"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
March 22, 2013
Consecration Must Be Free
Why Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young Failed to Create a Consecrated Economic System
by Orson Scott Card

When the idea of Consecration was first revealed to Joseph Smith, what did the scriptures show him? The early New Testament church and the Book of Mormon Christians had “all things in common.” The City of Enoch had “no poor among them.”

This was how the righteous lived. Yet he also knew that experiments in communism had all failed, reputedly because of laziness and greed. Some people didn’t contribute their share; others took from the community more than they were entitled to.

So as the Prophet brought before the Lord the question of how to implement this righteous order among the Saints, the plan the Lord approved included a strong element of accountability and individual responsibility.

Joseph Smith’s attempt at a consecrated economy, approved by the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants, began with a members deeding everything they owned to the Church. The bishop would then return to them an amount of property or material sufficient for them to work with.

The idea was to receive from the Lord a “talent,” as in the parable of the talents. Then, after harvest, members would have an accounting with the bishop, contributing their surpluses to the storehouse.

From this common fund, the poor, or those who had not made a surplus, would receive enough to sustain them.

This attempt, too, failed, despite its promise. The failure, as usual, was blamed on greed and laziness.

Unsurprisingly, few who had substantial property contributed it in order to receive back a much smaller portion. And many slackers expected that when they didn’t produce enough, the storehouse would make up the difference.

Only the storehouse was never full. And lawsuits showed that under American law, the deeding of all property to the Church had no legal force in the first place, because they had received nothing in return — those who donated everything could take it back.

When Brigham Young tried his own version of consecration, the United Order, he reverted to the ordinary practice of communism. In larger settlements it was not tried, but when groups of pioneers formed a new colony, they often set up a system of communal ownership of everything.

Everyone ate at a common table; nobody got anything until everyone could have the same thing. Equality!

Yet all these United Order colonies reverted to private ownership, most very quickly. Orderville lasted a generation; that was the one that lasted longest.

Again, the failures were blamed on laziness and greed.

Choices, Not Sins

But I think that’s not the lesson we should learn. On the contrary, I think that what was called “laziness” and “greed” can really be chalked up to free choices and differing priorities.

Consider today’s midlevel manager who decides that he doesn’t want the promotion enough to sacrifice his family life by putting in constant overtime. Instead, he goes home and spends time with his wife and children, while others stay at the office till all hours.

His boss might call him “lazy” as he passes him over for promotion. But he’s not lazy — he made a choice between the money, prestige, and power that would come from advancement and the happiness and hope that come from investing time in your family and children.

“But he could have sent his kids to a much better university, if he had won the better-paying job.”

Maybe — but maybe because of the choice he made, he would be able to send much better, stronger, wiser kids to the university he was able to afford.

One man’s choice is another man’s “laziness.”

Economic Principles

This is the real problem with both Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s attempts to institute a formal economic order: They don’t fail because of greed and laziness.

They fail because they try to flout deep underlying economic principles. They fail because they can’t work.

I have friends who really love cars. They go into raptures over machines of great beauty or power.

I don’t care. I want a car that does the job I need it to do. I was happy with my Crown Vic for many years; now I’m fine with my Hyundai. What would I do with a Lexus that I can’t do with my Santa Fe? As for sports cars, they’re uncomfortable and dangerous.

Even if I lived in a commune that could afford to provide a Lexus or a hot sports car for everybody, I wouldn’t want either of them. They would be wasted on me.

But I must have paintings on my wall. And not just any paintings. I have very pronounced tastes; so does my wife. Our walls show the tastes we have in common, or the compromises we make to satisfy each other’s visual hunger.

We only have a handful of friends who understand how important this is to us, and even fewer who share our love of art.

Or take another choice. Our house has a dining room that is open to the living room. Only instead of a dining room table, it has a piano. We eat on a table in the large kitchen. We have nice china when we want to have a fancier meal — but we’re still eating in the kitchen.

To other people, having a nice separate dining room is important. Not to us.

And instead of a living room set, we have one couch, one love seat, and then a carefully chosen selection of side chairs that look as if they came from a dozen different attics. My tolerant wife saw the fun of that and joined me in creating this eclectic jumble of styles. Our living room looked like no one else’s.

When our ward needed to hold early-morning seminary in a central location (our meetinghouse is way outside of our ward boundaries), our living room/music room had the space to assemble two dozen high school students, with chairs for them to sit on. It was so nice that we happened to be odd.

The Joy of Differences

The point is that everyone is different. We like different things. And we’re happier when we can set our own priorities.

Imagine if we had Brigham Young’s United Order. Everybody must choose from the same group of wall art. Everyone must choose from the same selection of furniture. Everyone must drive the same kind of car, live in houses carefully proportioned to our family size.

There are virtues in that — the virtue of fairness. But then, is it fair that someone who loves books should have the same book-buying budget as people who don’t enjoy reading?

Does a dedicated tennis player really need to wait for a fine-quality racquet until we can afford to provide one for my wife, who can only play for ten minutes before bursitis begins to flare?

Sameness is not fairness. In fact, relentless sameness is torment. It’s as good a definition of hell as I can think of.

Accountability and Risk

Even Joseph Smith’s accountability plan cannot work.

First, it supposes a freeholder economy — either you farm, in which case you receive your land, tools, and seed from the bishop; or you practice a trade or keep a shop, in which case you receive building, tools, and inventory from the bishop.

Second, while the Church could organize or fund projects that everyone knows are needed — roads, irrigation, hospitals, infrastructure repairs — there are projects highly unsuitable for local bishops or the Church as a whole to decide on.

Third, there is no place in Joseph Smith’s freeholder economy for people who work in sales, in management, or as employees on an assembly line. Nor is there a place for artists or entrepreneurs.

Artists don’t work well here, and not just because excellence requires hard practice to such an extent that you cannot possibly support yourself in a day job.

The problem with artists and entrepreneurs is that bishops, by the nature of the office, are singularly ill-suited to identifying and investing in either.

A bishop in Joseph Smith’s system has a sacred trust. He must dispose of the community’s surpluses with as little risk as possible.

We are all accountable to the bishop — even now, through tithing settlement. But the bishop is also accountable for what he does with the funds entrusted to him.

There is no way to know which artists and which entrepreneurs will end up providing value to the community.

What is the “surplus” of an artist? A virtuoso violinist’s work is all “surplus” — but valueless if nobody wants to hear it. Or should all artists do their work only in their “spare time”?

And what does the bishop do when somebody comes to him with a project that sounds risky? How can he lay the widow’s mite on the line for a startup project?

Could a bishop — or the whole Church — have justified investing in, say, the really weird concept behind the original Xerox machine? Or the first personal computers? Or the huge investment behind cellphones, which only work if you build the towers?

Entrepreneurship is horribly risky, and yet no progress is made without it. How can either Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s consecration plan allow for bold risks, fresh visions, never-before-thought-of ideas?

They can’t.

What works for art and entrepreneurship is the marketplace, and the marketplace works with money.

Money Is a Way to Choose

Yes, I know. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” But money itself is not evil. It can be viewed many ways, but for our purposes, it counts as a vote.

The bishop doesn’t have to decide whether a project is worth the risk, or whether a particular artist’s work has value.

Instead, individual people vote with their money. People who care about art spend their money on the pieces they like, even if nobody else likes them. People who believe in a project invest their money in it — knowing that it might return nothing.

The marketplace functions according to laws of economics. It’s the most efficient way of allocating scarce resources that might be used for many different things.

It allows large groups of people to make decisions together without actually having to hold a meeting or an election. Every dollar is a choice.

But can money really coexist with the Law of Consecration? Obviously it can — because the Saints are living that law, and we live in a money economy.

We might say that the world has a money economy, and that our consecration piggybacks on the worldly system.

But I don’t think so. I think that money is as useful and productive as the alphabet, and true economic principles are as compatible with the gospel as gravity and electricity.

But just as we don’t jump off tall buildings without a safety harness, and we don’t grab live wires with our bare hands, so also we need to know how to use money in ways that build up Zion and help us make the free choices involved in a Christlike life.

One thing is certain: Free choice, leading to voluntary obedience to good laws, is the foundation of the plan of happiness.

To the degree that plans for economic fairness, for having “no poor among us” and “all things in common,” interfere with freedom to select among good and worthy alternatives, then to that degree they cannot be the Law of Consecration.

Both Brigham Young’s and Joseph Smith’s experiments crashed against that reef of choice. They didn’t fail because the people were sinful. They failed because they didn’t allow sufficiently for God-given agency.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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