The Mormon Competitive Advantage
When a young Mormon missionary is trying to stop people in the middle of a street in Mexico or in Southern Italy to explain how much God loves every human being, he probably doesn't think much about the fact that he is part of the American state of Utah’s economic model. Utah is a tiny state, a former desert surrounded by mountains. Its unemployment rate is only 3.4 percent and its business environment is so attractive for hi-tech companies that some have started to call it “the second Silicon Valley”. Thanks to the Mormon competitive advantage.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints claims to have over 15 million members around the world. The Utah population alone is around 3 million. Almost everyone in Utah is a Mormon, the nickname for LDS church members that comes from the book of Mormon, their second holy book after the Bible. In 1830 the self-proclaimed prophet, Joseph Smith, published the Book of Mormon. The book was deemed “another testament of Jesus Christ”, according to the Church’s official definition. Whether Smith truly was a prophet and the Book of Mormon genuinely inspired by God is a matter of faith, but at the center of every religion there is not only God, but also the community of its believers. After Smith's death and some turbulent years, the Mormons moved to their promised land: Utah, an almost empty territory, where they could settle their social experiment. And this experiment turned out to be a very successful one.
Sobriety is central to the Mormon experiment. Any substance that alters perception or can develop dependency is forbidden for LDS members and very difficult to acquire in Utah. Prophet Smith didn't like meeting rooms full of cigarettes and drunken people. This religiously motivated decision contributes to the Mormon competitive advantage. Companies are more certain that they will have committed and self-disciplined employees, without any danger of employees having hangovers in the morning.
Being an LDS member is expensive: all of them, from the low-income farmer to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, give 10 percent of his or her gross income to the church. Once a month, “fast Sunday” occurs. This is when Mormons are not supposed to eat. The fasting is done so they can give the money they save to the Church. This is yet another religious proscription with socially positive benefits, especially in a country affected by obesity. If you ask an average American if he or she would ever agree to a 10 percent increase in taxes, he or she might look at you as a dangerous socialist. Yet giving a part of their income to the Church is not a problem for Mormons. The Church offers services, not only for the souls, but also for universities, jobs and social activities for kids and elderly people.
Membership of the LDS Church provides Mormons with a strong sense of community, which tempers the American tendency to individualism. This has policy implications: in Spanish Fork, a small city one hour North of Salt Lake City, there is a public Gun Club, a public Rodeo Arena, a public energy company and even a public internet service provider. These services are controlled by the city hall, which competes (and wins) with AT&T, one of America’s biggest internet service providers. Utah is a Republican state, and its fiscal conservativism is extreme. Members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate are only part time, with 45 day legislative session and a $15,000 salary. However, at the community level, the opposite is true and there is strong support for spending money for the public interest.
There is a Mormon competitive advantage also at the individual level. When LDS church members are between 18 and 21, they usually spend two years as missionaries in the U.S. or, more often, abroad. They are allowed to send one single piece of mail per week to their family and phone calls are permitted only on Christmas and Mother's day. When companies invest in Utah, they can rely on a very educated work force – there are good universities in Utah financed by the Church – with international experience and, very often, bilingual skills. Every company prefers employees with a stable family life and, for Mormons there is nothing more sacred than the family. Are you worried about social tensions? You should not be worried in Utah; with its homogeneous (white) society social tension (at least on the surface) is minimal.
As in many homogenous communities, there is not much room for dissidents or minorities. If you don't embrace the Mormon way of life, it could be difficult to find your place in Utah. That may help explain the constant trouble with drugs, mainly in high schools, and the rising number of suicides, one Utahan every 16 hours, according to a survey published by the local Daily Herald—one of the dark sides of this society that is very cohesive and productive on the surface
Yet ultimately, while the Mormon competitive advantage does have its price, its positive effects are usually underestimated.
Stefano Feltri, a Spring 2015 Marshall Memorial Fellow, is a Journalist for Il Fatto Quotidiano in Rome, Italy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.