So let’s think about Zion as a prisoner’s dilemma (PD). Over the course of nineteenth century Mormon history you see a succession of attempts to create an ideal community based on cooperation and some degree of self-sacrifice. Hence, you have the law of consecration in Missouri (and to a lesser extent Ohio) followed by various collective enterprises in the Great Basin. Under a simplified game theoretic explanation of Mormon history, these successive attempts to create Zion represent differing solutions to the PD.
A PD is a game in which two people are faced with a choice: they can either cooperate or defect. The highest joint payout comes in they both cooperate. However, if one party defects while the other party cooperates, then the defecting party realizes a greater personal gain and the cooperating party gets shafted. However, if both parties defect then they both lose, but less than if they are the schmoe who cooperates when the other guy defects. Clear? In a PD the best thing to do if you want to maximize your pay offs, is to defect. This is called the dominant strategy.
The PD is a pretty useful little concept. It allows you to think about all sorts of cooperative interactions. For example, Hobbes’s argument about the state of nature is basically a kind of proto-statement of the PD. Everyone has an incentive to defect from cooperation and we are all left with a life that is nasty brutish and short. Indeed, virtually any cooperative endeavor where one person has an opportunity to take advantage of another person’s trust can be thought of as a PD. Hence, Zion, if you will, is a PD.
Now there are a couple of standard solutions to the PD. First, you can create enforceable contracts. Both parties agree to cooperate and then some third party will sanction any party who reneges on the agreement and defects. Second, if the players play the PD game several times, then they can retaliate against defectors in the next game. Here is how it works. A and B are in a PD. A always cooperates, unless B defects. If B defects, then the next round A will defect. In the third round, A will cooperate. B does the same thing. This tit-for-tat strategy results in a long term equilibrium of cooperation. A closely related solution to the PD is reputation. If A can observe the way that B plays the game, then B has an incentive not to be known as a defector because no one will cooperate with him. A third solution to the PD is ideological. One instills beliefs about the evil of defection independent of the immediate payout from defection in an attempt to constrain behavior. Finally, one can solve the PD by simply raising the costs of defection, so that anyone who defects will sanctioned or will have to incur some other major cost.
OK, back to Mormon history. As it turns out, the 19th century Mormons pursued all of these strategies. The first two strategies that they used in Missouri and Ohio were basically legal and ideological. They tried to structure the cooperative aspects of Zion as legally enforceable agreements that would solve the problem of defection. The courts, however, were almost universally hostile to these attempts and as a result, contract enforcement proved an ineffective solution to the Zion PD. The other attempted solution to the PD was ideological. Joseph and others taught that the failure to cooperate was sinful, etc. This also proved inadequate (as attested to by the rebukes of the saints sinfulness contained in the Doctrine & Covenants).
The move to Utah, however, change the nature of the game and made the PD more manageable, at least for a time. First, the size (small) and isolation of Mormon communities in the West meant that people were of necessity repeat players with one another. As a result, the tit for tat strategies and reputational effects mitigated against defection. Second, isolation dramatically increased the costs of defection, because it was very difficult to go elsewhere to avoid the social ostracism and the like resulting from defection.
One would therefore expect that as the cost of transportation (and hence isolation) decreased and the population increased that the PD problems would become more acute. One would respond to the declining effectiveness of the geographic solution to the PD by increased reliance on law and ideology to solve the problem. And this is what we observe. With the railroad and the influx of people into Utah, the older cooperative systems began to break down. Church leaders, especially BY, responded with increased sermonizing on the importance of cooperation and new legal forms (co-operative joint stock companies) designed to make defection more difficult.