One of the Book of Mormon’s most distinctive features is its presentation of the “pride cycle” as a type of meta-narrative that describes how societies rise to prosperity through humility and righteousness, become convinced that this prosperity is the result of their own talent, skill, or effort (as opposed to viewing prosperity as a gift from God), then plunging into the depths of social depravity as a result of their unwarranted and un-Godlike pride in their own talent, strength, and ambition. Rinse and repeat.
The juxtaposition of righteous societies and those ripe for God’s wrath, as presented in the Book of Mormon, could not be more stark. A common component of both types of societies is the people’s relationship with wealth or “riches.” Jacob encapsulates this comparison succinctly:
13 And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
On one hand, Jacob uses riches to illustrate that “providence [had] smiled upon [the people] most pleasingly.” And yet, in the same sentence he condemns those who, because of the providential gift of riches, “[wore] stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of [their] apparel.” Jacob also condemns the rich for believing themselves to be better than the less fortunate, or perhaps even those of means but who chose not to wear costly apparel.
Similarly, the Nephites living just prior to Jesus’ advent in 3rd Nephi displayed similar characteristics:
10 But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions; 11 For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers. 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. 13 Some 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. 14 And 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 save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.
3 Nephi 6:10-14
A key element of this passage is the mention of distinct “ranks according to their riches and chances for learning” as well as the explicit reference to “inequality in all the land” that led to the break up and division of both the people and the Church. It seems that for these Nephites, ranks defined by wealth and education produced “persecution and all manner of afflictions.”
By contrast, 4th Nephi describes a people who “had all things in common.”
1 And it came to pass that the thirty and fourth year passed away, and also the thirty and fifth, and behold the disciples of Jesus had formed a church of Christ in all the lands round about. And as many as did come unto them, and did truly repent of their sins, were baptized in the name of Jesus; and they did also receive the Holy Ghost. 2 And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. 3 And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.
4 Nephi 1:1-3
Later in 4th Nephi, as the people begin to fall away from godliness, they are described in similar terms as those utilized by Jacob.
42 And it came to pass that the wicked part of the people began again to build up the secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton. 43 And also the people who were called the people of Nephi began to be proud in their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, and become vain like unto their brethren, the Lamanites. 44 And from this time the disciples began to sorrow for the sins of the world.
4 Nephi 1:42-44
These references to wealth disparity in conjunction with societal moral decay deserve serious consideration; especially in light of current economic conditions in the United States and other countries around the world. Just as in the Book of Mormon, wealth disparity is creating unnecessary and harmful divisions that threaten not only our collective moral sentiments, but also the foundation of representative democracy.
According to the 2012 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, average individual wealth (net assets, not income) per adult was $262,351. Median wealth per adult was $38,786. One does not need to have studied statistic to know that severe outliers are pulling the mean drastically upward.
The graph below shows the distribution of wealth in the United States in 2007:
While the US Gini coefficient has remained relatively constant since the 1940s there has been a drastic consolidation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals to a level not seen since before the Great Depression.
A sharp decline in America’s middle class is a direct threat to a healthy and functional representative democracy just as growing poverty poses a serious threat to the middle class. Political theorists have long known that a strong, large, and vibrant middle class is necessary for a functional democracy (mostly) free of corruption and cronyism. A strong middle class is tied to many measures of societal health including higher levels of education and lower incidents of crime. Perhaps most importantly, a large middle class benefits the poor. “Trickle down” or “voodoo” economics is effective and does provide opportunity for the less fortunate. But only if the trickle begins with the middle class and flows downward.
A vibrant middle class also perpetuates a healthy economy as more individuals have access to more assets to be invested or put towards other job and opportunity-creating activities. As the middle class shrinks and great wealth is consolidated in the hands of a few, distinct ranks based on wealth and education (3rd Nephi 6) become increasingly pronounced. Wealth disparity at the levels we see today is not only extremely unhealthy for our society but it also creates an economic environment that is unsustainable.
The current trend can be reversed. Politicians will debate tax and monetary policy, as it relates to this issue, endlessly. But there are things private citizens can do to help create a more healthy and sustainable economic and social environment.
Christians, and especially Mormons, should disavow any notion of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” This is a pernicious concept that teaches individual righteousness will (not simply can) lead to earthly wealth. What is especially troubling about this notion is that, much like the rich described in the Book of Mormon, it may cause adherents to look down upon the poor as lesser souls. Simply put, the prosperity gospel is Social Darwinism at its absolute worst.
J.F. McArthur observes:
The waves of our indulgent, selfish, materialistic society have washed ashore on Christian theology in many forms, including the prosperity gospel. Although the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and man is His servant, the prosperity gospel implies the opposite. Teaching that claims we can demand things of God is spiritual justification for self-indulgence. It perverts prayer and takes the Lord’s name in vain. It is unbiblical, ungodly, and is not directed by the Holy Spirit.
Great wealth disparity is destructive because it is inherently divisive. Righteous societies, as described in the Book of Mormon, are united and recognize the value of each individual regardless of wealth or education – even in the cases where the people may not have had all things in common. And, while I am extremely skeptical of non-organic and government-enforced communal societies and economic systems, I strongly believe that in the United States, and other industrialized nations, significant progress can be made towards equality of opportunity.
They key is proper interest alignment. If the interests of the wealthy do not align with the interests of the poor (in a general sense), the poor will suffer. The same holds true for all segments of society. Too often we act as if we are playing a zero-sum or one-time game. In reality, societal interaction – and in particular economic interaction – represents a type of repeated game where in order to be successful it is necessary to both consider and fulfill the needs of our game partner. To continually pursue action that increases massive wealth disparity there are some who benefit, but they can only benefit for so long. The wealthy need the poor. The poor need the wealthy. And everyone needs a strong middle class. All are interdependent.
An example of proper interest alignment can be seen in business owners who compensate their employees, at least in part, through profit-sharing of other mechanisms wherein employees gain equity in the firm. Consider UPS. In 1995 UPS decided to allow employees to obtain equity in the firm as part of their compensation. By 1999, 106,000 of UPS’s 126,000 shareholders were employees of the company. Needless to say, when UPS went public in what is largely considered one of the most successful IPOs in US history, significant wealth was transferred to middle and lower-middle class employees. Of course, the majority owners of UPS, including descendants of Jim Casey the founder of UPS who in 1907 borrowed $100 to start a shipping company – held a much larger stake in the firm and were compensated accordingly. What UPS owners understood is that by providing their employees with an opportunity to become owners themselves, the interest in increasing the overall value of the firm would become mutual and therefore, owners and employees could more easily work together towards achieving a common goal. The result being that both owners and employees obtained wealth together, rather than at the expense of one another.
The Book of Mormon does not condemn the pursuit of wealth, opportunity, or education. Rather, it condemns the divisions these things often create. Such divisions are spiritually, socially, economically, and politically untenable and unsustainable. Latter-day Saints need not eschew the pursuit of wealth. Rather, they can lead by example in showing how all members of society can work together for the benefit of all.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). Alone with God. MacArthur Study Series (43). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
 It is important to note that communal economic systems such as socialism are not necessary pre-conditions for righteous and successful societies. Economic systems, in themselves, are amoral. Therefore, laying blame for inequality, oppression, and social division on any economic system is to ignore how people within those systems choose to behave. Capitalism and free enterprise can be powerful tools in raising the standard of living for all members of society. The same is true of socialism. In this post I focus on capitalism for two reasons. First, it is the predominant economic system in the industrialized world – although all modern capitalist systems have adopted elements of socialism. Second, it is the system with which I am most familiar. So, while I may personally prefer capitalism, I do not disparage socialism. In fact, blended economic systems have shown themselves to be effective at meeting disparate social needs.