It turns out that law-and-economics is not only the dominant theory of private law, but it also helps you think about the idea of Zion. If you look at the pattern of early Mormon settlement in Utah, you see a fairly common pattern repeated. The first settlers in the Salt Lake Valley created a single, large communal field. Everyone worked the field and everyone was entitled to produce from the field. Later, the field, which continued to be fenced as a single mass, was subdivided into lots apportioned to individuals. Finally, the concept of the “Big Field” was abandoned in favor of individually owned lots that were dispersed.
There are a number of stories that one could tell about this development. For example, Russell and other communitarians might see it as part of a sorry falling away from noble communal beginnings to the grubby world of private property. Others might posit that collective effort was necessary for the first plantings but not for others. And so on. Here are some interesting facts to consider: First, there is no reason that you couldn’t have had individual lots from the get go. Admittedly, the creation of things like irrigation networks required collective effort, but farming could have been conducted on a private property basis from the beginning. Another thing is that while communal ownership of land was abandoned rather rapidly, other communal economic institutions were not, which makes the apostacy-from-the-true-order-of-Zion story rather odd. Why was there a falling away from communitarianism as to property rules but not as to other institutions?
This is where law-and-economics scholarship becomes suggestive. I’ve heard economist suggest that the early communal ownership of land among the Mormons (and also, incidentally among the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the earliest settlers of Jamestown) was simply an ideological experiment that failed. Folks had grand ideas about having all things in common, which were abandoned in the face of free-rider problems, etc. Robert Ellickson, however, has suggested a more nuanced explanation:
A sole landowner bears the entire risk that his land will be damaged, devalued, or unproductive. Group ownership, by contrast, pools risk. Because most individuals are risk-adverse, the risk-spreading feature of group property had advantages — even decisive in certain situations.
As alternatives to group ownership of property, a group may employ numerous other risk-spreading mechanisms, including reciprocal altruism within a family or social group, insurance markets, and government welfare programs. In comparison, group ownership of land is in most contexts a mediocre method of spreading losses. . . . .
The efficiency thesis predicts that group land ownership will be more prevalent in situations in which risks are high and a group cannot employ a superior insurance mechanism. The settlers [in Salt Lake City] initially faced conditions of precisely this sort. That the risks were acute cannot be doubted. . . . .
Risk analysis also suggests why pioners would begin to parcelize their lands after a period of time. Settlers would lower their probability estimates of disaster and be less attentive to risk-spreading as they gradually learned how to prevent tribal raids, avoid disease, and grow croms. Moreover, as the months passed, the settlers could develop more efficient social-insurance mechanisms, such as . . . tithe-supported churches . . . . (Robert C. Ellickson, Property in Land,102 Yale L. J. 1315, 1342 (1993))
Mormon history largely backs up Ellickson’s thesis. Group ownership of land was abandoned as the Bishop’s Storehouses got up and running. In other words, the Mormons began by pooling economic resources via property rules. However, they rapidly abandoned property rules in favor of institutions as soon as they could get the institutions up and running. This, in turn, suggests that Zion as conceptualized in economic terms may have been less about avoiding the supposed evils of private ownership than about finding ways of pooling risk within the community of the Saints. However, in bearing one anothers burdens 19th century Mormons seemed to have migrated towards solutions that were economically efficient.