Zion and the Limits of Intellectual Agrarianism

June 7, 2010 | 38 comments
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07-01A Jackson County Plat 1933 croppedThere is a strand of progressive Mormon thinking that associates Zion with an exaltation of agrarian virtues.  I am thinking here of folks like Hugh Nibley or Arthur Henry King or my friend Russell Arben Fox who argue that small scale, local economies, ideally based in large part on agriculture provide the best possible model for building Zion.  At least one way of understanding this line of thinking is to see it as a kind of Mormonization of agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry.  It is striking in this regard that Leonard Arrington, whose works on nineteenth-century Mormon communitarianism provide the historical ur-texts for much of this thinking, was trained at North Carolina in a progressive economics department then much under the influence of an earlier generation of Southern agrarian thinkers.

I am skeptical.

Cooperation and trust, are, it seems to me key to the idea of Zion.  If the Lord’s people are of one heart and one mind they must be able to rely on one another and work well together.  Levels of trust and cooperation, of course, are not uniformly distributed across places, times, and cultures.  Robert Putnam, the contemporary guru of social capital theory, famously made his academic name contrasting the high-trust, high-cooperation society in northern Italy with the low-trust, low-cooperation society in southern Italy.

One of the big differences between northern and southern Italy is that the north is commercial and urban while the south is agrarian and rural.  This is not accidental.  As it turns out hunters and traders – stereotypes of heartless, acquisitive individualism aside – have higher levels of trust and cooperation than do that darling of progressive agrarian Zion theorists: the family farmer.  This actually makes a good deal of sense.  Hunting a whale takes a great deal of cooperation compared to say, plowing, planting, and harvesting a field of wheat.  Likewise, a self-sufficient nineteenth-century American farm family was far less dependent on trust and relationships with others than was, say, a clan of medieval Jewish merchants.

Indeed, for all his intellectual debts to the Southern agrarians, Arrington’s tale of Mormon co-operation in the nineteenth century centers around a peculiar accident of agriculture in the Great Basin: the irrigation ditch.  Farming in the Mormon corridor was only possible through complex and capital intensive cooperation of the kind most often associated with manufacturing rather than agriculture.  It is striking that in the more hospitable climate of Missouri and Illinois, Mormon communitarianism focused not on agriculture, but on city building.  Indeed, Joseph Smith recognized the centrifugal, individualistic pressure of agriculture.  The Plat of the City of Zion explicitly combated such tendencies by pushing Latter-day Saints off of their farms and into towns, although to be sure Joseph envisioned that the ultimate economic base of the Jackson County Zion was to be agriculture.

Berry and Nibley, in particular, are fond a presenting a kind of Manichean vision of economic life in which commerce and entrepreneurship are little more than rhetorical cover for rapacious charlatans.  There is, I think, something deeply and genuinely agrarian in this hostility and suspicion.  Ironically, the hostility and suspicion are also an example of the precisely the kind of attitudes that make agrarianism an imperfect fit at best with the idea of Zion.

38 Responses to Zion and the Limits of Intellectual Agrarianism

  1. Dane Laverty on June 7, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I’ve often heard these kinds of sentiments expressed, but never seen them called out like this. I agree with everything you’re saying here. I believe that it’s easy to hearken back wistfully to earlier, “simpler” times, especially since most of us have never actually lived in those times. Tellingly, though, our technological, market-based economy today only exists because the members of bygone agricultural societies were dissatisfied with the social tools and infrastructure they had. In other words, be careful in longing for the life of your great-great-grandparents when your great-great-grandparents are the ones who built (in the wisdom gained from their experience) the institutions that distinguish modern society today.

  2. bryanp on June 7, 2010 at 10:44 am

    I find this interesting, especially what you mention in the 4th paragraph about the Plat of the City of Zion. It makes sense what you say about combating the tendencies of the agrarian mindset. Years ago I read “Approaching Zion” by Hugh Nibely, loved it but wondered about other vocations under the United Order. They have to play a part in the “mechanics” of the community.

    Nate, what other resources are available on understanding this subject better?

  3. Adam Greenwood on June 7, 2010 at 10:54 am

    The most telling point is that Great Basin agricultural had corporate and cooperative elements of necessity, but that back East, where it didn’t, the Saints focused more on city-building. “Food” for thought.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on June 7, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Nate, it’s always a pleasure to engage you in discussions on this topic. I don’t know how much time I’ll have today, but let me start by throwing out a few points:

    1) “Cooperation and trust, are, it seems to me key to the idea of Zion.”

    Indisputably. However, are they the only keys? The revelations seem to insist that a rough equality of conditions must also obtain within Zion. The instances of Zion-type conditions recorded in the scriptures also regularly refer to rather simple, non-complex economic transactions and responsibilities. So a question: does the cooperation and trade which is (indirectly, or perhaps even accidentally) generated by functioning markets compensate for the complexity, specialization, and inequality which said markets also generate?

    2) “One of the big differences between northern and southern Italy is that the north is commercial and urban while the south is agrarian and rural. This is not accidental….[A] self-sufficient nineteenth-century American farm family was far less dependent on trust and relationships with others than was, say, a clan of medieval Jewish merchants.”

    I find it revealing that you turn to a medieval guild for an example of the cooperation and trust which attends complex trading economies, but you don’t similarly turn to a medieval example when speaking of agriculture. More broadly, you seem to be ignoring a particularly large elephant here: the role of technology and social organization, and how it has changed over the centuries, in the shaping of levels of trust and cooperation. The agricultural villages of southern Italy had been–as Putnam ably documents in his work–relatively impoverished by a decades-long shift towards more centralized and sophisticated means of providing food and consumer goods, job training and education, and all the rest. Southern Italy (besides having been ravaged by corrupt local governments and the Mafia) was dealing with a stacked a deck, so very stacked that it was obvious that any person who couldn’t get out needed to fair for themselves. I don’t mean, and wouldn’t want to, reduce Putnam’s whole argument to a materialist one, but for you to say the modern commercial transactions create more cooperation and trust than agrarian societies, and use Northern Italy in the 1980s as an example, fails to consider how those agrarian communities were themselves already having to deal with the reality of modern (globalized) commercial transactions. Would it be reasonable to compare the collected employees of today’s British Petroleum–from the CEOs at the top to the oil well workers at the bottom–to the agricultural villages established throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Puritan settlers, and see where greater cooperation and trust was manifest? Your basic claim about trade generating more trust than farming may be true, but the examples you’re providing in support of it are limited in their usefulness.

    3) “Farming in the Mormon corridor was only possible through complex and capital intensive cooperation of the kind most often associated with manufacturing rather than agriculture.”

    I grant that there are many agrarians and localists who make that association, but those who do, it seems to me, are rarely people actually involved in making farming economies function, and rather are people moved by the ideal of farming. (I note that your post title speaks of “intellectual agrarianism.”) I’m sure you’re aware that numerous purposefully localist and agrarian communities have long recognized, and made traditions out of, various cooperative sharing, investing, and fund-raising strategies to preserve land and protect their chose ways of life. (The economics of the Amish in maintaining and distributing their land plots in Pennsylvania are one example.) As I’ve looked at the problem, one has to think like a “populist farmer”, striving to make a farming world a reality for more than just the elite landowners on their hill (and yes, Nate, that is a Jefferson-bashing bone I’m tossing you). Massive, cooperative irrigation efforts are every bit a part of this as are small-scale farmers markets…as well as sugar beets, if it comes to that.

    4) “The Plat of the City of Zion explicitly combated such tendencies by pushing Latter-day Saints off of their farms and into towns…”

    I would argue that you’re reading the Plat wrongly there. Smith wanted people to live in towns, because he wanted people to be neighbors and friends, with their homes side-by-side with one another and with the temple(s). But living in town isn’t at all the same as “pushing Latter-day Saints off of their farms”; they would still be farmers, in every sense that Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder remained farmers in DeSmet, South Dakota, even though the lived in town.

    5) “Berry and Nibley, in particular, are fond a presenting a kind of Manichean vision of economic life in which commerce and entrepreneurship are little more than rhetorical cover for rapacious charlatans. There is, I think, something deeply and genuinely agrarian in this hostility and suspicion.”

    A fair enough criticism. The hostility, bemusement, and contempt expressed for defenders of the rural is similarly inappropriate for Zion. Motes and beams, anyone?

  5. Adam Greenwood on June 7, 2010 at 11:07 am

    “There is, I think, something deeply and genuinely agrarian in this hostility and suspicion. Ironically, the hostility and suspicion are also an example of the precisely the kind of attitudes that make agrarianism an imperfect fit at best with the idea of Zion.”

    Can I take issue with this? I don’t see how Zion could be possible without an awareness of the unzion state and a certain aversion to it–call it hostility and suspicion–just as happiness requires knowing sorrow, a true appreciation of goodness requires a world of sin, opposition is essential to everything, Enoch’s Zion was surrounded by enemies, the 4th Nephi Zion got started with killing a whole bunch of people, and the millennial society gets started with killing a whole bunch of people.

    This is not to say that Nibley doesn’t have some silly ideas about this stuff.

  6. Marjorie Conder on June 7, 2010 at 11:59 am

    When I hear such arguments (and they do come up periodically, almost everywhere in Mormondom, it seems) I am reminded that we often hear of the “City of God” but never the “farm of God.)

  7. living in zion on June 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    First I admit I am in over my head here. I would need a dictionary at my side to understand all the big words in this post.In my feeble attempt to participate if I understood this correctly, you are saying that a farming community is one idea of what Zion might look like. But you aren’t sold on that concept.

    I live surrounded by Amish and Mennonite communities. They are doing fine while the rest of us are hyperventilating about the economy. Yes, it is because they live at a lower technological threshold than us “English” – that is what everyone who isn’t Amish/Mennonite are called.
    They have less expenses to pay, so they don’t need to have big salaries.
    What I admire is the community connectedness. One community may have the buggy shops, another the chicken farmers, another the leather work shops and furniture stores. They are all separate towns but they freely shop and trade with each other. Very Little House on The Prarie. If I didn’t have a love for electricity, I would be tempted to buy in. I do take comfort in knowing that if I ended up homeless, I could go to them and they would teach me how to live simply.

    They seem to be on their way to making their own version of Zion and it works for them.

  8. Nate Oman on June 7, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    living in zion: My point is not really about the virtues of technology over simplicity. Rather, my point is about what forms of economic organization are most condusive to trust and cooperation. I think the answer is that commerce is better at instilling habits of trust and cooperation than is farming. This is not to claim that all farmers are distrustful and uncooperative, only that farmers are — on average — less trusting and cooperative than traders.

  9. Thaddeus on June 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    “Cooperation and trust, are, it seems to me key to the idea of Zion.”

    Another key is work, which is the virtue farmers tend to get right. It was my experience on my mission that rural Idahoan elders were dedicated to the work and accepted difficult responsibilities without flinching, while we suburban and urban-born missionaries dug in our heels a bit more.

  10. Nate Oman on June 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    “does the cooperation and trade which is (indirectly, or perhaps even accidentally) generated by functioning markets compensate for the complexity, specialization, and inequality which said markets also generate?”

    Now you are asking the right question. My primary complaint with folks like Nibley and Berry is that they attack a straw-man. Rather than actually thinking through the social benefits of markets, they instead insist that the only benefits are material, dismiss those as spiritually hollow and ultimately destructive, and pass on breezily to invective about the charlatanry of salesmanship. This isn’t argument, it’s rhetoric, intellectually salesmanship. Given Nibley’s jeremiads about the evils of rhetoric it is gloriously ironic to see the way in which he so frequently uses rhetorical plaster over the holes in his analysis. Berry deploys his own, often luminous eloquence in the same way.

    The answer to your question is that it depends. Not all markets are the same. Not all markets function equally well. Not all markets are equally benign (or destructive). In general my answer is “Yes, the social benefits of well functioning markets, in particular their ability to inculcate habits of trust and cooperation are worth the price that one pays in terms of complexity, specialization, and inequality.” Among this particular triumvirate of horsemen, complexity and specialization hold comparatively few horrors for me. Indeed, to the extent that the distaste for complexity and specialization comes from a philosophical bias in favor of systems whose simplicity allows them to be compassed by a single human mind, I actually think that the distaste is politically pernicious and rests on a misunderstanding about the nature of human knowledge.

    You are right about the complexity of sorting out the problems of Italy’s south, but this doesn’t detract from my central point, namely that one of the major inputs into the success of the north is its more commercial character. If my example of medieval Jewish merchants sounds all corporate (in a Gierke kind of way) and guildish to you, consider a large modern business corporation such as BP. I know that it is an article of faith in the progressive imagination that such institutions are filled with hollowed men and women engaged in a heartless rat race with one another. This caricature, however, misses the reality, however, that a multinational like BP is a vast cooperative enterprise that simply could not function without enormous levels of internal and external trust. Now at times there is no denying that that trust is abused and betrayed in spectacular fashion, but this fact ought not to blind us to the miracle of human cooperation that ordinary day to day corporate and commercial activity represents.

    This does not mean that I am identifying Zion with modern corporate life. This would be absurd. On the other hand, it would be equally absurd to say that farming also represents Zion in miniature. My point is that both economic activities rest upon a certain set of virtues. I find Berry’s invocation of the virtues and humility inculcated by husbandry powerful, but I find his condemnation of commerce shallow. Commerce is not a world of rapacious individualism. It is a world of complex voluntary cooperation, cooperation that inculcates its own admirable set of virtues.

  11. Nate Oman on June 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Adam: On the suspicion and hostility of Zion, I think that I both agree with you and disagree with you. You are certainly right that Zion rests it least in part on a dichotomy with Babylon, but there is this double mindedness in the scriptures and the sermons of the prophets on this. Zion is both a place of refuge to flee from the evils of the world, but it is also a point of gathering of people, ideas, and even goods and services. One set of images makes it sound like a fortress and another set of images makes it sound like and entrepot.

  12. cadams on June 7, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I think some of this thought has been already expressed for over a hundred years.

    For example, Orson Pratt explained “we build the road as we go.” The agrarian model of Missouri could evolve into owning shares in the Provo woolen mills. I think it was President Taylor who explained that owning shares in a cooperative was equivalent to a farm stewardship, as long as the principles of consecration were adhered to.

    Having said that, I think it is clear that it is good for mankind to be involved in gardening and agriculture. Pres. Kimball noted that the command to sweat by the brow involves manual labor in a garden. No profession however honorable can take that place. I also believe that the stake farms were an inspired principle – that each stake be independent, with sufficient stores of grain and supplies – and that in the future this will be of greater importance than now.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Wouldn’t a university be anomalous in a society that gives priority to agriculture? A school as large as BYU requires enormous amounts of organization and specialization and capital (both real property and books and equipment). Even with subsidies from the Church, it still asks for tuition payments and sells textbooks and rents dormitory rooms and sells food. Yet it is all in the service of higher goals than making a profit. Why couldn’t that be a partial model for the economy of Zion? After all, learning is one of the few things we know we will be doing right on through into the Celestial Kingdom.

    To be in the modern world and fulfill the missions of the Church, the Latter-day Saints need an economy that will support rapid communication and rapid travel and rapid management of funds. The Amish model seems to work for low concentration communities, but I have a hard time conceiving of the Amish marshalling the resources to establish and sustain missions all over the world in 92 languages, conducting family history research to sustain work for the dead, and maintaining unity via communications among congregations in 150 plus countries, especially when there needs to be transfers of capital from established communities to those that have fewer indigenous resources within the Church membership.

    Many of the technologies we are looking to to have ultimately the smallest environmental footprint and be most sustainable in the long run include ones that rely on high technology, like wind power and solar power and linkages into an electric grid that can shift power around and make up for the local variations in wind and solar power.

    It is technology that gives us the most potential for agricultural surpluses that can carry us through inevitable droughts and hurricanes and other problems that can devastate local agriculture. Every time the Church sends plane loads of food to a disaster zone, it is a testimony to the inadequacy of a strictly local agricultural economy to sustain societies against the inevitable hazards of mortal life. When thousands of Church members flock to a disaster zone to help move fallen trees and muck out flooded homes, we depend on modern communications and transportation to marshal the resources.

  14. living in zion on June 7, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    As a side note to an interesting topic, I always thought of Nibley’s wishful thinking of a consecrated community as coming from his personal life. During the time he was raising a family they were the poor church mice. He didn’t have any money so like many folks who don’t have any resources, he yearned for a world that would offer that security and stability for his own situation.

  15. Jacob J on June 7, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Nate, great post, thanks. I especially enjoyed the Nibley take down in the first paragraph of #10. If only Nibley were the only one to employ that strategy.

    Raymond: but I have a hard time conceiving of the Amish marshalling the resources to establish and sustain missions all over the world in 92 languages

    In a similar vein, when is the last time the Amish were first to arrive after a natural disaster to deliver food, clothes, and other relief. Simple living has its benefits, but it also has its drawbacks.

  16. Russell Arben Fox on June 7, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Nate,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and fair response. We’ll probably continue to disagree until the end about the relative amounts of rhetorical excess vs. analytical seriousness in writers like Nibley and Berry. How much of our different impressions go back to our basic comfort or discomfort with the socio-economic and cultural systems we are part of, and our distaste or desire for radical challenges to such, is probably something we’ll never know for certain.

    “Indeed, to the extent that the distaste for complexity and specialization comes from a philosophical bias in favor of systems whose simplicity allows them to be compassed by a single human mind, I actually think that the distaste is politically pernicious and rests on a misunderstanding about the nature of human knowledge.”

    Obviously I disagree with you, though I can appreciate the point your making. It is the same, very reasonable point which is made again and again by classical liberals and postmodern pluralists alike: that the human mind and human behavior is so fundamentally circumscribed by the variety and unknowability of the agency of others (to say nothing of the will of God) that to attempt to impose upon it, or discover within it, anything beyond fairly minimal patterns and rules is to threaten liberty, or to engage in an ideological blinkeredness, etc. Heaven knows that just about every example of collectivist thinking has serious downsides in both of those regards. But by the same token, do you always appreciate the point about the upsides? Sandel’s “possibility that when politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone”? Or, more relevantly to a discussion about Zion, the nature of God’s grace to make immanent in our neighborly relations with one another a basis for love, trust, and cooperation? This may be taking us far away from questions of economics and agrarianism, but then again maybe not: if we simply abandon the possibility of articulating a way of living which is smaller, more local, more self-sustaining and hence relatively less specialized and and simpler, are we not abandoning the possibility of making it easier for Zion-like conditions to be both known and pursued? At the uncharitable extreme (and that I don’t mean that to describe you; I’m just putting it out there), your warning that human beings cannot possibly know enough to be able to collectively limit or discipline their lives or economies along the lines of justice or righteousness suggests that the very notion of intentional communities is always a vain one.

    “[A] multinational like BP is a vast cooperative enterprise that simply could not function without enormous levels of internal and external trust.”

    I’ve heard you make this argument before, and I’ve wondered something about it, and this is as good a time to ask as any. I assume that in your argument you make place for the basic Smithian observation that what brings people together into complex and specialized economic relations with one another is self-interest. I also assume that you argue that self-interest doesn’t undermine trust, or that the two are mutually compatible somehow. So, in BP today, there is the motivate of self-interest, but there is also the motivation of trust. How do you actually parse that out? Or, do you say that self-interest, properly understood, and trust are basically the same thing? Or maybe you actually disagree with Smith, and argue that the division of labor and the trading mentality and all the rest are driven mostly a kind of curious sympathy for other people, a desire to make ourselves dependent upon them and for them to become dependent upon us, and hence trust comes along with it naturally? I really am genuinely curious how you define the things called “trust” and “cooperation” in the context of a modern corporation, and whether you think those definitions are different or the same as the ones that we use in church.

    “My point is that both economic activities rest upon a certain set of virtues. I find Berry’s invocation of the virtues and humility inculcated by husbandry powerful, but I find his condemnation of commerce shallow. Commerce is not a world of rapacious individualism. It is a world of complex voluntary cooperation, cooperation that inculcates its own admirable set of virtues.”

    Again, a fair response–one that does not exhaust the critique (some virtues may be more important to Zion than other virtues, after all), but which puts an important qualification upon it. Did I ever tell you that I had my students last semester read a chapter of McCloskey’s on the “bourgeois virtues” of commercial society? Most of them didn’t get it, but one student–really, the best in the class–thought it was the most interesting thing we read all year.

  17. Mike M. on June 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Nate, Your post reminds me of some suggestive findings from experimental economics. In various cross-country, cross-cultural experiments, there is a striking and significant positive relationship between trust exhibited and the degree of market intergration: people in more integrated advanced economies exhibit more trust.

    One simple interpretation given of this is that market intergretion requires trust, i.e., highly integretated markets do not work without some degree of basic trust. Think of eBay, which works most of the time in large part because of an inordinate about of trust that the seller will ship the product. Adam Smith made a similar point. His invisible hand idea is mischaracterized most of the time as something arising solely from selfishness, but in fact he acknowledged that it required a high degree of adherence to basic rules of fair behavior.

    One interesting thing about this interpretation is that is reverses the causality so often assumed in arguments of the type you are criticizing, namely that that markets undermine goodness in one way or another. For sure this interpretation above is too simple and the inferences made are too strong, but it is just more compelling evidence that Nibley and others maintain a view of markets and commercial society that is too caricatured to allow them to make convincing claims about the details of economic life in a Zion community.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  18. Adam Greenwood on June 7, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Fair enough, Nate. However, if the scriptures at least in part support a “hostility and suspicion” version of Zion, then its harder to discount Nibley on those grounds.

    I’m pretty much sympathetic to your point, but I wonder how much of the trust we see in integrated market participants is due to their market participation–you’ve limned an argument for correlation but to show that the market is *conducive* to Zion you really need to show causation.

    Abnother thought: there appears to be a correlation between cultures that value extended family relations and cultures that don’t do markets as well. It even appears that the extended family relations partially cause the inability to do markets well. Conversely, societies with poorly functioning markets tend to encourage reliance on extended family networks. So perhaps the Zion answer to the farm or market question is neither–farms, in our telling, leave to mistrust outside families, whereas markets lead to levels of trust that are adequate for commercial purposes but have weak families.

  19. Mike M. on June 7, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Adam,

    I agree that we often see reliance on extended families and strong families go together, but they are not identical. You can have strong families that rely on market interdependence rather than extended families for support. For example, for my family’s security, I have taken out a life insurance policy via the market rather than relying on extended family to support my wife and children should I die. I don’t think my family is weaker for this.

    Russell,

    A quick comment re one of your good questions addressed to Nate… According to some current thinking in economics, cooperations are not markets but are instead pockets of hierarchy within markets, akin to how families are pockets of hierarchy within markets. Firms/corporations exist because cooperative activities are better accomplished via hierarchies than via markets. As I understand this view wo, trust and cooperation within corporations mean the same thing as in other settings and are maintained in similar ways as in other hierarchies (repeated interactions, reciprocity, etc.).

  20. Mike M. on June 7, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Correction: “…certain types of cooperative activities are better accomplished via hierarchies than via market…”

  21. John C. on June 7, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Nate,
    I’m curious about the dichotomy that is being drawn between cooperative commerce and asocial agriculture. It strikes me that this divide is too simplistic. Take the example of a barn-raising. That is essentially a cooperative endeavor and it can create the sense of common obligation and reciprocal aid that is necessary for the formation of a community. Additionally, there are no purely agricultural societies, just as there are no purely commercial societies. Even ancient societies relied on finding the proper balance of local and foreign goods in order make culture and community function.

    I doubt you buy into this dichotomy, but the whole approach seems to take it for granted. Are you seeing it in the arguments of Nibley, Berry, et al. and then are responding to it?

  22. Nate Oman on June 7, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Mike M.: I have seen some of the same studies and they are behind a lot of my thinking for this post.

    John C.: One needn’t suppose that societies are purely one thing or another for the central thrust of this post to make sense. There is pretty good empirical support for the proposition that differing forms of economic organization are more or less conducive to trust. Trading and hunting lead to trust, agriculture less so. It doesn’t follow from this there is no trust or cooperation in agricultural societies. This is because no society is purely commercial or agrarian, and hence there are trust inducing commercial elements in agrarian society. Also, just because commerce seems to do a better job instilling trust, it doesn’t follow that agriculture doesn’t instill it as well. On nuance, I have two responses. First, if you are looking for nuance, blogs are the wrong place to go-a-hunting. Second, nuance is frequently a hinderance to useful thought. Frequently, we make advances in our thinking through concepts that allow for useful or illuminating simplification. Often, nuance is simply the safe answer in a grad seminar or academic symposia, kind of like answering “keep the commandments” in Sunday School.

  23. TMD on June 8, 2010 at 12:16 am

    I think that your discussion is problematic because you don’t define trust in a sufficiently rigorous way.

    Your approach, though a bit soft on the point, seems to be more focused on rational (if difuse) expectations of reciprocal behavior (which is how Putnam conceptualizes it in the Italy book) motivated by self-interest. But much of the social psychological literature tends to approach trust as an expectation of helping vs. hurting behavior, based on character, because it is perceived character–‘goodness’ that makes one trustable. I think you may be right that without common economic institutions, rational expectations of reciprocal behavior are unlikely to develop–which means that without them, agrarian communities are nothing special.

    But I think that the more general argument fails because I don’t know that rational expectations of reciprocal behaivor, based on each actor’s self interest, is really that closely tied to a zion community. I do think that perceiving goodness in each other is part of a Zion community. So, the question, then, is if an agrarain rather than an industrialized or post-industrialized socio-economic organization encourages people to percieve the goodness of their neighbor’s character. I’m not sure on the answer there, except insofar as agrarian communities do tend to allow greater regular interaction with others (less anonymity) which could lead to this generation of perceived goodness in those around oneself.

  24. Nate Oman on June 8, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Russell: I don’t have much time to respond, but I did want to flesh out quickly what I meant by cooperation in the corporate context. I don’t simply mean the coordination of self-interested wealth maximizing behavior. (Also, for what it is worth, this wasn’t really Adam Smith’s position either.) To be sure, I think that people cooperate in corporations in part to generate wealth for themselves. On the other hand, involvement in corporate enterprise can also involve fellow-feeling, friendship, esprit de corp, and even altruism. I don’t suppose that any particular person’s motives are pure (indeed, I don’t think that many human motives ever are). Hence, I think that self-interest, friendship, and fellow feeling are all tangled up in terms of the kind of cooperation involved. It is interesting in this regard to see the divide between the way in which firms get conceptualized in economics departments versus business schools. Economists are fond of talking about firms as rational wealth-maximizers. This is seldom how they are presented in business schools. To be sure, a lot of what goes on in management thinking is pop-psychology nonsense and some of it is simply an attempt to perfect the methods of manipulation. On the other hand, much of it is an acknowledgment that corporations are in some sense communities whose success depends on internal trust, cohesion, and cooperation. That is why business schools spend a lot of time talking about “leadership” and “motivation,” two ideas that don’t make a lot of sense if we were simply talking about the coordination of purely self-regarding interests.

    TMD: If I understand your objection it is that the kind of cooperate engendered by commercial activity consists simply of reciprocal expectations based on self-interested behavior. My understanding of the research on cross cultural cooperation is that this is not what has been found. For example, my understanding is that people in commercial society are more likely to engage in charitable associations, are less likely to view their neighbors as dangerous predators, etc. We are talking about more than simply some sort of stable equilibria based on the wealth maximization of self-interested actors.

    Adam: There is certainly a chicken and egg problem with cooperation and trust on one side and markets and commerce on the other. There may well be something to what you are saying with regard to markets and extended families, although there is also a long history of successful commercial cultures built on the backbone of extended family relationships. I am thinking here in particular of successful trade diasporas such as Jews in the medieval Mediterranean or ethnic Chinese in southeast Asia.

  25. Nate Oman on June 8, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Mike M.: I like your point about the Coasian firm and human motivation, although I think that it would be a mistake to see market activity as a pure realm of self-interested coordination and the firm as a pure realm of hierarchical community. I think that a lot of internal dynamics within firms can be usefully thought of as a market and I think that the psychology and sociology of markets is considerably richer than is suggested by the rational actor model its demonstrable heuristic value notwithstanding.

  26. TMD on June 8, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Nate: Since you invoke joining charitable organizations, I assume that you mean the kind of ‘trust’ Putnam is talking about. If you read him quite carefully, you will find that the root of everthing he is talking about are reciprocity expectations based in self interest, rather than strong beliefs aobut the character of others.

    Now, if there is other research you’re referring to, I’d be happy to look at it, but my experience is that the conceptual and intellectual wall between social pschology and economic research is really quite high. This is even true of the so called behavioral economists, who sometimes seem to be talking about similar things. Even their experimental methodologies are very different–such that many experimental economists won’t allow former participants in social psychology experiments into their experiments for fear of reaction effects.

  27. James Olsen on June 8, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Thanks Nate, I very much enjoyed the research and points you’ve brought up. One thing that’s in serious need of discussion here (but as you allude to above, how much can one do in a single blog post?): what else, beyond trust and cooperation, are needed? You begin to discuss this with Fox’s challenge as to whether whatever forms of T&C we get from complex market economies outweigh the potential ills, and Adam’s discussion of the trade-off with family strength, but it ends with a sort of shoulder shrugging, “I think so/who knows?” You’re impressed with Berry’s list of husbandry-induced virtues and lament the lack of acknowledgement of trade-induced virtues. Well, what are the other virtues? What are the comparative ranges and facilitations of virtues that take place in agriculture vs. trade, beyond the economic/sociological studies you refer to that indicate preliminary findings on T&C? As an initial, research-supported volley against some of Nibley’s excessive rhetoric this all seems quite worthwhile, but I’m not sure it goes far enough beyond this to help us reasonably judge the relative merits of contemporary capitalism over more antiquated versions of cooperative agriculture for building Zion or encouraging/rewarding Zion-like people.

  28. Russell Arben Fox on June 8, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Nate,

    [By cooperation] I don’t simply mean the coordination of self-interested wealth maximizing behavior. (Also, for what it is worth, this wasn’t really Adam Smith’s position either.)

    Granted. Smith had a definite since of the particular virtues, particularly sympathy, which the division of labor, specialization, and commercial activity in general made possible. However, as I read him, he also was rather emphatic on the point that no prior moral understanding was necessary to make possible the establishment of such commercial-virtue-generating contexts; it would happen entirely through the application of self-love. I know of efforts to philosophically resolve this, but for myself, I’ve not yet read one that fully makes sense. (Any recommendations?)

    To be sure, a lot of what goes on in management thinking is pop-psychology nonsense and some of it is simply an attempt to perfect the methods of manipulation. On the other hand, much of it is an acknowledgment that corporations are in some sense communities whose success depends on internal trust, cohesion, and cooperation.

    Interesting. A question, though: if corporations can be legitimately conceived as “communities” in some sense, then how do we know that the presumed virtues of corporations and business transactions, as identified by some of the scholarship which you rely upon to support your basic contention against agricultural economies, isn’t in fact identifying anything specific to trade and business, but rather is simple picking up on the virtues common to all communities? In which case, you’re not really arguing that trading societies make for more Zion-like trust and cooperation; you’re arguing that commercial societies provide a greater number of opportunities for communitarian contexts, and the Zion-like trust and cooperation concomitant to such.

    I actually think, now that I’ve actually put it down, that this is possibly a really interesting line of argument. For one thing, it intersects with your exchange with Adam about extended families and the like. Perhaps the particular, often non- or at least less-specialized labor performed in agricultural and/or localist economies is better performed, for any number of sociological reasons, by families or other intentionally associated groups; hence, the communitarian virtues of such environments, while real, are not as broad or numerous as those in extended, commercial economies, since the latter oblige or invite their participants to find or build communities all over the place. The subsequent research question would be: are the communities of corporations and commercial exchanges, even if more numerous, substantively the same, in strength, range, and duration, as the smaller number of communities which exist is agrarian environs? But perhaps you would reject this whole line of argument, and insist that it isn’t the communitarian feeling which emerges amongst co-workers who engage in trade side-by-side which is relevant, but the actual work of trade itself that creates feelings cooperation and trust. I find that very hard to believe, since–besides the fact that the scant references to Zion-like conditions in the scriptures suggest otherwise–I really don’t see how that’s philosophically possible. But then again, as I said above, perhaps you know of arguments which make better sense of Smith’s (and others’) insistence on that seeming incompatibility than I’ve yet read.

    Also, thanks to James for opening the discussion up. Trust and cooperation are obviously Zion-like (or at least Zion-amenable) virtues; but are they the only ones? Obviously not. So what are the others, and how does localist/agrarian worlds vs. extended/commercial worlds stack up in their case?

  29. Adam Greenwood on June 8, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    “although there is also a long history of successful commercial cultures built on the backbone of extended family relationships. I am thinking here in particular of successful trade diasporas such as Jews in the medieval Mediterranean or ethnic Chinese in southeast Asia.

    But these market-dominant minorities, while fairly trusting within the group, were not at all trusting outside the group. In fact, it was their somewhat adversarial position to the majority ethnicities that seemed to allow for so much in-group trust. We’re back to hostility and suspicion here.

  30. chris on June 9, 2010 at 3:25 am

    I would suggest love supplants trust when it comes to being one heart and one mind and achieving the unity God would have us find with Him through his Son. Certainly trust can come out of that love.

    Regardless, I think looking any temporal economic models, all of which have a focus on materialistic things rather than loving God first and loving your neighbor as yourself is not really going to be help in determining what kind of community Zion will thrive in.

  31. Tod Robbins on June 9, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Nate, I very much enjoyed your post. I think you are totally off with your assessment of agrarianism being individualistic and entrepreneurship somehow equating to cooperation. I see the opposite in numerous cases throughout recorded history, modern, medieval, and ancient.

  32. Tod Robbins on June 9, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Also, Adam Smith was an agrarian philosopher.

  33. Tod Robbins on June 9, 2010 at 10:54 am

    PS: I’m realizing my comments seem aggressive. Sorry, I didn’t mean them to come off grouchy.

  34. Russell Arben Fox on June 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Todd, I agree with you in thinking that Nate is operating with a highly selective reading of the data in claiming that agrarian environments are “individualistic”; however, I don’t doubt that Nate is correct that entrepreneurship and trade often can be, despite the claims of radical agrarian critics like Nibley and Berry, conducive to certain potentially Zion-like communitarian virtues. Ultimately, as I stated above, I just think some more comparative work is necessary here–just what kind of “cooperation” is it which extended commercial environments potentially engenders, and is it really equivalent (much less superior) to the cooperative virtues which much history, sociology, philosophy and scripture often associates with localist and agrarian economies?

    Also, how was Adam Smith an “agrarian philosopher”? That one I don’t get at all.

  35. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 14, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Cinque Terre in Northern Italy combines agrarian communities with cooperative needs, or did.

    The underlying basic rule is that for the most part you can make cooperative ventures work with up to 200 or so adult workers in them (cf the Hutterite self-replicating agrarian communities as well as their manufacturing ones).

    Larger communities need different approaches.

  36. Steve V. on June 16, 2010 at 9:43 am

    As a progressive, I find the comparison of the two types of cooperation here to be a false equivalence. Cooperation in commerce is primarily driven by self interest (i.e., for purposes of survival or getting ahead). I suppose one could argue that cooperation in agrarian settings is similarly motivated (e.g., irrigation). I think you would be hard pressed to say that a barn raising or the cooperation encouraged by cultural tradition (gotong royong) fall along these lines though. I also recognize that the Book of Mormon gives license to seek riches for the purpose of doing good. In commerce this seems to be the extremely rare exception to the rule where for the most part actions are governed by profit margins. In that sense, I find that the motivation for cooperation in commerce is diametrically opposed to that required for establishing zion; that is, for the most part, it is carnally minded rather than spiritually minded.

  37. Dennis on June 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I’m coming to this post late–in my minimization of technologized sociality, I haven’t frequented blogs as much lately. But this was brought to my attention.

    I just want to add a few things to the conversation. First, let me say that I have been very influenced by the writings of Wendell Berry (who is NOT an “intellectual agrarian” by the way–he is an agrarian who happens to write books and poetry). I like Nibley a lot too, but I’m less familiar with his writings–so I’ll stick with Berry here.

    The issue, for me, is not really about what Berry writes — his main concern is simply fidelity with his home community, and therefore if you agree with everything he says you’re not reading him very carefully — it’s with how he is taken up by folks like us who live in a very non-agrarian world. I’m under no illusion that a return in agriculture is possible or even desirable, at least in most places in the U.S. But your argument, Nate, is fairly humdrum in my opinion — markets and globalization don’t need anyone’s defense. If we lived in a medieval agrarian world, I’d probably be one of the first to extol principles of trade, industry, travel, etc. So the argument here needs to, in the spirit of your post, be un-intellectualized and put in the context of how the world is right now. Which, at least in the U.S., grows further and further from local- and community-mindedness. This is what is troublesome. This is why Berry and others like him are so refreshing and why they truly “speak.” And, in my opinion, we should be taking them seriously and trying to be more locally-minded within our own sphere. Which, in all honesty, is probably orthogonal to intellectual arguments on a blog.

    One last thing. I don’t see “trust” as an inherent virtue. One can trust someone for all sorts of unsavory reasons (e.g., secret combinations seem to be as faithful to their members as anything). The issue is what is happening in a trusting relationship, and how that is wound up in what makes us children of our Heavenly Father. Certainly, then, trust that is bound up in intimacy and charity, is what is needed. This doesn’t solve this debate, but it may help to frame it a little differently.

  38. Natalie on June 18, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Nice post–I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in the OP. Since some of you asked for more reading materials, I’m currently reading “Welcome to the Urban Revolution,” which gives numerous case studies of the relationships between rural and urban society throughout the US and developing countries. I’d highly recommend it for accessible yet data rich looks many of the topics discussed here.

    I’m not sure that the kind of agrarian society that we like to idealize can really be understood anymore (and probably for a long time) apart from urban dynamics. Even the “local food” farms in my relatively rural area exist largely because of the money and culture that flows in from the region’s urban areas.