In an interesting recent article, Dartmouth economist Meir Kohn describes how he gradually went from socialist to libertarian. A key role was his experience of living in a kibbutz, the famous socialist agricultural settlement of Israel:
A kibbutz is a community with a few hundred adults and children who are mainly involved in agriculture, but also in light industry and tourism. Members work wherever they are assigned, although preferences are taken into account. Instead of receiving payment, members receive benefits in kind: they live in assigned apartments, eat in a communal dining room, and their children are raised together in children’s homes and can visit their parents for a few hours each day. Most property is communal, with the exception of personal items such as clothing and furniture, for which members are given a small budget.
The kibbutz is bottom-up socialism on a small community scale. This avoids the worst problems of state socialism: 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. That is “socialism with a human face” – as best it can.
As a member of a kibbutz, I learned 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. Still, a member assigned to an apartment slightly smaller or older than someone else’s would be very annoying. This was partly because a person’s ability to spot differences increases as the differences get smaller. But mostly it was because what we got was allocated rather than earned. It turns out that how you get things matters no less than what you get.
The second thing I learned from my experience with socialism was that incentives are important. In a kibbutz there is no material incentive for exertion and no great incentive of any kind. There are two types of people who have no problem with this: deadbeats and saints. When one group joined a kibbutz, the dead and saints usually stayed 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 convinced him to reject socialism.
Kohn is by no means the only person who has come to this conclusion after getting a taste of life on the kibbutz. Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol had a similar reaction after volunteering on a kibbutz for a few months. The experience she left with an “unromantic view of the kibbutz” and (as her father Denis Thatcher put it) was “vaccinated” [her] against socialism. “
Over time, the shortcomings of the socialist kibbutz model became so evident that most kibbutzim gradually abandoned important parts of the socialist model, such as equal pay, rejection of private property and communal child-rearing. See also this discussion from 2007 Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, who himself spent time in a kibbutz during his heyday before the reform.
In 2016 I visited a kibbutz myself as part of a trip to Israel with a group of other American legal scholars. Our guide admitted that over time their community had abandoned several important socialist institutions, including community child rearing. She herself – a socialist Zionist immigrant from Canada – has condemned these ideological deviations. But much of the community obviously felt that they could not be avoided.
For the reasons given by Kohn and Becker, kibbutzim represent the best scenario for socialism. At least initially, most of the participants were self-selected, highly motivated volunteers. Abuses of power and information problems typical of large-scale socialism have been mitigated by the exit rights and the relatively modest size of the community. Strong support from the Israeli government and civil society helped resolve financial and resource problems. Still, kibbutzim eventually had to introduce market incentives, expanded property rights, private child-rearing and other “capitalist” institutions in order to survive.
In contrast, Israeli “moshavim” were much more successful. A moshav is an agricultural settlement with private property in houses and land, although some equipment and communal facilities (e.g. schools) are collectively owned. On the same trip in 2016, 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. People all over the world have heard of kibbutzim. But hardly anyone outside Israel knows what a moshav is, except real estate scholars.
Most moshavniks are anything but libertarian. Many, including those we met, are leftists who speak out strongly against the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, 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 experiencing a kind of resurgence in much of the western world. For reasons that I have summarized here, many of the shortcomings of full-blown socialism are also shared by “democratic socialism” advocated by Bernie Sanders in the US and former Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.