In his recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune, “The case for Book of Mormon socialism,” Troy Williams states that, “At their most righteous, the Nephites presented in the book were benevolent socialists; at their most depraved, they were greedy free-market capitalists.” According to Williams, this is true “Whether one accepts the historical or theological claims” made by the book or not.
Williams then makes it clear that “socialism” for him (as it is for me) is equivalent to “redistribution,” stating that “Having ‘all things in common’ suggests a society invested in public infrastructure and welfare for the whole.” He then explains that “Redistribution is not an anomaly in Mormon scriptures,” and calls “redistribution” the “highest economic order in Mormon scripture.”
While Williams is correct in his claim that early Mormons attempted a socialistic system, called the “United Order,” I do not think Williams’ insistence that the Nephites, at their best, were “benevolent socialists” is accurate.
All Things in Common
Contra Williams, I do not think that viewing the righteous society of the Nephites as socialist/redistributionist is an inescapable conclusion regardless of whether one accepts or rejects the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. In fact, I claim just the opposite. Williams’ interpretation is the result of a sloppy reading of the Book of Mormon text, approached with modern assumptions about what it means to have “all things in common” and similar modern assumptions about how a successful socialistic society would work. Precisely because I believe the Book of Mormon is historically authentic, I reject his conclusions and insist that a very careful reading of the text, without making modern assumptions about the society it represents, is necessary to understand the text.
That Williams’ reading is sloppy is evident in the following quote from his article: “In the zenith of Nephite culture, ‘the Lord called his people Zion because they were of one heart and one mind and they did have all things in common — and there were no poor among them.’” Not surprisingly, Williams provides no reference for the words in quotation marks – because this passage does not exists anywhere in the Book of Mormon, or any other Mormon scripture, for that matter. It comes closest to Moses 7:14, in the Pearl of Great Price, and is perhaps a mish-mash of that passage and some other scriptural phrases. Nonetheless, the phrase “all things common among them” (4 Nephi 1:3) does appear in the Book of Mormon.
If we shed our modern assumptions for a moment, however, we can discover that “all things common among them” can refer to at least two possible modes of exchange: redistribution and reciprocity. Let’s examine each of these.
In pre-industrial societies, redistribution “involves the accumulation of large amounts of labor products produced by different individuals in a central place where they are sorted and counted and then given away to producers and non-producers alike.” Not too different from our current understanding of socialism. To achieve this, “Considerable organizational effort is required if large quantities of goods are to be brought to the same place at the same time and given away in definite shares. This coordination is usually achieved by individuals who act as redistributors.” This is reminiscent of Williams’ “society invested in public infrastructure.”
According to anthropologists Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, redistributors typically make a conscious effort “to increase and intensify production, for which they gain prestige in the eyes of their peers.” In non-stratified forms of redistribution, the redistributor works the hardest and keeps the least material goods. While this seems benevolent, it provides them with “the admiration of those who benefit from the transaction.” Thus enabling them to “call on the recipients for favors,” and putting them “in an advantageous position.” In stratified forms of redistribution, however, the redistributor works the least, but retains the most material goods.
Typically, redistribution would involve a “ceremonial feast” where the redistributor would display a “boastful and competitive attitude…with respect to other individuals or groups who have held feasts.” The competition driven by these feasts eventually became destructive in some societies. Typically, many guests would “grumble and complain and never appear satisfied or impressed.”
To be fair, these negative aspects typically only emerge in stratified redistributive societies. “In the egalitarian form, contributions to the central pool are voluntary, and the workers either get back all or most of what they put into it or they receive items of comparable value.” In its stratified form, however, “the workers must contribute to the central pool or suffer penalties, and they may not get back anything,” and the redistributor has “the power to coerce his or her followers to intensify production.”
More will be discussed on how this stratified form emerges later. For now, let’s move on to reciprocity.
Unlike redistribution, reciprocity is the primary (and sometimes the only) mode of exchange exclusively in egalitarian societies. Such generalized reciprocity “involves mutual giving and receiving among people of equal status in which there is (1) no need for immediate return, (2) no systematic calculation of the value of the services and products exchanged, and (3) an overt denial that a balance is being calculated or that the balance must come out even.” Basically, in such societies, people just voluntarily share what they have with each other. No organizational effort to collect and redistribute, or to make sure everyone is contributing an equal amount. People all work together for the benefit of the community.
In such societies, “wide discrepancies in the balance of giving and receiving may exist among individuals over a long period without becoming the subject of any special talk or action.” Still, “grossly asymmetrical exchange does not go unnoticed.” Some may develop a reputation as either a free-loader or a hard worker, but that is the extant of any sort of “class differences.” Thus, while goods are not exchanged with absolutely no obligation attached (all members of society are expected to contribute), such societies manage to “avoid the notion of material balance, debt, or obligation.”
Examining the text of 4 Nephi
With that background, the task remains to examine what is said about the Book of Mormon “Zion society” to try and determine which form of exchange was utilized – redistribution, or reciprocity?
We are told that this society began when everyone was “converted unto the Lord.” (4 Nephi 1:2) As a result, we are told that “there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.” (4 Nephi 1:2). Because “they had all things common among them,” there was no “rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:3)
What we have here is a society where there is (a) no contention or disputation, (b) people interacting with each other to exchange goods, (c) all things being held in common, (d) no class distinction, (e) and everyone being regarded as free.
This fits a society where reciprocity is main form of exchange, not redistribution. As noted above, redistribution leads to competition between redistributors, pride and boasting, distinctions based on who gave the most away, people contributing to a central pool rather than exchanging with each other, and people who must contribute or be punished, rather than a totally free society. In fact, a redistributive society would only meet one requirement – having all goods in common (and, I think it is arguable whether such is even in the case in some redistributive societies).
In reciprocal societies, however, there is no contention, no class distinctions (other than loose reputations), people exchange goods with each other, and everyone is free to voluntarily participate in the exchange.
Equally as interesting as what is said is what is not said in the text. Nothing in 4 Nephi says or implies Williams’ “public infrastructure” or the central organization that is necessary for a redistributive society. Everything in the text implies a society that freely and voluntarily shares their goods, much like a reciprocal society.
Clearly, the situation in 4 Nephi better fits a reciprocal society, not a redistributive one.
In contrast, I find that the causes of Nephite decline into “their most depraved” condition (pride, class distinctions, etc., see 4 Nephi 1:24-25) is consistent with the very form of exchange exchange Williams’ advocates – a stratified form of redistribution.
Population Growth and Economic Exchange
During the years of prosperity, we are told that the Nephites experienced a great deal of population growth (see 4 Nephi 1:10). This is noteworthy because what causes societies to evolve from egalitarian, reciprocal societies into stratified, coercive societies is population expansion. Such growth can cause food shortages, resulting in centralization of resources, and intensification of production, thus leading to the stratified redistribution described above.
In short, while the final state of the Book of Mormon peoples may have been capitalism, it could have just as easily have been the socialism Williams advocates. Furthermore, even if the final state was indeed a capitalistic society, redistribution was likely a step in the process that lead to their decline.
The “Zion society” described in 4 Nephi is unprecedented in world history, so in reality its precise mode of exchange was probably not any form which we are familiar with. Still, it most closely parallel’s a reciprocal society, thus their mode of exchange could justly be described as a very advanced form of reciprocity – more advanced than any other form seen throughout history.
As such, the elegance of the Book of Mormon “Zion society” deserves to be carefully studied, not caricaturized for the sake of political polemics, as Williams’ does.
1. 1. Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, Cultural Anthropology (Boston, MA: Pearson, Seventh Edition, 2007), pg. 102
2. 2. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 102
3. 3. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 102
4. 4. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 102-103
5. 5. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 103 (all three quotes)
6. 6. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 103
7. 7. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 103
8. 8. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 104-107
9. 9. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 104
10 10. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 107
11 11. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 107
12 12. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 99
13 13. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 99
14 14. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 99
15 15. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 99
16 16. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 99
17 17. There can be no doubt that socialism is a stratified form of redistribution. It seeks to enforce its goals via taxation – thus requiring every member to contribute or suffer penalties, it also redistributes goods unevenly, with those who contribute the most receiving the least (and very often nothing) in return.
18 18. Harris and Johnson, Cultural Anthropology, pg. 178-184
19 19. My own comments here (in which I have relied exclusively upon an entry level anthropology book) – written principally as a critique – fall far short of the serious study this topic merits. What I have done here can, at best, be described as a brief sketch or introduction, demonstrating some of the vast potential for discovery that is waiting to be had in pursuit of understanding the society presented in 4 Nephi.