Culture: When first introduced as petitioners, this group seemed to be citizens who simply desired some changes in the law. Now Mormon reveals them as the same kind of people who have cropped up throughout the history of the Nephites in Zarahemla.
They want a king—which involves much more than a change in the style of government. A monarchy entails an entire lifestyle associated with kings, as seen in the larger society, which they typically call Lamanite. In Mesoamerican terms, these neighboring lands and cultures would be the trading partners from whom Zarahemla traders are receiving their wealth. But with that wealth comes a set of values and concepts that include costly apparel, elitism, and a system of social classes. The desire for a king was not a desire to return to the old Nephite-style king, but a turn toward the king-culture that was dominating Mesoamerica at this time.
From a modern perspective and a monetary economy, value is independent from the thing valued. We can convert all of our valuables into their monetary equivalent. Homes are intrinsically valuable but fluctuate in their economic value according to the price they command on the market. Even a house that is older and in need of some repairs may increase in value if prices go up in the neighborhood, while the opposite is also possible. Such changes occur because value may be separated from the thing and defined by the medium of exchange.
In a non-monetary economy, the value is in the thing itself. An article of clothing is more or less valuable because of its scarcity and because of what it is. For instance, even in our monetary economy, we would understand that a centuries-old king’s robe is worth more than a centuries-old peasant’s cloak. Even discounting the materials or the workmanship, association of the clothing with the position lends it value.
Consider sports memorabilia as another modern example. Two used baseballs may be the same age; but if one bears the signature of Babe Ruth, it will unquestionably be more valuable. Nothing about the baseball itself changes the value. Rather its association with a particular celebrity adds value to the object.
It is in this light that we must understand the effect of the trading economy on the Nephites. Their “wealth” is not defined by an arbitrary exchange such as money, but rather is associated with the status of the item itself. If they imported clothing “fit for a king,” the value of that clothing is enhanced by the social status associated with it. The problem for Nephite society was that the status associated with their “wealth” and their egalitarian social structure were at odds with each other. Nephite merchants could accumulate wealth (elite items); but if they themselves were not members of the social elite, then the item’s value diminished. The items were valuable for the position they signified, but Nephite society did not differentiate between social positions.
The people who wanted a king were always the richest, since they not only understood the associative value of their wealth but also most keenly missed possessing that advantage in their own culture. They want a king, not particularly because they thought the government would be better, but because a king represented the way of life that supported the value of the wealth they had acquired.