The Law of Consecration

The real deal

When I first learned that the original Latter Day Saints tried to practice a form of economic collectivism (the United Order, which can be understood as an embodiment of the Law of Consecration), I didn’t really give it too much thought. They tried something, they failed because people aren’t perfect, and now the Law of Consecration has been replaced by the Law of Tithing.

Except it hasn’t. Recently my brother reminded me of the difference between “laws” and “rules.” A law, as he describes it, is like the law of gravity or electro-magnetism. Like science, a law is understanding that leads to power. Rules are specific instructions for how to live. Like technology, a rule is replaced by another rule when the current one becomes obsolete. In other words, laws explain why rules work (or don’t work).

So what is it that we need to understand about the Law of Consecration? What is it trying to tell us about the human condition. In my view, it is something like: You can’t be happy by yourself. You need unity with your fellow man, and pride stands in the way of this unity.

But why is it that the early saints thought they should engage in economic collectivism as a way to achieve unity? Is collectivism essential to unlocking the power of the Law of Consecration, or were they just naive?

One thing to note is that there were a lot of experiments with collectivism at the time the saints tried to establish the United Order. Communism might even be included in that category. Another thing to note is that some of the experiments were actually (somewhat) successful. For example, about 10% of Israel’s economic output comes from kibbutzim to this day. Most Kibbutzim have evolved, and many have failed, but the movement persists. So should the modern saints be more interested in finding working models of the economic collectivism?

Before answering that, let me get back to pride for a minute. I define pride as the desire for status. I think it’s a good thing. It motivates people to work, to invent, to succeed. In a modern society, where most of our physical needs are (relatively) easily satisfied, pride makes the world go round.

Sure, pride can go wrong just like any other human condition, but for the most part it usually leads people to do productive work in jobs that provide services to other people. This is one of the great things about the market economy. We don’t have to love each other in order to help each other. We can all pursue our own interests and somehow together we achieve a pretty admirable level of cooperation.

So why would we need the Law of Consecration telling us to set aside our pride in order to achieve unity? It’s like a rebuke of the Standard Model of Happiness: however far your pride takes you (and it can take you far), it will always leave you empty on some level.

The Law of Consecration is kind of like the admonition to “turn the other cheek”. We all kind of ignore it because we know that isn’t how the world works. We can’t just give up everything we own! All would be chaos! Our purposes would sputter out and evil would win.

In fact, we can’t even afford to be equal to our closest friends and partners. I tried this a few years ago. A friend and I were trying to start a new business. I brought some things to the table, and so did he. But I thought my things were more valuable because they were more practical. His ideas felt a little more abstract. Ultimately, it turns out we each preferred to work on our own individual ideas and the plans to start something together broke down.

Pride = the thought that my contribution was more valuable, and I wanted to get proportional credit for my contribution.

But I’m not done talking about how pride/individualism is a good thing. Let’s do a little thought experiment to show an example of why it can be justified. People have different preferences. Let’s say that two people have roughly 12 hours a day to split between work and leisure. They both can get paid $50/hr to work, and they value leisure time as follows:

Given a choice, Alice will work 10 hrs/day and take 2 hours of leisure time (because the $30 in value she gets from the 3rd hour of leisure time is less than the $50 she gets from working). Bob will work 8 hrs/day and take 4 hours of leisure time. So Alice doesn’t want to form an economic union with Bob because in her view, he will shirk.

Plus, there is the issue that if they have to share their income, they each only get to keep $25 per hour they work (they get another $25 from each hour the other person works, but they don’t get to choose that amount in this model). So if we just go by this chart, once they join together Alice will choose to work 9 hrs per day (3 hrs of leisure) and Bob will work 7 hrs per day (5 hours of leisure). So they will each work less, and Alice will work more than Bob.

In this simple example, we are able to put an exact number on how much worse off they will be by joining forces. Alone, Alice will earn $500 per day and enjoy $180 worth of leisure. Alice’s total = $680. Bob will earn $400 per day and enjoy $360 worth of leisure time. Bob’s total = $760 (his is bigger because he values leisure time so much more).

If they form an economic union, Alice earns $450 per day and Bob earns $350 per day. The split that and each gets $400. Alice enjoys $210 of leisure per day for a total of $610. Bob enjoys $400 worth of leisure each day for a total of $800. So in this toy example, Alice loses $70 per day by the union and Bob gets a benefit of $40 per day. Somewhat predictably, the person who values leisure more makes out better and the person who sees less value in leisure loses out. Interestingly, the total value they receive goes down from $1,440 to $1,410.

Another really fascinating aside is that in this simple model they split the money up evenly, and Bob ends up more “happy”. What if they split the happiness up evenly? Since you can’t give up leisure time, in order for them to be even Bob would have to give Alice $45, even though she already has more money. But splitting money up evenly is a lot easier than splitting happiness up evenly!

Anyway, this is why it’s so hard to have unity. Life is a lot more complex, but the model backs up the intuition that almost everyone has (excluding some on the far left) that economic collectivism is bad, even on a very tiny scale.

Point for the Law of Pride!

Nevertheless, I still hold out hope for the Law of Consecration. In fact, my tribal concept (i.e., the quasi-religious family company) includes a collectivist element. Why would I advocate this, when I know it doesn’t work?

Two reasons:

  1. The costs of economic unity can be mitigated (esp. on a small scale)
  2. There are benefits

First, mitigating the problems. In the simple example above, the obvious way to resolve the problem of reduced overall utility is for Alice and Bob to commit to a certain amount of work before hand. For example, if they measured how much they were working before the agreement and they both agreed to work the same amount as before, there would be no loss of utility.

The reason I say this mitigates the problem instead of solves it is that the commitment would be imperfect and enforcing it comes at a cost. It would be complicated to figure out what the right amount of work for each person is, especially because our preferences aren’t constant (for a given person over time, in addition to being different among people). Plus, enforcing a commitment might involve using negative force like guilt or social pressure, however subtle it might be. Still, I mutual commitments can reduce the overall loss.

Second, being part of a unified entity provides benefits. Although a detailed explanation of the benefits is beyond the scope of this post (and probably beyond the scope of my understanding) a few of them might be as follows:

  • It feels meaningful to participate in something bigger than ourselves
  • Committing to other people provides an incentive for us to invest more in understanding each other and finding ways of symbiotic participation, so our work can become more productive

Ok, suppose you are convinced by the argument that being part of a committed, bigger-than-yourself entity is valuable. The question remains whether the commitment has to involve economic equality in order to achieve those benefits.

People engage in many different forms of meaningful cooperation, and in my experience being part of a great team is a happy circumstance even if there is no long term commitment. So maybe the answer is a little more simple: find some good people to work with and stick with them.

Still, I think that due to our history (i.e., the Law of Consecration and the fact that the early saints understood it to mean something like the United Order), the LDS people should be more interested in experimenting with how to make economic collectivism work. Just because there are obvious reasons why the United Order failed doesn’t mean they had it all wrong. Maybe they had something right, and maybe its time to start taking it more seriously.

I don’t have all the answers regarding the actual rules (i.e., the spiritual technology) that could make it work. As I mentioned above, my pride got in the way even when I tried to do something as simple as start a business with a friend. But maybe it is something we can start talking about.

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters