Mormon academics love to criticize “capitalism.” Hugh Nibley famously denounced the entire economic system of the United States in favor of communalism. We’ve even published some academic criticisms of capitalism on these very pages. Now comes Richard Bushman in the summer 2009 issue of Square Two saying that capitalism is “insidious” and needs to be resisted.
I think it is important first of all to define our terms. Bushman defines capitalism this way:
So where does Mormonism stand in relation to capitalism by which I mean the concentration of wealth in the hands of a capitalist class which enrolls labor by paying them money and not out of any sense of mutual loyalty?
I think this definition gets right to the heart of Bushman and many Mormon academics’ misunderstanding of capitalism. And the point is, what system in our modern world is better, fairer, more democratic and, most importantly, allows more free will (agency) than capitalism?
To develop this line of thought, let’s go back to the beginning. How did the first humans trade goods? If Adam and Seth and Enoch produced stuff, which we can suppose they did, they probably spent some time trading that stuff for other stuff from other people. We know that this system inevitably resulted in some people being richer than others because Enoch set up Zion in which there were no poor. Jesus said the poor are always with us, which means on this world there will always be some people who are richer than others (which explains why Zion was such a great place by comparison). So, even today in the United States, where the primary problem of the poor is obesity and obesity-related illnesses, there are still poor – people who have less money than the rich.
So, it would appear that even in the earliest days of human beings there was trade (early capitalism) and there was a difference between rich and poor. And there was a recognition that the best societal situation was one in which there were no poor, but there was also a recognition that achieving Zion was nearly impossible given human nature.
My contention is that criticizing capitalism is a bit like criticizing the air or the rocks or the Earth — it is simply the way things are and the way things always will be, at least on this Earth until the Millennium. People have always traded and always will want to trade. In early feudal societies, farmers traded their goods (produced by their labor) for other goods and perhaps for gold and silver. Kings offered protection and took a portion of the goods for that protection. But the essential nature of the system — goods are produced, they are traded or sold and some people produce more goods and become richer than others — has always been with us.
Now, of course we have a much more complex system, but at its core it has not changed from the days of Adam. Let’s say you work designing web sites. You produce goods (web sites) in exchange for payment in dollars. Let’s say you are a university professor. You produce goods (articles, books and lectures) in exchange for payment in dollars. Nothing has changed.
What has changed, in fact, is prosperity, and this is directly related to the wonders of a more developed capitalist system. Until the 19th century, life was miserable for the vast majority of people. Their life span was short and the goods they produced were barely enough to sustain themselves and their families. If you study Joseph Smith’s early life, this was even the case for him and his father — they barely made enough to survive as farmers in Vermont and New York.
If we want to discuss freedom — including the ability to move around, see the world and to make choices with our lives — what system provides more freedom: the life of Joseph Smith and the subsistence farmers in the early 19th century or our lives now? Now, we can quit our jobs and move to another one, or we can travel the world, or we can have a wide variety of careers. In the early 19th century, our choices were extremely limited, by comparison.
I am not arguing that our lives are necessarily happier now — that depends a lot on individual choice. Having more choices inevitably means many people will make bad choices and bring themselves misery. But it seems to me that the increasing number of choices in our modern society is directly related to the development of modern-day capitalism.
So, let’s consider again: capitalism is a bad system, but which system is better? Certainly the 20th century has shown us that the alternatives — Communism, fascism, authoritarianism, monarchy — do not provide people more freedom. In fact, the greater economic control over a society, the less freedom for individuals. And there is a crucial point — no matter how much tyrants try to stamp out capitalist activity, it always exists. Some of the best capitalists in the world are free marketeers in Cuba, who make money on the margins of the Communist system.
Now, you can argue, as most modern-day academics do, that the American system of capitalism is clearly inferior to the Western European brand, where governments take more money from the rich and distribute it more freely to the poor. But the primary problem with this argument is that you are not arguing against capitalism — which still exists even in Western Europe — you are arguing about what form capitalism should take. Personally, I would choose the freedom of America over the government control of Europe any day, but the point is that the Western European system is still a capitalist system.
The only alternative we can imagine is a modern-day Zion in which people live together in harmony, sharing their goods and making sure there are no poor. Personally, I believe the Millennium will be like this, and I look forward to it. But, over time, human beings have tried various versions of modern-day Zion, and none of them has worked.
I would also like to add that I have no problem with Bushman pointing out the problems of consumerism and workaholism, which are definitely byproducts of our modern-day capitalist society. But it is worth emphasizing that modern-day prophets remind us of this all the time. Yes, we should avoid getting in debt and buying too much stuff, and we should spend more time with our families, but we should also be nice to our spouses, perform our callings and go to the temple. Such reminders are basic common sense. I’d bet that in Zion there will be all kinds of people who spend too much time in meetings when they should be with their families — such problems seem to be universal and part of human nature. Does Bushman think that Communist party leaders in the Soviet Union were not focused on consumer goods and didn’t spend too much time away from their families?
Bushman makes a few more claims that bear examining. The first is that capitalism reduces receptivity to the gospel. And, again, compared to what? The gospel has been much more successful in the capitalist United States than in, for example, the Communist Soviet Union or in fascist Italy or Germany. In fact, I think we can make a strong argument that capitalism has directly increased receptivity to the gospel in the vast majority of countries. Where is the gospel most successful today? Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Central America, West Africa, the Philippines. In all of these cases, the success of the gospel has been directly linked to an increase in political openness which has also allowed greater economic freedom. Brazil during the 1970s was a military dictatorship and a corporatist state economically. Now it has a much more open political system and a much more open economy. This freedom has brought Brazilians to the gospel in droves. This is the case in all of the places where the gospel has been most successful.
Bushman’s claim that capitalism is godless shows no practical experience in the modern-day world. In fact, to cite the above countries, there is a direct relationship between joining the Church and becoming more successful economically. As adherents join the Church, they stop smoking and drinking and fooling around. They save more money and work harder. They can send their kids to college and maybe even go back to school themselves. The entire Mormon infrastructure encourages such behavior because of our teaching that members should better themselves. In my experience, such encouragement cements people to the Church because they see the Church as a key contributor to their climbing out of the ghetto. So, the capitalist system has made them more spiritual and more loyal to the Church — not less so.
There is no doubt that many people substitute worldly success for spiritual success as they become more prosperous. Every person reading this post knows somebody who has made decisions to abandon the gospel for worldly prizes — either fame or fortune. But, again, it is not the system that is the problem — in what system currently existing would people NOT make such choices? — it is the nature of free will.
So, to sum up, Bushman is a great writer and a great Mormon academic hero. But this essay shows a common problem among many mormon academics: they seem to believe that capitalism is a bad thing, but they fail to answer the question, “compared to what?” And when you start doing the real-world comparisons, you are left with the inevitable answer that capitalism is the least worst system available to us — until Zion can be achieved.