Sunday, February 12, 2012

None Dare Call it Babylon

   The following is an expansion of and editing of some prior remarks of my own regarding a thread (or two, or a hundred) at the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board on the subject of socialism and its relation (or lack thereof) to the future United Order as understood in the scriptures and modern revelations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 
   A recent thread at the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board (the discussion board of FAIR (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research)), by LDS scholar David Bokovoy, which ran to some 35 pages, set off a firestorm of debate over a subject of longstanding controversy between the overwhelming bulk of the active LDS population, and a tertiary element of its intellectual community that has apparently been gaining traction in recent years and which has lit up popular message boards in the LDS world for sometime now. The idea, dating at least back to the work of eminent LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, is that the United Order and its doctrinal basis, the Law of Consecration, are, in effect, a refined or purer form of egalitarian socialism and a vindication of much collectivist theory that has not worked, it is claimed, because, heretofore, human beings were not advanced and spiritual enough to make them viable.

   Against a truly substantial weight of evidence from LDS scripture and General Authority teachings spanning well over a century, this segment of LDS intelligentsia insists that the United Order will feature, and cannot be considered a true united order without, the abolition of private property and the abolition of a free market, "capitalist" economic system by the realization of equality of condition through redistribution of wealth. For these LDS intellectuals, it would seem that the gospel of Christ is the divine basis of socialist social and economic practice (and a number of such individuals like to use the euphemistic term "communitarian" to avoid the unsavory terms "socialism" and "communism" which, unarguably, have been permanently and irrevocably discredited by history).

   This idea has a long pedigree, but most LDS will find the idea that private property, personal wealth acquisition, individual stewardship over personal temporal matters, competitive economic disciplines and incentives, and economic free agency (a form of free agency in no substantive sense different from our free agency in other areas) are inherently incompatible with a full and valiant living of the restored gospel to be, at the very least, a shot in the dark.

   As no body of General Authority teaching or counsel exists in support of these propositions, and as prominent Church leaders (in officially published Church materials), have unanimously condemned "communitarian", socialist, or communist interpretations of the United Order as well outside the perimeters of the United Order's intent and structure, the origin and vehement clinging to this position begs us ask for an alternative genesis of this interpretation.

   The romantic infatuation of many western intellectuals with collectivism and grand utopian schemes of social regeneration and transformation are well known and attested in the literary and political history of the west, with an especial intensity and ferocity during the last century, and have left a black mark upon the world, it should be said, for which no conceivable excuses could ever be forthcoming as to collectivism's continuing hold on the imaginations of much of the west's intellectual classes.

   That this has bled from "Babylon" into the Lord's church will strike many practicing LDS as not only odd but bizarre. What people, and especially a people so given to and with such a deep appreciation for education, intelligence and liberty, both as Americans and as people seeking that truth that will set us free in an ultimate sense, could be drawn to either the human mediocrity or the flaxen corded security of equally distributed and apportioned serfdom that is at the crux of the kinds of society's collectivist egalitarianism actually creates in practice?

   Others will find the idea that an eminent heart surgeon like Russel M. Nelson, should receive the same remuneration for his services as a bus boy in a restaurant, especially given the vast difference in skill, preparation and the stakes involved if one does not perform adequately. Equally odd will seem the implication that Latter Day Saints are saved as a community, not as individuals within a community; that only in an egalitarian, socialistic society can a people be prepared to receive Jesus Christ at his Second Coming. This oddness will obtain, among other reasons, because of the quite salient fact that innumerable children of our Father in Heaven have, in point of fact, been saved, sanctified, and exalted, upon the principles of the gospel, without having ever lived in any such society under anything approaching such economic and social delimitations.

   Another oddity is that the idea that the accumulation of personal wealth very much beyond some point of basic subsistence is inherently evil puts many of our past and present General Authorities and church Presidents beyond the pall of moral and spiritual legitimacy by definition. But, for a mentality that goes so far as to perceive any private ownership of material things whatever as inherently wicked, this may be simply a kind of philosophical collateral damage, something we may have to accept to get to our "better world".

   What may really disturb intellectually serious Latter Day Saints with both a strong educational background, a substantial knowledge of gospel doctrine, and a working grasp of critical thinking, however, is the dream-like, ethereal feeling of wandering in a Peter Panesque childhood fantasy that clings to the entire body of LDS leftist arguments of this kind (as it always has to those same arguments from the secular world). Pointing out the quite serious practical economic and social problems attending the actual implementation of such ideas (and especially the vast historical record we have of the consequences of such implementations in the past, in various forms and to various degrees) will bring breezy dismissals and indignant snorts of pious annoyance that one is not educated, sophisticated or spiritually advanced enough to understand...

   Or worse. By defending free market, rule of law based democratic capitalism as a matter of principle, one is also likely to be branded as simply wicked. But this dates to Marx himself, and Proundhon and other leftists before these famous names. The pedigree, as I said, is long.

   It is in the area of economics, however, that the rubber hits the proverbial road, because it is here that fantasy comes into direct confrontation with reality, logic, known history and the very real bounds and conditions of mortality. It is also here that one with the proper background can show, not only that socialism should never be allowed to work (for moral reasons) but that it cannot work, (because it violates the laws of economics) no matter how it is pursued and no matter how sincere or passionate the desires and intentions of its theorists. There are no means in a socialist society without free markets to determine value through the medium of money prices, for either producers or consumers to understand what the value of anything actually is, and to express preference for one thing over another within a society of any degree of economic or technological complexity.

   There is a great deal of idealistic, Peter Pan-like "if only we believe" special pleading that we all simply ignore the actual details of the practice and organization of an entire social system and dismiss the laws of economics with a wave of the idealistic hand.  This is all connected, at some umbilical point as well, to the moral breast beating that seems always to be encountered when the subject of free market economics, profit, capital accumulation, and freedom of choice to buy, sell, produce and save as independent, free agency grounded beings arises.

   There are some who believe that not greed, a weakness of the individual human heart, but freedom within the economic realm within which greed can manifest itself, is that which is at the core of our human problems, economically speaking.  Their solution to the problem of greed, avarice, and economic inequity seems to run along the following lines:

1. To forcibly, by social design, reduce the size, scope, potential and possibilities of the sphere within which economic activity can take place.

2. Support the literal dissolution of the psychological as well as moral/ethical boundaries between human beings relative to personal property and resources.

3. Exalt equality over quality, thus rendering the natural desire for quality (excellence, singular achievement or capacity, distinction, refinement, greater or lesser merit etc.) inert.

4. The odd belief, for Latter Day Saints, that everything should be "free" and that no effort should be required for its acquisition. We can just go to the vast, cavernous warehouse and take what we want, at any time (like the Eloi in the original film version of The Time Machine, when Rod Taylor asks one of them where they get all of their food, he replies ("It grows, it just grows").

5. A massive diminution of the complexity, scope and interconnectedness of an economy in pursuit of severely curtailed and simplified economic expectations and desires, eventuating in

6. A romantic veneration of subsistence lifestyles as "simpler" and in some sense, inherently more righteous (or, the idea that somehow it is easier to be righteous in such a society) then life in a complex, industrial society.

   This brings us back to the nature of a Zion society, as to its quality of life, economic structure, and relative living standards if markets, currency, market disciplines and incentives, property rights and concepts like the law of supply and demand and the law of marginal utility are to be dispensed with, and economic equality pursued.

   As to first principles, without free markets and value expressed as price, nothing even approaching a computer is even thinkable, let alone far simpler items of modern convenience such as a pencil, or even an ax with a steel ax head. The reasons why would take far more time and bandwidth than I have available right at the moment, but suffice it to say that while one can certainly barter a sack of potatoes for a pile of lumber, or some of his lumber for some Milk from Farmer John, one cannot barter a sack of potatoes for the a VCR head, or the laser unit within a DVD player, or for the long chain of highly specialized productive skills, materials (some exotic) and processes that are integral aspects of the production of a VCR, or DVD player, or a DVD, or a television, or a cell phone, or an automobile, or a book, or a pencil (let alone a space shuttle).

So, given the above, I would ask a few specific questions as food for thought and further discussion:

What is Zion to be like, economically speaking? Is it to be:

1. A subsistence, generally agricultural society of simple, local economic transactions and rudimentary technologies, or

2. Essentially a modern, complex, advanced technological society (essentially benefiting from the same levels of technology/progress as the non-Zion "world"), but operating, within this context, upon the principles of the Law of Consecration.

3. Is poverty, in a gospel sense, a spiritual requirement for greater spirituality? If so, why? If not, and vast individual riches are to be avoided in Zion, what is the alternative between colossal stores of personal wealth and just meeting one's basic physiological needs? Is there any middle ground here, for those who believe in absolute equality of wealth distribution (Communism, in theoretical point of fact).

4. If you had the choice between equality of income for all at a single, low level, or a relatively high quality of income and living standard for all at somewhat varied, differentiated levels of economic equality, which would you choose, and why?

1 comment:

  1. I wish you had answered your own questions concerning Zion.

    I have asked individuals whether they believe money shall be deployed in Zion. I have noticed a pattern which seems to be usable as a predictor of what their answer shall be.

    As money is simply the measure of the degree to which you withhold your substance and labor from your fellow human being in need, what would you answer?