Who Would Chose Socialism?

The Israeli Kibbutzim provide the acid test for Voluntary Socialism.


What percentage of people would choose to live under socialism? The communist countries do not help us to answer this question, for neither through elections nor through emigration do they offer their people any choice. What about the electoral experience of democratic societies such as England or Sweden? Even this does not enable us to disentangle (imagined) self-interest from our topic: the desire to participate in socialist interpersonal relations of equality and community.

To find out what percentage of people especially want to live under socialism, we need a situation where people have a reasonably attractive socialist option and also a reasonably attractive nonsocialist one. If it is not precisely the optimal experiment to answer our question, the Israeli experience with kibbutzim comes as close as the real world can.

Not only have the kibbutzim offered socialist personal relations in a socialist community, but these communities have been widely admired for performing the important functions of reclaiming the land, aiding Jewish self defense, and "normalizing" the occupational structure of the Jewish people. Unlike 19th-century utopian communities in America or 20th-century "communes, membership in a kibbutz brought respect and support from the wider society, aiding members through difficulties. Furthermore, no natural population provides a more fertile ground for socialist commitment than the Ashkenazi Jewish population. No people is more prone to being captured by an "idealistic" ideological position, especially one emphasizing group solidarity. Indeed, there was selective entry into Israel early in the century; many came in order to help build socialism and did their best to instill their ideals in their children.

The kibbutzim are now a very comfortable alternative. By and large they are economically very prosperous. A high level of cultural activity is available per capita. They have a widely admired educational system (one which, despite their socialist beliefs, kibbutzniks have been somewhat reluctant to share by a day with poorer children in the surrounding areas). They offer occupational opportunities in agriculture, industry, the arts and services, as well as administrative and political tasks in the wider kibbutz movement. No doubt, there are some occupations not easily carried out in a kibbutz setting (for example, experimental particle physicist), though there have been attempts to have university teachers based in a nearby kibbutz.

Within Israel, the kibbutz is a prosperous, widely respected and encouraged community (the encouragement includes tax benefits) offering variegated occupational and leisure opportunities. It seems fair to say that the major reason for an Israeli's not living in a kibbutz is that he just doesn't want to live that way.

The kibbutz population makes up 3.5 percent of the Jewish population of Israel and about 6 percent of the Ashkenazi Jewish population (of the kibbutz population, 85 percent is Ashkenazi). So now we know approximately how many people would choose, under highly conducive conditions, to live under socialism: about six percent.

To be sure, the estimate must be refined a bit. No doubt some people outside kibbutzim want to live there but don't because their mates strongly object, just as some reside within kibbutzim because of their mates' strong preference. Some people who wish to leave stay in kibbutzim because there is no vested pension right that they can take with them, while some people who live in moshavim also may be seeking some socialist mode of life (of the Israeli population, 4.5 percent, with equal Ashkenazi and Sephardi components, is in moshavim, some of which combine communal production with familial consumption).

Let us be generous and suppose that half again as many would choose socialism. This brings the number up from six to nine percent. Under conditions as ideal as the real world can produce, nine percent of the people would choose to shape their lives in accordance with socialist principles.

Surely this minority should everywhere be allowed to do this, joining together with other like-minded people to live according to their desires. (It is a virtue of a free system that it allows minority preferences to be satisfied, just as a free market caters also to minority tastes—for example, for recordings of Renaissance music or of chassidic songs.) Furthermore, this minority may try to persuade the rest of us of the superior virtues of their ideal.

But that's all. They may not force the rest of us to live that way. We can understand, though, why they might be tempted to do so. In that setting most conducive to the free acceptance of socialist ideals, with the most attractive and respected socialist communities and the most receptive population, only nine percent (as a generous estimate) would choose to live that way. The prospects, therefore, are dim for interpersonal socialism's coming anywhere voluntarily. As Israel shows us, there won't be enough volunteers.

Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, teaches philosophy at Harvard. He recently spent a year in Jerusalem. Copyright 1978 by Robert Nozick.