Somewhere in junior high or high school, they introduced socialism, and I thought, "Hey! Cool! This sounds really close to what they described in Sunday School when we talked about the United Order! I wonder if they're the same thing, and the world is going to come around and figure it out?" Since then I have realized just exactly how unlikely it is that the world would "come around to" and figure out or embrace doing things the Lord's way. That's just not the way our culture is going, unfortunately. However, the question of if they are alike, possibly even the same, is an important one: we are bound by Christian Duty to care for one another, and particularly to care for the poor, the widow, and the unfortunate among us, and our hope for salvation is tied, in part, to our care for each other. So nothing in what I'm saying here should be construed to say that we should abandon the poor or anybody else - I am looking only at if socialism is what ought to be done, if it is consistent with scripture and the teaching of the prophets. The question is not if we ought to help, but is socialism how we ought to do it. To try to look at other options for assisting, in addition to examining socialism's place in LDS theology, is simply too much to take on in a single blog post.
In any case, there are a some superficial similarities between socialism and the United Order, particularly in the claims that each system makes: both systems make the elimination of poverty one of their primary goals, but in spite of this they are not the same. The difference between the systems comes, to a great degree, in how they deal with agency. Under the hood they are not only different, but diametrically opposed. It is not enough that we should try to care for each other: we are required to do it in the Lord's way, and no other way is acceptable.
Agency, as well as devotion to Christ, are the elements present in the United Order that are missing in socialism. Devotion to Christ is a necessary prerequisite for the United Order.
The basic principle of all the revelation on the united order is that everything we have belongs to the Lord; therefore, the Lord may call upon us for any and all of the property which we have, because it belongs to Him. This, I repeat, is the basic principle. [Conference Report, October 1942, p. 55]
-Elder J. Reuben Clark, Jr., quoted in The Law of Consecration
Because it is all His, He can call for any or all of it, at any time and for any reason that He chooses, assisting others being one of the things that He has said the United Order exists to do, though that assistance consistently plays second fiddle to the perfecting of the Saints who are living the Order in the talks that I have read. Socialism, on the other hand, is not at all focused on Christ. It is a purely political system, and indeed, historically, socialist regimes have most often been actively hostile to religion, which is an extremely unlikely way to do away with the evils of greed and selfishness. To try to eliminate evil from society without both eyes firmly focused on Christ just seems contradictory to me.
But the question posed was focused on the relationship of socialism and agency. I think the best way to approach the question is to return to the beginning, and consider the two plans as proposed in the Premortal Counsel, with particular attention to the methods and effects of the plan that was rejected. One of the key features of that rejected plan - and I believe that this feature is what made it so appealing that a full third of the hosts of heaven wanted it adopted - is that he promised that "not one soul should be lost". No risk of failure, no empty seats; everybody wins. It's a powerful enticement. However, it's not the Father's way: this plan promising success to everyone was not only rejected, but those who continued to embrace it after a certain point were cast out for rebellion.
So why is that? Under our Father's plan, not only is there a risk of failure, but the way is variously described as strait, straight, and narrow, and we are told repeatedly that, although nothing can separate us from our Father's love, "few there be that find [the narrow way]". It is not particularly surprising that God's way of doing things seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but we also know that not only did we accept this plan that anticipates that some will fail, but that we were ecstatic about its adoption.
I think the key to understanding this apparent contradiction is in understanding the method by which our Father intends to assist us in coming to our full potential. Agency is key -so much so that it precedes the Atonement, in that the Atonement only becomes necessary under conditions where we have Agency. It is the capacity to act -and not be acted upon- that allows us the growth that is critical to reaching our potential as Sons and Daughters of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. Regarding this potential, Brigham Young said:
"I wish to notice this. We read in the Bible, that there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars. In the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, these glories are called telestial, terrestrial, and celestial, which is the highest. These are worlds, different departments, or mansions, in our Father's house. Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another's sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming Gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They never can become Gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold scepters of glory, majesty, and power in the celestial kingdom. Who will? Those who are valiant and inspired with the true independence of heaven, who will go forth boldly in the service of their God, leaving others to do as they please, determined to do right, though all mankind besides should take the opposite course."
-Brigham Young, 20 Feb. 1853, emphasis added, JD 1:309
Brother Brigham was talking specifically about unthinking deference and obedience to church leaders, but his comment gives great insight into what is necessary for us to reach our full potential - what he calls "the true independence of heaven". This independence, of a necessity, allows the space for people to choose poorly, because only preserving the potential for poor choice can we allow space for the choices that are good and beautiful. Socialism is destructive of Agency because it treats the Sons and Daughters of God as perpetual children, incapable of either providing for themselves, or of demonstrating the necessary virtue to care for their fellow man. It denies that we have the capacity to function under the divinely decreed independent circumstances, and it denies that we have the will to discipline ourselves for our own good or the good of others. It works on the assumption that people will not voluntarily do good, so we must use the power of the State to compel them to do good. This assumption comes directly from our Enemy's plan, rejected from the beginning because of the way it destroys Agency, and with Agency, goes all hope for the growth necessary to reach our potential.
In general, I think that it is good to recall, when we hear of a program that promises to deliver something, even something good, to all without exception, it is very likely that, upon close examination, it will be more in line with Satan's plan than with the Lord's. The only way to guarantee that everybody will succeed is to do away with Agency: otherwise, there will always be those who make uncommon decisions, to both positive and negative effect.
One of the things we touched on as a "for instance" was education. My friend accurately identified our public school system as an example of socialism in America today. He said that it is a place where socialism is serving us well, but I must respectfully disagree. Not only are news articles about poor student performance a dime a dozen, concerns about low reading achievement rampant, there's plenty out there about adults who won't read, and who have a dismal understanding of civics and our Republic is the norm, as is sexually explicit "literature" (surely the opposite of the best books the Lord has commanded we seek learning from), but to me the most telling is the comparison between what I personally learned as an honors student in high school, and then in two years at UIUC (ranked as a relatively exclusive university), and what 8th graders learned 100 years ago. The 1912 8th grade exit exam left me feeling woefully under-educated. One of the few things the Right and the Left seem able to agree upon is that our schools are failing -- which hardly seems like recommendation for education as a poster child for socialism "working well".
Additionally, when the concept of public schools was introduced, the Brethren were absolutely adamant in their opposition. President Brigham Young, in the 1877 General Conference said this, at once condemning both the principles of socialism and also the specific practice of public education:
“I am opposed to free education as much as I am opposed to taking away property from one man and giving it to another who knows not how to take care of it. .... I now pay the school fees of a number of children who are either orphans or sons and daughters of poor people. But in aiding and blessing the poor I do not believe in allowing my charities to go through the hands of a set of robbers who pocket nine-tenths themselves, and give one-tenth to the poor. Therein is the difference between us; I am for the real act of doing and not saying. Would I encourage free schools by taxation? No! That is not in keeping with the nature of our work..." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 18 p. 357)
The early Brethren actually intended that the Church Education System should be a private school system, and not just the seminaries and institutes that we currently rely on. Brigham Young said in a letter to Karl Maser that "you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God", and Elder John Taylor, in a message from the First Presidency (collected here), said:
Our children should be indoctrinated in the principles of the Gospel from their earliest childhood. They should be made familiar with the contents of the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. These should be their chief text books, and everything should be done to establish and promote in their hearts genuine faith in God, in His Gospel and its ordinances, and in His works. But under our common school system this is not possible... In no direction can we invest the means God has given us to better advantage than in the training of our children in the principles of righteousness and in laying the foundation in their hearts of that pure faith which is restored to the earth. We would like to see schools of this character, independent of the District School system, started in all places where it is possible. (emphasis added)
Sadly, the Saints at that time did not listen, and would not send their children to the church schools, or, if they did, often failed to pay tuition. But the fact remains: at the time the public schools were introduced, the Brethren opposed both the adoption of the public schools, and also spoke forcefully against the socialistic principles that underlie them, condemning both as being inconsistent with the gospel. In fact, as public schools were proposed across the nation, it was most often the parents and pastors who opposed them. One citizen in Massachusetts put it this way:
100+ years out from the decision to adopt public schools, we see Agency abridged in a myriad of ways. It is distant and arbitrary government, not individuals and families, that determine when a child starts school, what he will study, and to a very large extent, where he will attend, as well as how long he must stay. Government determines how many hours children must attend, and if they are deemed truant, it is parents that are fined and potentially jailed for it. Parents have a holy trust in their children, yet in the eyes of our socialistic system they are deemed incompetent to determine the most basic aspects of their child's education. In my case, this meant that when I met a midwife who agreed to take me as an apprentice, I couldn't even consider doing it seriously: attendance at the public school was compulsory, and completely and wholly incompatible with the odd hours that newborn babies keep. Not only was my Agency thwarted, but it was done so in a way that had life-altering effects, and that from only a single instance of socialized opposition to Agency!
A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here . . . because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here, the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. This fundamental difference between the two countries, we apprehend, has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters.
-Orestes Brownson, Testimony against proposed Truancy Laws before the Massachusetts Board of Education, 19th Century
To the extent that socialism is introduced, our Agency is circumscribed. President McKay and others of the leading Brethren have repeatedly described Agency as the greatest of God's gifts to man, next to life itself. If Agency is a gift that is next to life itself in importance, then we should be as reluctant to do destroy to our neighbor's Agency as we are to destroy his life.
Socialism just isn't up to that standard.