Tuesday, April 6, 2021

From the Kibbutz to Libertarianism

Via Marginal Revolutions, Meir Kohn explains how he ended up as a libertarian:

In my youth, I was a socialist. . . . Growing up in England as a foreign‐​born Jew, I did not feel I belonged. So, as a teenager, I decided to emigrate to Israel. To further my plan, I joined a Zionist youth movement. The movement I joined was not only Zionist: it was also socialist. So, to fit in, I became a socialist.

What do I mean by a socialist? I mean someone who believes that the principal source of human unhappiness is the struggle for money — “capitalism” — and that the solution is to organize society on a different principle — “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” 

I think that might be the best definition of contemporary socialism I know: the belief that capitalism forces us to struggle for money which makes us unhappy. It is as an explanation for our unhappiness that capitalism looms in the minds of young leftists, and the desire for socialism is entirely the desire to be happy.

The Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s was such a society. The youth movement I joined in England sent groups of young people to Israel to settle on a kibbutz. When I was 18, I joined such a group going to settle on Kibbutz Amiad.

A kibbutz is a commune of a few hundred adults, plus kids, engaged primarily in agriculture but also in light industry and tourism. Members work wherever they are assigned, although preferences are taken into account. Instead of receiving pay, members receive benefits in kind: they live in assigned housing, they eat in a communal dining hall, and their children are raised communally in children’s houses, and can visit with their parents for a few hours each day. Most property is communal except for personal items such as clothing and furniture, for which members receive a small budget. Because cigarettes were free, I soon began to smoke!

Kibbutz is bottom‐​up socialism on the scale of a small community. It thereby avoids the worst problems of state socialism: a planned economy and totalitarianism. The kibbutz, as a unit, is part of a market economy, and membership is voluntary: you can leave at any time. This is “socialism with a human face” — as good as it gets.

Being a member of a kibbutz taught me two important facts about socialism. The first is that material equality does not bring happiness. The differences in our material circumstances were indeed minimal. Apartments, for example, if not identical, were very similar. Nonetheless, a member assigned to an apartment that was a little smaller or a little older than someone else’s would be highly resentful. Partly, this was because a person’s ability to discern differences grows as the differences become smaller. But largely it was because what we received was assigned rather than earned. It turns out that how you get stuff matters no less than what you get.

The second thing I learned from my experience of socialism was that incentives matter. On a kibbutz, there is no material incentive for effort and not much incentive of any kind. There are two kinds of people who have no problem with this: deadbeats and saints. When a group joined a kibbutz, the deadbeats and saints tended to stay while the others eventually left. I left.

In retrospect, I should have known right away, from my first day, that something was wrong with utopia. On my arrival, I was struck by the fact that the pantry of the communal kitchen was locked.

I have friends who spent time on hippie communes in the US, and they ended up believing what Kohn does, that most people in communes are shirkers and they only survive until the few hard workers get fed up and leave.

I do not think it is the system that makes us unhappy. I do believe that some systems promote happiness better than others, which is why I participate in politics and advocate for the system that I think works best, social democracy. But politics is not, I think, our fundamental problem. Our problem is that we are animals with imperfect brains evolved to help us survive in circumstances that no longer apply very well; except, that is, for the circumstance that we are social animals whose happiness depends mostly on our relationships with other people, who are as unreliable and imperfect as we are.


David said...

While the system may not make "us" unhappy, where "us" is all people, or people at large, surely some systems are more congenial to some personality types than others. A correlate of this is that, looked at honestly, it seems clear to me that those who advocate fairly extreme systems (libertarian, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalists; extreme socialists of the Kibbutz sort; etc.) often have a fairly specific idea of the sort of person they want to be made unhappy by their preferred system. It seems clear to me, for example, that many libertarian capitalists positively look forward to the prospect of shirkers being made unhappy under a no-safety-net capitalism. Indeed, it seems to me that the origins of contemporary libertarian capitalism go back to the late 17th-century conviction that the poor must be made miserable, or they will not work.

G. Verloren said...


I tend to agree with this assessment - different people prefer to live in different ways.

For example, there seem to be plenty of people out there for whom military life is ideal - always having things be regimented and orderly; always knowing what you're supposed to do, and when to do it; always knowing where you stand in terms of authority and responsibility based on rank, unit, assignment, etc. Many if not most of the people I know would find that sort of existence unbearable, but there are many people out there for whom that certainty and structure and routine is desirable.

Similarly, I think Libertarians tend to be people who want to view themselves as "self made men", islands unto themselves, unbeholden to the restrictions of society or humanity, and measuring success by their ability to be masters of every single aspect of their entire lives, no matter how small or superfluous. They want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want it, for whatever reason, without having to ask anyone else's permission or consider anyone else's needs or wants.

Some of them want to be modern day Robinson Crusoes, not only surviving but thriving entirely by their own hands, with the rest of society existing somewhere off at a remove and therefor irrelevant to them. They will tell you they believe in maximal personal freedom for everyone, without betraying the slightest hint of comprehension that it's impossible for everyone to have unlimited freedom, because scarcity exists and eventually your freedoms must inevitably come into conflict with someone else's freedoms, as there simply aren't enough resources to let everyone live as lord of their own domain.

Others seem to recognize that fact, but are untroubled by it because they instead want to be modern day John Galts - "heroic" and "superior" beings who stand apart from the common man (often reviled as the "shirker", the "parasite", etc) and who shape the world to their whims, constrained only by competition from the other rival √úbermenschen of the world. They understand that unlimited freedom for everyone is impossible - but they don't want it for everyone, they just want it for themselves, because clearly they are special and deserve it, unlike everyone else!

G. Verloren said...

Personally I don't know what solution there is for the Libertarians of the world, other than to set aside some land for them as a sort of "Ultimate Freedom" zone where anyone who wants to can be airdropped into the desert with a basic set of survival gear, and then get to work creating an idealized life, unrestricted by society.

...and then get immediately set upon by whatever local gang or Mad Max style warlord has set up shop. What's that? That's not fair? Sure it is! It's the Ultimate Freedom zone! Everyone there has total liberty to do whatever they want! A gang tries to rob and kill you? Tough! That's their right, just as it's your right to try to defend your property and your life! If you lose that fight, you have only yourself to blame!

And the thing is, I actually imagine a shocking number of Libertarians would happily sign up to take their chances in such a zone, thinking that it'll all be fine and everything will work out for them because they are special, they are prepared, they won't be like the others. They can't all be right, but hey - once they drop into the zone, that's their problem, not ours!

The only issue is that any such zone would inevitably have a short lifespan - nature abhors a vacuum, and some local power will rise up and establish their own order, and suddenly it's no longer an area of ultimate freedom (id est, "Anarchy") but has become yet another repressive oligarchy or tin-pot dictatorship.