Socialism

How Living on a Socialist Kibbutz Reveals the Value of Private Property

Economist Meir Kohn explains how kibbutz life helped him understand the flaws of socialism and the value of property rights.

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In an interesting recent article, Dartmouth economist Meir Kohn describes how he gradually shifted from being a socialist to eventually becoming a libertarian. A key role was his experience of living on a kibbutz, the famed Israeli socialist agricultural settlement:

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….

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.

As Kohn explains, the kibbutz experience did not lead him to become a libertarian (that came later). But it did persuade him to reject socialism.

Kohn is far from the only person who reached that conclusion after getting a taste of kibbutz life. Margaret Thatcher's daughter Carol had a similar reaction after spending some months as a volunteer living on a kibbutz. The experience left with her with an "unromantic view of the kibbutz," and (as her father, Denis Thatcher put it), "inoculated [her] against socialism."

Over time, the flaws of the socialist kibbutz model became sufficiently glaring that most kibbutzim gradually abandoned key parts of the socialist model, such as equal pay, rejection of private property, and communal child-raising. See also this 2007 discussion by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, who himself spent some time on a kibbutz during its pre-reform heyday.

In 2016, I myself visited a kibbutz as part of a trip to Israel with a group of other American legal academics. Our guide admitted that her community had abandoned several key socialist institutions over time, including communal child-raising. She herself—a socialist Zionist immigrant from Canada—decried these ideological deviations. But much of the community evidently felt they could not be avoided.

For reasons mentioned by Kohn and Becker, kibbutzim present the best-case scenario for socialism. At least initially, most participants were self-selected, highly motivated volunteers. Abuses of power and information problems typical of large-scale socialism were mitigated by the right of exit and the relatively modest scale of the community. Strong support from Israeli government and civil society helped alleviate financial and resource problems. Nonetheless, kibbutzim eventually had to adopt market incentives, expanded property rights, private child-raising, and other "capitalist" institutions in order to survive.

By contrast, Israeli "moshavim"   have been much more successful. A moshav is an agricultural settlements with private property in both houses and land, though some equipment and communal facilities (e.g. schools) are collectively owned. On the same 2016 trip, we also visited a moshav in southern Israel. The people we met seemed happy with their institutions. But our guide  lamented the fact that "the kibbutz has better PR" than moshavim do.  People all over the world have heard of kibbutzim. But hardly anyone outside Israel knows what a moshav is, except for property scholars.

Most moshavniks are far from libertarian. Many, including the ones we met, are left-wingers strongly opposed to the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they do appreciate the benefits of individual and family autonomy, private property, and economic incentives.

The  lessons of the kibbutz and the moshav are worth remembering at a time when socialist ideology is enjoying something of a resurgence in much of the Western world. For reasons I summarized  here, many of shortcomings of full-blown socialism are also shared by the "democratic socialism" advocated by the likes of Bernie Sanders in the United States and former Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.

 

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  1. I expected Ilya to criticize the model for not allowing homeless people to show up at meal times and wander off after eating every day.

    Did these collectives have boundaries or walls of any kind? That’s racist and “cruel”, right?

    1. Marx said socialism was not natural. It would have to be imposed by force. The Democrat is going way beyond the collectivism of any kibbutz. It is going beyond the tyranny imposed by the KGB. An employer can be ruined by a joke at work.

  2. My recollection is that the kibbutzim concept was thought to be needed in the early days of Israel ( early 1900’s though statehood in 1948 and through the 1960’s/70’s) for the state to survive to the the difficulties in the region, both the agricultural issues, water and the neighbors and other inhabitants.

    The Israeli kibbutz communities that survived the socialist structure to any degree (with the possible exception of the amana community in iowa). Havent the Kibbutz communities largely been abandoned now that their purpose has ended.

    What is surprising among the resurgence of socialism is the desire to resurrect what has been an abject failure where ever it has been tried.

    1. “What is surprising among the resurgence of socialism is the desire to resurrect what has been an abject failure where ever it has been tried.”

      Vain academics care about what people in their social circles will applaud more than the care about anything. Most are happy to advance destructive ideas to receive such applause. Vain academics and professionals in regulated industries are mostly personally insulated from the suffering they would visit upon others.

    2. Actually I have seen reports that more people are moving away from the cities to join kibbutzim. Mostly these are people fed up with the rat race of urban life and Covid lockdowns which made it more miserable for them has led some to look for something simpler.

      There are different structures with levels of collective life and you do not automatically become a member. Some will choose not to stay. It is an alternative some people prefer.

      They can exist because they are like enclaves running a business trading and interacting with the larger society. Also they are voluntary so you can leave whenever you want. It is not like a socialist state. Also some have been very successful financially.

    3. Some kibbutzim have done remarkably well, often by showing business acumen in their dealings with outside society.

      The sorts of policies that Bernie Sanders advocates (national healthcare, free or much more heavily subsidized university, more liberal welfare and safety net, etc.) are common in Western European countries, and some of them are universal there. I would hardly call the Western Europe of the last fifty years a complete failure.

      In general I’d suggest that “pure” socialism doesn’t work any better than “pure” capitalism. Frankly, ideological purity of any sort does not seem to be a atrong predictor of success so far as economic doctrines are concerned, at least if success is defined in relatively pragmatic terms as a large majority of the population being reasonably prosperous, happy, and having a measure of freedom.

      Successful sociolist societies have tempered their dogmas with approaches purists would consider anathema. Just like successful capitalist ones.

  3. A Kibbutz probably made sense back when the fledgling Jewish state faced overwhelming odds because such danger (a) makes it impossible to tolerate the deadbeats because they threaten the entire community and (b) the deadbeats themselves can’t afford such conduct because they have too much to lose personally.

    For example, I come from a fishing culture where — in the days of sail and before radios, cell phones and radar — one really didn’t know if he would be coming home that night, or sometime next week. Hence there was (and still is) an absolute rule that any child who shows up at your house must be fed — but that the child also has to help with the chores. (And likewise you care for the child as if it was your own — i.e. dry clothes, somewhere warm to sleep, etc.)

    Yes, the grandmothers with the best food tended to have the most children showing up, but then they also had help filling their woodbox or pulling buckets of water out of the well. It actually balanced out as these were often older widows for whom these were difficult tasks.

    And everyone had a vested interest in this because no one (including the women) knew when *they* might be the person stuck on the other side of the bay, unable to get home and having to trust that someone would care for their children. Hence the price of being a deadbeat was way too high.

    Same thing with the rule that you must tow someone in if his boat has broken down, even if it is your worst enemy. I did once see someone tow someone else into the harbor at probably full throttle, line him up for his mooring, cut the tow line and put his rudder hard over — but he did tow him in and did line him up for his mooring.

    The cost of being a deadbeat is too high — no one would have towed him in when *he* had engine problems had he not towed in his worst enemy that morning. And he knew that some day he might need to be towed in….

    Such is the self-reliance of a small, isolated community in an environment where danger is high. And I’m thinking that the original Israeli kibbutzes were similar — while the common threat wasn’t the weather, they knew of similar lethal threats…

    Now as to if this is socialism or what it is, that is a different story…

    1. In the early days before the founding of the state they were essential. Not only did they transform the land making it productive they firmly established their communities and defined what would become the borders mostly in the north.

      They also provided for their own defense. It was one of the jobs in the kibbutz. Moshe Dayan and other military leaders came from kibbutzim.

    2. History suggests that the idea of communal living was a good choice when life was harder and there were no real safety nets. America experimented with these type of communities with perhaps the Shakers being the best example. Many of these communities were characterized by their industriousness. It is also true that many of these communities set rules that were not always easy to live with. The Shakers for example shunned sexual relations. Communities lived together but the men and women had separate bedroom.
      While Shaker life was not for everyone it was in its day a safety net for people. There was even a term “Winter Shakers” for families that would come in winter to survive then leave in summer.

  4. There is, however, the classic urban legend of the bureaucrat who decides to count ceiling tiles in his office and thus determines that his office is just slightly smaller than someone else’s office….

    That’s the sort of stuff that only happens when you have the luxury of being able to make a fuss about stuff like this. No one is going to take you seriously if they are facing potentially mortal threats on a daily basis — nor are you going to make an issue over something like this if you are…

    1. Count ceiling tiles ?!? My ex-wife went into work one Saturday and found her work neighbor in her office with a tape measure. He was counting inches….

    2. As an Architect we one had a clinet measure all of the offices during construction. He found one a couple of inches smaller and made the contractor move the wall.

  5. 2 to 3 megadeaths of Democrats would be no problem to prevent us from becoming a permanent one party state. Those lives have negative value, anyway.

    1. Your mental illness seems to be growing, comment by comment. Why?

      1. That is a cost benefit analysis. You just do not know enough.

    2. At the top of the arrest list? The 25000 traitors in the lawyer hierarchy.

  6. A few hundred thousand grew up in kibbutzes. Apparently they produced only one libertarian.

    1. Sorry, I forgot to include Becker. Two.

  7. Perhaps this fine gentleman could educate the millions of American Jews who seem to have an almost fanatical belief in socialism..

    1. Perhaps either Professors Somin or Kohn should try their hand at a definition of “socialism”.

      There’s a world of ground between totalitarianism state socialism, kibbutzes, moshavim, democratic socialism per Corbyn, and those proposals that apparently signify “socialist ideology is enjoying something of a resurgence in much of the Western world.” Now I wonder what that might refer to?

      With a meaning so broad & elastic, “socialism”, is a damn useful word.

      1. “…For reasons mentioned by Kohn and Becker, kibbutzim present the best-case scenario for socialism….”

        I think a ton of people in America fully support socialism. A huge majority, I suspect. Things like free public education for kids. Health care for the poor and disabled. Maybe even social security.

        Why isn’t this seen as the best case for socialism? Or, looking at some of Europe’s hybrids of democracy and socialism? Lots of those countries work very well. Much better than America in some aspects (and worse, or far worse in other aspects, of course). Why can’t they be seen as the best case for socialism?

        I think holding out Israel’s socialist programs as, automatically, the “best” version–and then pointing out their flaws–is akin to begging the question. I think most people in America (even those who hate even the whiff of socialism) would disagree with the accuracy of the above-quoted premise.

        1. Do they “work well?” They require constant subsidies from the United States, in the form of military backup and our drug production.

          Not to mention that they’re much more mono-ethnic than we are.

          1. The only subsidies Israel gets are military and those must be spent here. Israel and US work closely together in military technology and share information. We are getting iron dome units now for example. I have a list of over 20 other systems developed by Israel we are using including the Trophy active protection system to protect tanks and other vehicles, drones, many others.

            Israel is our testing program as well and is the first country to use the F-35 in combat and is rumored to have flown them over Iran.

            The US has no mutual defense treaty with Israel and no American soldier has ever fought for Israel. Compare that with our other “allies”. Israel is by far our best and most reliable ally in the Middle East.

            As for drug production you must be kidding. Israel is a world leader in drug research and development of medical technology. Ever heard of Teva? One of the largest manufacturers in the world is based in Israel.

            Depends what you mean by ethnic. 80% of Israelis are Jews but they originate from all over the world. They are actually quite a diverse population. The same percent of Americans are Christian but we are diverse right? And racial problems in Israel are practically non existent.

            1. I was referring to the other countries in Europe he mentioned, not Israel.

        2. Santa

          As I pointed out they are self defined communities with voluntary membership and you are free to leave as many do . They are not government programs at all and in no way comparable to what we think of as socialism. They are not trying to change the world.

          The reason to think of them as a success is that although not as popular as they once were many are successful and run as thriving businesses. Unlike the hippie communes they are serious and sober and mostly productive. Some people just prefer the communal life. It is not for everyone.

          1. ^ A Good Comment

      2. So, is ObamaCare “good socialism” or “bad socialism”?

        1. Neither. It is not socialism at all actually just another expensive inefficient government program. Like Biden’s bridges and trains will turn out to be.

          It is just crappy insurance and expensive if you don’t get the subsidy. I had it for a while when I was an IC.

    2. The Jewish vote for the Democrat Party is inexplicable. They are the mortal enemy of Israel. Jews get killed in a synagogue, they support gun control, not carrying a gun to fire back on the Shabbos.

      My theory is that they live in New York City and other Democrat shitholes. No one can overcome their local culture.

      1. It’s not inexplicable. They are deluded autistics who worship liberalism.

        1. “There’s no bigger villain than a man who dons the tefillin.”

      2. The Jewish population tends to vote in line with others of the same demographics. They also tend to vote on domestic concerns, not Israel issues.

        As to security there are plenty of Jewish gun owners we just don’t make a big deal about it. I am one as is every adult in my immediate family. Most congregations hire security or off duty cops on Shabbat or holidays. The religious communities in NY have their own security organizations. They don’t carry guns to avoid trouble with the police with whom they work closely but you don’t want to tangle with those guys.

        BTW in the San Diego synagogue attack a congregant who was an off duty border patrol officer did shoot at the attacker although he did not hit him.

        On a personal note guns are not the problem but we have serious issues as a society.

        1. I also know Jewish gun owners.

          But I keep asking exactly what part of “Kill the Jews” do far too many American Jews not understand?

          1. Jews understand it very well. Look around at all of the antisemites who lurk on this website. You can’t combat that with guns. When you have an ideology of hate you will eventually breed violence.

            On a positive note with the success of the vaccination program tourists are returning now to Israel for Easter. The Christian sites and holy places there are just amazing. It is a great place to visit overall.

            It is preachy I know but when we build bridges instead of hatred and division we bring light into the darkness and good over evil. That is very powerful.

          2. Jews have lived through enough history to know that when people start calling for killing liberals, or Muslims, or whomever, Jews are next.

            International bankers, replacement theory, Western Civilization and a bunch of other mainstreamifying GOP thoughts are all warmed over anti-Semitic and white supremecist tropes.

            The liberal Jews I know can deal with a party with an antisemetic fringe better than one that’s all about othering various groups, and waiting until said group inevitably comes for them. (c.f. “Jews will not replace us”)

            1. Let’s be real here. Liberal “Jews” DO want to replace whites, because they are deluded to think that if white Protestants have no power, they’ll be safer. Of course, the mestizos, Somalis, and other third worlders they’re replacing them with are a lot more dangerous to Jews.

              It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. Back to Emanuel Celler, whose law ruined America, liberal Jews have always been at the forefront of insane immigration policy, because after all “We were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

          3. Fuck you, Dr. Ed.

            American Jews understand “Kill the Jews” a hell of a lot better than you do.

            We understand, among other things, that when Behar calls for Democratic “megadeaths,” a lot of the victims will be Jews.

            We don’t need patronizing lectures from demented fools like you to explain it to us.

            1. Only because Jews are the most vocal voices among the left. Don’t worry. I want all leftists dead, regardless of religion.

        2. Yeah I know “Jewish gun owners” just like I know “black business owners.” The minority does not demonstrate a rule.

  8. I think one could argue that although socialists had to temper the demands of their most extreme ideological purists, thus tempered socialism has worked quite well for many, with some really successful kibbutzim becoming quite wealthy and having long waiting lists to get in.

    Capitalism has also been substantially tempered in this country, and we don’t have anything like pure capitalism. If we had pure capitalism, firefighters would wait outside burning buildings until their pricing demands were met before beginning work.

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