.A. Hayek noted that a few of these drawbacks can be somewhat overcome by truly converted participants that are willing to make unusual sacrifices, but the system remains flawed by nature. Killing off individuality unfortunately means killing off ingenuity and industry.

Besides, trouble soon arises in these systems as soon as a new generation comes along that has not personally bought into the system. Some start 'causing problems' by being more industrious than their neighbors and thinking outside of the box created by the central planning apparatus.

19th Century Mormon collectivist systems failed because they failed to harness the power of the human spirit. Communal systems mainly looked at humans as glorified beasts of burden. Not only did these systems fail to take adequate advantage of the great resource of human ingenuity, they actively squelched it..

In my next post I will delve further into how and why 19th Century Mormon collectivist orders failed and why they would still fail if attempted today. I will discuss why I believe that these systems inadequately implemented the law of consecration.

1 comment:

Michaela Stephens said...

It seems to me that the Orderville system was flawed if it didn't recognize the fundamental necessity of a new pair of pants when one grows out of them.
Also that it seems it didn't have a handle on the principle of stewardship.

I notice a number of ways that the community could have done better.
#1 The community could have recognized that the storebought goods would be competition. This is the very root of the problem--the community was not prepared to deal with competition.
#2 The community needs people that are able to find opportunities where none were perceived before. Because the boy was able to find an opportunity using lamb's tails, he was creating a stewardship for himself where none existed before. He should have been put in charge of lamb's tails for the future.
#3 If the community wanted the pattern for the pants, I think they should have paid the boy for the pants instead of taking it away from him. But better still, they should have just bought their own pair from the store instead.

Perhaps we need more stories like this. We might learn more about what we should do if we can see exactly where we went wrong.