Monday, April 01, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, Part 3

I admitted in the first two parts of this series that I had problems with the way early Mormons attempted to implement the law of consecration. In part 2 I discussed the Orderville pants rebellion to outline why communal systems fail.

But not all LDS attempts at living the law of consecration were essentially communal in nature. The other main model employed was the stewardship system. Each person was to consecrate their property to the bishop. The bishop would then grant them a stewardship equivalent to what was felt to be adequate to meet the person's needs and righteous wants. The steward held title to these properties and was accountable to the bishop for his stewardship. He was able to enjoy the proceeds of his productive work.

Most participants received the properties they had consecrated back as a stewardship. The system was designed to put the excess contributions of the wealthy at the bishop's disposal to bolster the stewardships of those that had too little to sustain themselves.

Unlike the communal system, differences in holdings were entirely acceptable, based on individual needs, skills, and righteous wants. The system sought to reduce the freeloading and lack of initiative inherent in communal systems.

However, the stewardship system still proved unworkable. Mormon writer Orson Scott Card explains why in this article.
"First, it supposes a freeholder economy — either you farm, in which case you receive your land, tools, and seed from the bishop; or you practice a trade or keep a shop, in which case you receive building, tools, and inventory from the bishop.
"Second, while the Church could organize or fund projects that everyone knows are needed — roads, irrigation, hospitals, infrastructure repairs — there are projects highly unsuitable for local bishops or the Church as a whole to decide on.
"Third, there is no place in Joseph Smith’s freeholder economy for people who work in sales, in management, or as employees on an assembly line. Nor is there a place for artists or entrepreneurs.
"Artists don’t work well here, and not just because excellence requires hard practice to such an extent that you cannot possibly support yourself in a day job.
"The problem with artists and entrepreneurs is that bishops, by the nature of the office, are singularly ill-suited to identifying and investing in either.
"A bishop in Joseph Smith’s system has a sacred trust. He must dispose of the community’s surpluses with as little risk as possible.
"And what does the bishop do when somebody comes to him with a project that sounds risky? How can he lay the widow’s mite on the line for a startup project?
"Entrepreneurship is horribly risky, and yet no progress is made without it."
In short, the freeholder economy is simply too limited to address the complexities of real life. Scott also notes that central planning is incapable of magnifying the capacities of human ingenuity, which I believe to be the greatest natural resource in existence. This deficiency isn't just because the bishop was a back country merchant. It would still be the case if the central planners constituted a group of the world's smartest people, due to the nature of the system.

As for the sameness enforced in communal systems like Orderville, Scott says, "Sameness is not fairness. In fact, relentless sameness is torment. It’s as good a definition of hell as I can think of." He provides some real world examples of the need for variety and the unfairness of enforced sameness.

But how do you develop a system of consecration that fosters the maximization of human ingenuity for the enhancement of self sufficiency and for the benefit of others that doesn't involve communal or central planning systems?

Blasting the never ending Utopian abhorrence of money, Scott asserts that "money is not evil." In effect, "it counts as a vote. ... It allows large groups of people to make decisions together without actually having to hold a meeting or an election." With money, the "bishop doesn’t have to decide whether a project is worth the risk, or whether a particular artist’s work has value. Instead, individual people vote with their money."

The laws of economics exist and are as inviolable as the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics. This does not stop people from attempting to devise systems and policies that ignore economic laws. It happens everyday when opportunists seek to exploit the people's general ignorance of economic laws.

"But" Scott asks, "can money really coexist with the Law of Consecration?" He answers, "Obviously it can — because the Saints are living that law, and we live in a money economy."

At the end of his article Scott addresses the crux of why early Mormon attempts at living the law of consecration failed. These experiments, he says, "crashed against that reef of choice. They didn’t fail because the people were sinful. They failed because they didn’t allow sufficiently for God-given agency."

Given that these experiments sought to violate economic law, Scott's conclusion resonates much better with me than the stock explanation of human sinfulness. The simple fact is that mortals will always be imperfect. They will always be sinful. In fact, the whole message of Christianity is that the Atonement of Christ can compensate for the eternal effects of the sinfulness that impacts all humans.

Earthly economic systems that require perfect people are destined to fail. Mormon doctrine teaches that God usually functions within the scope of natural laws. Since early Mormon Utopian economic experiments violated natural economic laws and/or required perfect people, they could not have succeeded. Nor would they succeed if attempted today. The problem didn't lie with the people. Fundamental elements of the systems were flawed.

I believe this conclusion can be reached without denying the prophetic calling of those that promoted these systems in good faith. They were the first to admit their humanness and fallibility. It may also be true that God had goals other than economic success in mind when these systems were attempted.

In the next part of this series I will explore what the law of consecration really means. This will necessarily require separating the doctrine from early attempts to live the law.

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