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.