The patron saint of the New Mormon History â€“ Leonard Arrington â€“ started his academic life as an economist, but interestingly economists have been on the whole absent from Mormon studies. Given the presence of philosophers, sociologists, and â€“ of course â€“ gobs of historians, the lack of followers of the dismal science is striking.
Arrington, of course, was an economist in the Wisconsin sense of the term. He was interested in looking at economic practice and commercial experience. One will search his work in vain, however, for anything that resembles contemporary economic theory. Keynesian macro economics, the reactions against it, the rational actor model, and the other props of contemporary economics just arenâ€™t there. There are some rather half-hearted comparisons of 19th century Mormon economic experiments with the New Deal in the preface to Great Basin Kingdom, but otherwise Arrington is essentially a story teller who is interested in commercial stories. He is not really an economist.
To my knowledge there has only been one sustained attempt to apply economic theory (in this case micro theory) to Mormon history: Marvin S. Hill, C. Keith Rooker, and Larry T. Wimmer, The Kirtland Economy Revisited: A Market Critique of Sectarian Economics. (There may be others. If so please let me know!) On the other hand, the application of sociological concepts â€“ such as Weberâ€™s typology of religious figures — to the study Mormonism has been ubiquitous.
Of course, Mormon studies tends to exhibit an intellectual time lag. That which is popular in the mainstream academy seems to by and large become popular in Mormon studies about a generation later. (This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one.) Hence, you see lots of references to Weber or Durkhiem, but few to more recent sociological theorists. Still, this phenomena only suggests that we would expect the economics applied to Mormon studies to be slightly out of date. Why donâ€™t we see vigorous applications of the rational actor model sans game theory or classical Keynsian economics to development in Deseret or the rise and fall of the Law of Consecration and Stewardship. Here are a couple of potential explanations:
1. We are witnessing a selection bias. Economics for whatever reason attracts spiritually stunted intellectuals who are uninterested in their own religion or the religion of others.
2. Economic tools are unsuitable for the study of religious phenomena. Economics is the science of dollars and cents, trade, barter, commercial activity and the like. Hence, its theories cannot be applied to religious experience.
3. The basic methodological assumption of economics â€“ that people are utility maximizers â€“ requires that would be economists of Mormon studies impute selfish or greedy motives to the Mormons that they are studying. Most non-Mormon economists are not sufficiently interested in Mormons to bother, and most Mormon economists are uncomfortable imputing such motives to â€œtheirâ€? people.
I donâ€™t think that any of these explanations really works. With regards to (1), I have personally met several economists who are interested in Mormonism and the study of religion. As to (2), it seems an error to assume that economics is methodologically limited to the study of commercial activity. The work of Gary Becker and others seems sufficient to refute such a claim. Finally (3) seems to assume that would be Mormon economists are more sensitive about imputing less-than-flattering motives to their co-religionists, despite the fact that those from other disciplines have been willing to offer theories of Mormon history the rest on unflattering assumptions about Mormons past and present.
So where are the books and articles on the economics of Mormonism? Is there really the gap that I describe, or am I simply missing the articles? (BTW, I know that there have been a couple of articles in econ journals on Mormon subjects.)