Markets are a big deal in my intellectual life. For a living, I teach and think about the law that makes markets possible. By and large, I think that markets are really cool. I think that they are probably the single greatest engine for the material betterment of the human race. Poverty causes a great deal of misery. Economic development strikes me as the single greatest way of alleviating poverty. Markets are what make economic growth possible. I also think that markets serve important political purposes by facilitating peaceful cooperation between those with violently opposed political and religious beliefs. Markets, however, pose something of a problem for Mormon thought.
It seems to me that there are basically two approaches that a Mormon can take in thinking about markets. By and large the dominant approach is to note that the modern church functions comfortably within market economies, note that there are lots of positive statements about capitalism by post-World War II GAs and leave it at that. (This approach was taken a number of years ago in a BYU Studies article on the topic, that seemed to mainly a prolonged exercise in proof-texting from recent conference reports.) There are two problems with this approach. First, it serves at best to withdraw the question of Mormonism from the question of how one thinks about markets. Hence, it is not really a particularly fruitful place from which to carry on a peculiarly Mormon conversation about markets. The second problem is that it does not adequately deal with the history of Mormon economic practices and teachings. The nineteenth-century economic experience of building Zion gets placed on the far side of some great divide (1890?) and has little if anything to tell us today.
The other approach is to use nineteenth-century economic communitarianism as a basis for attacking modern markets. This critique centers on the various iterations of the United Order. One can interpret these endeavors as a rejection of modern market economies in favor of localized institutions based around hierarchical economic organization, the rejection of the pursuit of profit, and the decentralized coordination of the market. Thinkers like Hugh Nibley (or T&S’s Russell Arben Fox) can then use this history as a basis for constructing a Mormon stance towards markets that is essentially hostile. The approach has two advantages. First, it provides greater continuity and integrity to Mormon experience. Second, it provides a rich vein of material from which a peculiarly Mormon discussion of markets can proceed. In my mind, however, it is marred by the fact that its basic valuation of markets is mistaken and in its details its effects can be pernicious.
I actually think that a greater appreciation for the role of church courts in Mormon history provides a way out of this unfortunate state of affairs. The fact of the matter is that the United Orders and other collective economic experiments that garner the lion’s share of attention by those interested in using Mormon history to think about markets are in many ways a rather minor part of Mormon economic experience. For example, the United Orders pushed by Brigham Young in the 1870s by and large were extremely short lived and unsuccessful. Most of them rapidly folded or else transformed themselves into essentially corporate enterprises with controlling church ownership. In other words, the United Orders were the exception rather than the rule in the economic experience of building Zion in the nineteenth century. The same was true of other centralized Mormon economic institutions such as Zion’s Central Board of Trade or the later School of the Prophets.
This does not mean, of course, that the economic experience of nineteenth century Mormons was without religious content, simply mirroring developments in the Gentile world. Far from it. Economic experience was at the center of much of Mormonism in the nineteenth century. What is striking to me, however, is that the most successful Mormon economic institutions in the nineteenth century facilitated markets rather than rejecting them. The system of tithing is an excellent example of this. Members of the church made in-kind donations to the bishop’s storehouse. Those working on church projects then received “tithing scrip” that gave them the right to get merchandise from the bishop’s storehouse. This scrip then circulated as currency. The presence of a relatively stable currency (something generally not present in the cash-starved economies of frontier America) facilitates the development of market exchanges by dramatically lowering transaction costs. It is easier to purchase something with scrip than with a wagon load of grain. Currency thus encourages exchanges. Furthermore, in contrast to the system of United Orders tithing scrip (which often times had no tangible form other than entries in the ledgers of the storehouse) was an economic institution that endured for decades.
Another example of a market facilitating Mormon institution was the church court system. Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints were expected to resolve their civil disputes in the church judiciary. Not surprisingly, most of these disputes involved issues of property and contract. Markets are made possible by legal entitlements. There are few exchanges of property without property rights. There are few long term contract without contract rights. By pushing disputes over such things into church courts, however, the church arrogated to itself the task of defining these central institutions. Again, in contrast to the United Order system, the civil jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was extremely long lived. In doing research in this area the earliest contract case I have found decided by a Mormon court was in December, 1831 and as late as 1918 James E. Talmage was urging the Saints in the pages of the Improvement Era to foreswear secular courts for church tribunals. In other words, we are talking about between 70 and 90 years of continuous experience.
The church court system strikes me as a particularly rich place from which to start thinking about Mormonism and markets because the resolution of contract and property disputes is ultimately about conduct within markets. Rather than some largely useless Nibley-esque screed against bankers and merchants, the records of the church courts show much more nuanced picture of people struggling to make sense of how a merchant or banker in Zion should act. There are, of course, some real problems with looking to church courts. The first is the availability of sources, although the church archives have released far more church court documents than one might think. A bigger obstacle, however, is interest. Most of those that I have met who are interested in mining Mormon history for thinking on markets are themselves hostile to markets and hence uninterested in thinking about nineteenth century Zion building with a market paradigm. Mormons who are enthusiastic about markets, on the other hand, tend to be uninterested in nineteenth century Mormon experience, in part I suspect because they see it either irrelevant or hostile. Finally, most people — including those who think deeply about markets and economics — have a tendency to think of property and contract as static and simple institutions, and hence are unlikely to see the ways in which Mormon adjudication tracks and departs from secular regimes. The reality, of course, is that what we mean by property and contract changes from place to place and epoch to epoch. Hence, for example, it make sense to think about Anglo-American ideas of contract versus Civil or Roman ideas of contract. Likewise, it makes sense to think about Mormon concepts of property and contract. Therein lies, I think, a better way of thinking about Mormonism and the market.