Is Greed Good?
What Happened to the Common Good?
By Chris Henrichsen
Jacob, a Book of Mormon prophet, laments in a speech to his people that their blessings of great wealth and prosperity have caused them to become prideful, even to the point that they "persecute [their] brethren because [they] suppose that [they] are better than the[ir brethren]." (Jacob 2:13)
This encroaching Social Darwinism (not called this during Jacob's day), the idea that one's wealth is somehow a sign of natural or even spiritual superiority, has been a challenge to Christians throughout time. Pride not only causes problems for the prideful, who begin to view their wealth as a result of their own effort instead of the providence of God, but also undermines the possibility of community.
Brigham Young was President of the LDS Church during the rise of 19th-century Social Darwinism. He viewed this sense of superiority, along with its inherent acceptance and praise of inequality, as a threat to the community-focused approach to economics and development, which he had used to settle much of the Mountain West. However, one of the best descriptions of the dangers of inequality to Christian community in Mormon sources is in the Book of Mormon. In 3rd Nephi 6, we read about the condition of the Nephites around the time of Christ. Then, as in Jacob's day, as well as during the industrial revolution or the 1990s, some achieved great wealth, while others were left behind.
(3Ne 6:12) And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches. 13Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God. 14And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land...
This great inequality in the land undermined the church, because the people no longer viewed themselves as one. They could not view themselves as all part of the body of Christ. The challenge of inequality to social cooperation is one that is not limited to faith-communities, but is also found in political communities and economic systems.
The 20th century political philosopher John Rawls argued that extreme economic inequality undermines the real possibility of equal democratic citizenship. The reason for this is that the drastic gap between the very rich and the rest of us creates two types of citizens, with the rich having a much greater control over the political process because of their wealth.
Even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman and a long-time disciple of Ayn Rand, has expressed concern about the disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class. Greenspan worried that the large disparity between the rich and everyone else would undermine the faith in capitalism held by the average system.