What do Bernie Sanders, Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen, Noam Chomsky, Sigourney Weaver and Boris Johnson have in common? Well, they all volunteered on kibbutzim in Israel. The word kibbutz comes from the Hebrew word for gathering. It was in 1909 that the first one was established in Degania in Palestine by a group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The kibbutzim were inextricably entwined with the Zionist project and the creation of the state of Israel. The Kibbutzniks dreamed of reclaiming the soil of their ancient homeland and starting a new way of life, the living embodiment of the Marxist axiom, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” They were run on the principle of joint ownership of property. Kibbutzniks would eat together in a communal dining hall and wear the same clothing. Such was their commitment to equality, they shared responsibility for bringing up children. Kids lived outside of their parents’ homes. They would only see their offspring a couple of hours a day.
These young Jewish immigrants were inexperienced with physical labour and also lacked knowledge about agriculture. Their ultimate goal was to create a new human being. Given this and the evidence of the last century, you would have thought that it would be a recipe for disaster in such a hostile environment. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim thrived for multiple generations. There are still some 230 today. I may be a sceptic, but I have always been fascinated by man’s quest to build utopias on earth. What is different about the kibbutzim is that they were never at the margin of society. They always influenced and were influenced by society as a whole. This is very different from Oneida or the town of Pullman, which I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, Utopia is not an option. This week I was pleased to hear this week’s EconTalk podcast. In it host Russ Roberts interviewed Ran Abramitzky about his book The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World.
The study of the kibbutz is a case of applied microeconomics. According to the laws of economics kibbutzim shouldn’t work at all. There is that famous adage in economics that people respond to incentives and that the rest is commentary. People do undoubtedly respond to incentives, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The kibbutz lasted successfully as social institution for 70 or 80 years.
How did they survive so long? There were a number of reasons for this. Abramitzky argues that thee way they were actually well- thought out in terms of what economics tells us about human interaction. The most valuable thing that the kibbutz provided was an invaluable insurance against economic shocks. In the kibbutz you know that that you and your family will always be getting paid the same. Members do not depend on the skills of one profession, they do various occupations. They were able to succeed in part as well because of their idealism, which they were able to inculcate in the young through the schools. The voluntary aspect of this experiment is important. This was not the forced collectivization of the Kulaks in the Ukraine by Stalin. But idealism is not enough. This will tend to dissipate each generation. You need other mechanisms.
When I think of the kibbutz system, the first problem that comes to mind is the free rider problem. How do you motivate people to study and work, if they don’t receive all the fruits of their labour? How do you avoid attracting people who want to live off what does work is social sanctions and peer pressure. If you are perceived to be skiving, nobody will want to sit next to at dinner. This kind of social sanction works best in relatively small groups; everybody knows everybody. Consequently, you need to sacrifice some privacy, but you are able to get people to co-operate.
The rotation of power is also used in many posts. No one has power indefinitely and it is also used to reward those who contribute most.
Another danger is the brain drain. This is especially relevant in a world in which wealth increasing and mobility has become much easier. One way to control it is to make leaving costly. Remember that all property is collective. Once you leave, you can only take your knowledge with you. What’s more much of this is kibbutz specific. And finally they have a tough screening program for new members. You would not be allowed in if you couldn’t get a job in the kibbutz. There was even a probation period of one year to see if you were a good fit.
Homogeneity is a necessary ingredient of kibbutzim. The vast majority were Ashkenazi Jews, émigrés from Eastern Europe. They created a socialist utopia, but they were less inclusive of Arabs or even other Jews. There was between socialism and Zionism. For socialists the Arab was a fellow worker. However, from a Zionist perspective, they could be seen as the enemy.
Abramitzky tries to extrapolate wider conclusions. He suggests that it can be challenging to create an egalitarian society when societies are not homogenous. And these difficulties increase the larger the political unit. This explains the success of the welfare states in Scandinavian societies and how it has proved more complicated in the United States.
In recent times the kibbutzim have been in crisis. Over time, the kibbutz members’ sense of identification with the kibbutz and its goals has declined. This is probably down to societal change and the fact that they are living in a capitalist society. When they were started, Israel was a relatively poor undeveloped country. By the 1990s it had become, one of the world’s most innovative high-tech economies. Staying on the farm is inevitably going to be less appealing. Nowadays farming has been partially supplanted by other economic activity including factories and high-tech enterprises. They have been forced to adapt in other ways too. The equal sharing is no longer dogma. The demise of the Communist bloc led to the weakening of Socialist beliefs around the world; the kibbutz society was not immune to this process. Another growing trend has been privatization. Zionism is no longer well-seen on the left. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim represent a fascinating experiment. Will they be around in another 100 years?