10 questions with Lindon Robison

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Professor Lindon Robison is an expert on economics in the Book of Mormon. He is the author of many books and articles, the latest of which can be found in BYU Studies.

Who is Lindon Robison?

Lindon Robison: My wife Bonnie and I are the parents of 5 wonderful children and 20 super grandchildren.  I am a professor at Michigan State University in the department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics. 

From 2004-2007, we presided over the Spain, Malaga mission, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Your professional expertise lies in agricultural economics. Which of those subjects first interested you and how did you end up comingling them?

Lindon Robison: I grew up in a rural community, Fillmore Utah, doing mostly farm related work.  I worked on a chicken ranch, milked cows, irrigated, mowed, raked, baled, and hauled alfalfa.  I plowed dryland wheat land—anyway, you get the idea. 

Then through the Future Farmers of America, and supported by my advisor, Robert Nielson, I won a scholarship to attend Utah State University as long as I enrolled in the College of Agriculture.  So after  looking at my study options—dairy science, poultry science, weed science, and others including agricultural economics, I said to myself, agricultural economics doesn’t sound like farming (which I didn’t want to pursue) so I became a student in that department and never left. 

It was a fortunate choice for me, because it provided a rich paradigm for looking and trying to understand the world and I met wonderful people along the way.

How did your sabbatical year at BYU studying economic principles in the Book of Mormon end differently than you originally anticipated, and what is the most important lesson you took away?

Lindon Robison: Prior to my sabbatical year at BYU, I had a demanding church assignment that required some significant amounts of my time.  When we arrived in my Provo ward, I found that I was not expected to devote much time to a formal church assignment.  So, I decided to dedicate the same amount of the time to church service as before—only I would use my time to write a book about economics for members of the Church. 

So, for a few hours every Sunday, I tried to use Book of Mormon examples of economic behavior to illustrate the neoclassical economic paradigm. 

It didn’t work. 

Then I decided to take a different approach.  Instead of trying to make economic principles taught in the Book of Mormon fit neoclassical economics, I tried to find economic concepts taught in the Book of Mormon that could inform my own economic studies. 

One verse particular impressed me.  It read: 

“And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kinds, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.”

Alma 1:29

Furthermore, they did not send away “any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished.”  They did not set their hearts upon riches—because they loved each other more than their riches 

As a result, “they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need”(Alma 1:30). 

Never before in my economic studies had I read such a definitive economic development declaration. The steadiness of the church and the people’s love for each other produced a material abundance. 

I wanted to understand how and why caring could produce economic prosperity.  So I began a study that has continued until this day.

What are the key differences between socialism, communism, and the law of consecration?

Lindon Robison: Economic systems range from what some economists describe as a focus on equity versus efficiency. 

At the one end of this spectrum are controlled economies and societies with their focus on equity and required redistribution programs that promise to improve equality (all pigs are equal) even if it means incentives to work hard and efficiently are damaged because rewards and efforts are only loosely connected. 

On the other end of the economic spectrum with its focus on efficiency, people are motivated to work harder and smarter because they get to keep what they earn.  However, such a system often produces inequality because indeed some people do work harder and smarter than others, some are healthier than others, some get to opportunities first, some use common resources to excess, and sometimes some people cheat. 

Only love that internalizes the well-being of others—has the power to produce incentives for people to work hard and smarter and then to voluntarily share their resources with others—because: “I cannot see another’s need and I not share.”

I like the focus of President Ezra T. Benson who taught how such a system of caring works:

Photo of Ezra Taft Benson
Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994) served as Secretary of Agriculture during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration and was the 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums.  The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”

Ezra Taft Benson

What was the catalyst for your BYU Studies article, Doing Business in the World without Becoming Worldly?

Lindon Robison: Having had some responsibilities for administering welfare in the past and having been both the victim and beneficiary of exchanges involving commodities and relational goods, I was convinced that we are often confused about, “How can I do business in the world without becoming worldly.”

The scriptures have much to teach us about this subject and the concept of relational or spiritual goods provides the language needed to teach and understand the subject.  The lesson David Just and I hoped to teach was that relational goods whose value and meaning depends on their connection to people cannot be sold (entirely) for money without commodifying them (converting them into commodities).

The Beatles singing group made this point: “Money can’t buy me love”. 

What are “relational goods” and how do you distinguish them from commodities?

Lindon Robison: Jeffrey Oliver and I defined relational goods are things whose value and meaning in part depend on their connection to people with whom we enjoy relationships of caring, regard, and trust. 

Relational goods may be personal items such as keepsakes and sentimental goods converted into relational goods by our relationship with family members, friends, and other well-respected persons.  Relational goods may also be sacred symbols and spiritual goods such as temples, scriptures, sacraments, sacred sites, soul inspiriting music.  Relational goods are goods because they satisfy spiritual and social needs that we cannot satisfy with commodities, whose value depend mostly on their physical characteristics and our mostly physical needs.

Tell us about the five motives you describe in Motives and the Path to Perfection, and what they reveal about standard perceptions of selfishness.

Lindon Robison: One well-known economist claimed that we are 95% selfish and that selfishness can explain most of our choices. 

Sometimes selfishness is an important motive and may have at first motivated Joseph Smith to obtain the plates.  However, research I have completed with colleagues doesn’t support the 95% hypothesis. 

We found that the relative importance of our motives depends on what we want to exchange and with whom. 

For example, we may be selfishly motivated when we exchange commodities with strangers.  However, once you recognize caring relationships, we can recognize a rich array of motives. We may be motivated to seek for external validation from those whose opinions about us matter—and we do seek for the Lord’s approval. 

We may also seek for internal validation from our ideal self that we sometimes refer to as our conscience.  Sometimes we want to fit in and we are motivated to adopt cultural norms and practices to do so.  And, sometimes we internalize the well-being of others and are motivated to help “with no thought of reward.”

 It was reassuring to find these diverse motives illustrated in the scriptures.  In addition, I believe that President Gordon B. Hinckley summarized the range of motives we described when he taught that all new converts are motivated by the need for “a friend [to experience caring], a responsibility [to be validated], and nurturing with the ‘good word of God’ [to know we belong].”

What have latter-day prophets and apostles taught about how to educate our motives and desires?

Lindon Robison: Regarding motives, latter-day prophets and apostles continue to teach us this Book of Mormon insight—that we must bridle our passions to be motivated by love and to recognize that the ability to love is a gift of God for which we should earnestly seek for through prayer 

What is your next writing project?

Lindon Robison: The Book of Mormon continues to change my understanding of economics and the importance of caring and trusting relationships.  I have focused on how we can use shared kernels to build relationships of caring that I have referred to as social capital. 

In addition, I have attempted to document the importance and productive power of social capital.  However, like every good thing, there is a dark alternative which I call, cheap social capital. 

Cheap social capital uses shared animosity, distain, disregard, and distrust for another person or group as the shared kernel on which to build relationships.  Cheap social capital is cheap because it requires so little to build and is capable of producing so few useful results.  Instead of caring, trusting, and regard filled relationships that produce a people of one heart, mind, and strength that can build a productive and egalitarian economy and society—cheap social capital is used to manipulate others, avoid taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and to divert resources and efforts from productive ends to destructive and defensive ends. 

The Book of Mormon provides frequent examples of the people using cheap social capital.  We read: “For it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.”

Cheap social capital is the focus of what I want to write about next.

If you could go back in time and converse with Joseph Smith about economic matters in the 2010s, what would you most want to learn from him?

Lindon Robison: When I meet Joseph Smith, I will first humbly thank him for bringing forth the Book of Mormon with its rich economic insights and gospel treasures about Christ’s atonement. 

Then I would probably ask him, what is the most important question I should ask you? 

Only then, would I presume to ask a question about the connections between relationship focused economics and the gospel.  In particular, I would ask him to teach me about the difference between selfishness of preferences that lies at the core of modern neoclassical economics and the Lord approved self-interest expressed in the Doctrines and Covenants:

“For many times you [Peter Whitmer] have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you. Behold, blessed are you for this thing, and for speaking my words which I have given unto you according to my commandments.  And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the Kingdom of my father amen.

Doctrine & Covenants 16:4-6

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