Mormonism and Capitalism

Yesterday I submitted a post comparing and contrasting Communism with Mormonism.  Today I’d like to do the same with Capitalism.   In doing so, I attempt to explore where it is Mormons might stand between these two opposite poles of the political and economic landscape.  Capitalism is easier for most Mormons to sympathize with, because it happens to be the most successful and transformative economic system in human history, and naturally, we want to be associated with winners.  Communism of course, is a big loser, and it’s easy to hate.

Capitalism is More of a Science than an Ideology

Ironically, it’s harder to compare Capitalism to Mormonism because, unlike
 Communism, Capitalism is not so much an ideology as a set of scientific
 principles used to analyze economic behavior when individuals are 
given autonomy.  There are no articles of faith, no 
beliefs to enforce or encourage, nor is there any ultimate vision or
 utopian goal.

  But the fact that Capitalism is an expression of scientific 
truth is the number one reason why Mormons, as truth collectors, 
should embrace and accept it’s reality, just as we should accept all demonstrable 
science.  Just because the science of capitalism expresses truths about some of the more base and competitive instincts of mankind doesn’t mean we should ignore those instincts.

Capitalism demands certain basic parameters and conditions in 
order to operate effectively; and these parameters are very consistent
 with many of the basic beliefs of Mormons: individual freedom, and 
basic security from crime, war, or government interference, like
 excessive taxation and regulation.  These same values are highly 
regarded in The Book of Mormon, where the 50% tax of the Lamanites was 
viewed as a burden almost equal to slavery.

But freedom and security are just the parameters necessary for 
Capitalism to flourish.  The fundamental law that powers capitalism is
 called “the profit motive.”  It states that humans are most 
highly motivated by their own self-interest, and self-interest is 
the most powerful motivator for economic growth and prosperity.  The
 profit motive works in harmony with competition among individuals or 
groups for economic resources and dominion.

The Problem of Self-Interest

Hugh Nibley argued that Mormonism is incompatible with Capitalism because of these “natural,” profit motivated instincts.  The Book of Mormon says that the “natural man is an enemy to God.”  Christ invites us to become saints, reject self-interest in favor of selflessness and charity, and reject competition for unity in 
the body of Christ.

  However, it’s important to note that The Book of Mormon also continually appeals 
to our own selfish interest:  “If you keep my commandments, you shall
prosper in the land…if you do not, you shall be cut off from my
presence.”  Brigham Young claimed that everything he had ever done in 
the church, he had done for his own self-interest:

“What object have I in saying to the Latter-day Saints, do this, that or the other? It is for my own benefit, it is for your benefit; it is for my own wealth and happiness, and for your wealth and happiness that we pay tithing and render obedience to any requirement of Heaven.  We can not add anything to the Lord by doing these things.”

It might be said that our self-interest, while an understandable motivation, is not the highest and noblest of human instincts, and that it should eventually be replaced with pure, unselfish love.  But as we live in a fallen world, God and has prophets have continually appealed to our self interest to motivate us, and thus Capitalism is no great evil, but simply a pragmatic solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

The Problem of Competition

The principle of competition is more problematic.  It produces winners
 and losers.  The strong thrive and the weak flounder.  While 
weaknesses and strengths are sometimes the result of individual choice 
and merit, more often they are distributed among people by virtue of 
their birth: through DNA, monetary, educational, or upbringing 
advantages.  Through competition, Capitalism often becomes an unequal form
 of government, where the poor, lesser educated, and the less astute tend to get poorer, while the smart, educated, and rich tend to get richer.  These gaps grow over time when capitalism is left unfettered.

Proponents of pure capitalism argue that this is the natural order of
things.  This idea is called “Social Darwinism,” because it mimics the theory of evolution, wherein strong species thrive, and weaker ones
 become extinct.  This theory was popular in intellectual circles 
around the turn of the century, and many of the horrors of the
 Industrial Revolution were rationalized by this idea.  While thousands
 were dying in poverty and terrible working conditions, the rich were 
creating an unprecedented amount of money and power.  People like
 Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan built America into the great world
 civilization it is today, but they did it at extraordinary cost in 
terms of cheap, expendable human labor of those too weak to become
 like them within the capitalist system.  I can think of nothing 
compatible in Mormon doctrine with this kind of ruthless competition.

Bridling our Passions: Regulated Capitalism

However, this kind of pure Capitalism is not what is practiced today.
 While Communism was overthrowing Imperialism in Russia in the early
 part of the 20th Century, in the US, the excesses of Capitalism were
 creating a backlash as well.  This led to a rise in government
regulation that control capitalist phenomenon like monopolies, and the rise of
workers rights and labor unions.  Two world wars, and a depression led
 to a reawakening of religious values, over the secular ideas of Social
 Darwinism.  Thus what we have in the US today, is a capitalism 
bridled by government regulation, with some basic social safety nets put in place for those who fall behind in the Capitalist race, and a highly religious populace, that moderates through charitable giving.  This mixture of socialism, religion, and
 capitalism has led to the rise of the middle class, wherein a much 
greater percentage of the populace enjoys prosperity, education,
homeownership, and opportunity.  It has been the most remarkable and
successful form of economy in the history of the world.

This bridled form of Capitalism fits well within Mormon doctrine.  The 
Book of Mormon teaches us that we should “bridle our passions.”  We
 don’t deny that we have passions and instincts, rather we bridle them 
through obedience to basic laws and commandments. Likewise, we don’t
 deny that Capitalism is the true and natural expression of human 
passion and instinct.  But instead of squashing that instinct, we 
bridle it through appropriate government regulation and religious 
commitment.

  I think that what Mormons should find most compelling about
 Capitalism, is that it expresses basic truths about human nature.  As 
Mormons, we are to collect all truth, whatever the source.  And 
inasmuch as Capitalism expresses a fundamental truth about human
 nature, it should be something we embrace and come to understand and
 appreciate.  God made us human.  He made us Capitalists.  That is our 
nature.  But he also gave us laws and commandments so we wouldn’t 
become like the children of Lord of the Flies.

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One Response to Mormonism and Capitalism

  1. I agree with your post. I love the expression “A Bridled form of Capitalism”.

    “what we have in the US today, is a capitalism bridled by government regulation, with some basic social safety nets put in place for those who fall behind in the Capitalist race, and a highly religious populace, that moderates through charitable giving.”
    This is an accurate description of our mixed economy.

    Here are some of my thoughts on a similar theme.
    Free Will Offering vs Charity from Tax

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