On socialism, incentives, and kibbutzim

Mark Perry discusses the failure of socialism. Among the cardinal features he singles out is the fact that, if you allow me to translate him into engineering lingo, the system is “not robust”: all it takes for the system to fail is a few people behaving like, well, jerks. In contrast, imperfect as capitalism may be, it’s the equivalent of a piece of machinery that only works “well enough”, but keeps going and going even if severely abused — a “robust” design.

Aside from that, Perry particularly stresses the role of incentives. Now if I’m ever asked to summarize economics while standing on one foot (the Talmudic version of “give an elevator pitch”), I’d say: “Humans respond to incentives. All the rest is commentary.” I am sure Steven Levitt would like this as a summary of his bestselling “Freakonomics” series.

Periodically, people bring up the Israeli kibbutzim in this debate — socialists as an example of “socialism that works”, detractors of Israel (when speaking to conservative or libertarian audiences) as a reason to dislike Israel. Few of them actually have any familiarity with life on a kibbutz.* Unlike them, I have plenty of current and former kibbutzniks around me, and I’ve lived in a kibbutz-like community in the past.

In fact, they are remarkably similar to medieval monasteries from a socio-economic point of view, except of course for the enforced celibacy and religious orientation. Allow me to elaborate on this point a bit. For those interested in more detail, Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky has published a number of very interesting papers on the subject just as this one and that one.

Some of the points old-school kibbutzim and monasteries (both quasi-socialist micro societies, at least historically) have in common:

  • membership is voluntary (for the first generation of kibbutzniks)
  • prospective members are strongly screened for ideological and personal compatibility
  • even when admitted, they have to go through a probation period (novitiate in monasteries, provisional member status in kibbutzim)
  • they are generally small enough that each individual member knows (almost) all the others personally, which enables:
  • a level of social control that would be unbearable to most Americans. One could go as far as to say that the economic incentive to individuals in such communities has been replaced by a social one: the approval (or censure) of fellow members.

For all the talk about them, it might be hard to believe that kibbutzim only account for a few percent of Israel’s population. Aside from speaking to the imagination, they played a larger-than-life role in Israel’s founding, and still are heavily represented in IDF combat units and in the political scene.

Considering the value that left-wingers attach to “diversity”, Dr. Abramitzky rightly points out that kibbutzim are just about the least “diverse” society one can imagine. Separate kibbutz movements existed for hardline socialists (HaKibbutz HaArtzi), moderate socialists (TAKA”M, Hebrew acronym for United Kibbutz Movement) and religious kibbutzim (HaKibbutz HaDati). Ideological rifts within a kibbutz can end, and have ended, in kibbutz splits — Ein Harod being a prominent example.

The membership of most kibbutzim were nearly wall-to-wall Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern European background — moreover, the founding gar’in (“core” [membership group]) of a kibbutz often all hailed from the same town! A few carefully vetted members of different origins might gain admission, or a like-minded group of such people might found a kibbutz of their own. A few individual kibbutzim were formed by somewhat ‘out there’ communities: Hararit, for instance, was originally founded by a group of  Transcendental Meditation devotees. (She-yihyu bri’im/”bless their hearts”.)

There are a few really large kibbutzim, such as Giv`at Brenner (secular, about 1,700) or Kvutzat Yavne (religious, about 1,100). But more typically, membership is in the range of a couple hundred — which Dr. Abramitzky points out is near the limit of the human mind’s ability to process personal relationships. Kibbutzim that grow larger than that may eventually see rifts or be weakened by attrition — or a gar`in would form and a new kibbutz would be established elsewhere.

The model of “from each voluntary and vetted member according to their abilities, to everyone according to their needs and our resources” worked, after a fashion, until the 1980s. Worldwide economic changes that made agriculture and light industry less profitable were one factor. The second (sometimes third) generation of kibbutzniks being born into a model they had not taken upon themselves voluntarily was another. Many kibbutzim started experiencing an exodus of young people, particularly the talented and ambitious ones.

The 1980s financial “Kibbutz Crisis” forced most kibbutzim to reform in order to stave off bankruptcy. Some were privatized outright and turned into community villages that just retain “Kibbutz” as part of their name. The remainder exist in one of three models:

  • kibbutz mitchadesh, or “renewing kibbutz”, where every member’s only sources of income are their own, from work or trade inside or outside the kibbutz. This is presently the dominant model;
  • kibbutz shitufi (pronounced “sheetoofee”), or “sharing kibbutz”: the old-school model rebooted (a small minority);
  • kibbutz meshulav, or “combined kibbutz”: a hybrid model with wage differentiation

A few “urban kibbutzim” have been founded in recent years, where members voluntarily associate into such a form of living in an urban setting. Some of these groups are a little weird (centering around ecological or “alternative” obsessions), others more mainstream. The key word is, however, voluntary. Such “socialism” is not scalable to a large and diverse country of inhabitants mostly by birth rather than choice.

To the extent the kibbutz/monastery form of “socialism” ever worked, it did so because it was voluntary, vetted, tightly knit, and in tune with local economic circumstances. When one or more of these factors no longer pertained, it had no choice but to transform or disappear.

(*) Footnote: a kibbutz should not be confused with a moshav, which is an agricultural community organized as a smallholders’ cooperative.


4 thoughts on “On socialism, incentives, and kibbutzim

  1. This was an extremely lucid and helpful piece. Lots of information and, in itself, a little clinic on expository writing

  2. Many thanks for bringing me up-to-date on Israel’s kibbutz movement. I did not know so much had changed.

    In the late 1970s, I lived on Ein-Hashofet, which I believe was “hardline socialist,” being founded by Jews who fled Poland in the 1930s. I could see the splits you describing developing, although around family life and sex roles rather than economics. The economic changes you mention had not yet hit the country.


    The mothers clearly did not want the kibbutzim (meaning other women) rearing their children. They’d fought hard to win two hours off in early afternoon to be with their small children. And although I was sometimes taken out of my job in the screw factory to work in the cafeteria, the women I worked under made it clear that as soon as a new woman volunteer arrived, I’d be back with my machines. Preparing food was a woman’s work. Noisy, dirty, factories were for men.

    But mothers who wanted to go further faced an enormous problem replacing communal child-rearing with a nuclear family. My modern Hebrew teacher complained about the main reason: The fact that virtually all the kibbutz housing had only a single-bedroom and that the few two-bedroom apartments were assigned to the oldest members, those whose kids had long grown up.

    For the curious, Bruno Bettelheim wrote an interesting book, The Children of the Dream, about how the first generation of children reared communally faired.


    Here’s the trailer to a sad documentary about how the children themselves felt about that child rearing:


    Judging by this:


    Ein Hashofet, where I was, is one of the few kibbutzim not to have made major changes in that area. Some 1100 people lived there when I did. With only 800 now, there’s been no compelling necessity to create multi-bedroom apartments. I assume that young couples who want to raise their kids at home simply leave.

    Reading that description, it seems like it’s one of those stubbornly refusing to change. That fits with its economics, which continues to be based on light industry, mostly car parts. That can’t be making them rich.


    I once joked to an American Jew who’d joined the kibbutz that the place was “to the left of Stalin.” He didn’t see the humor of my remark. Very seriously, he informed me that many of the founders proudly kept Stalin’s photo on their walls long after the revelations of Stalinist horrors. Only after the Six Day War, seeing the billions of dollars in arms that the USSR had supplied their foes, did they give up their love affair with the Soviet Union. That’s very hard-core left.

    They still offer an ulpan teaching modern Hebrew and accept volunteers, so those who’d like to see what an old school kibbutz was like from the inside can do so.


    The kibbutz now has a pub. That’s new. I wonder if the beer, like the food in the cafeteria, is free in any quantity. Probably not. There were always limits in how far the kibbutz was willing to go in that ‘from each… to each’ principle.


    I never saw its economics as legitimate in any context but as voluntary. But I loved my time there, particularly when my ulpan with its studying ended and I became a mere volunteer. After I put in my seven hours, my life was my own. Even my meals and laundry were taken care of. The cafeteria food was good and I had lots of time to read. The library was great.

    That said, as a life-long career, it comes up short. The jobs available are those of a small town and the culture and politics are much more intense and controlling than in any small town. My assigned kibbutz family had no detectable political views until the kibbutz held a meeting and decided en masse about how to regard an upcoming election. Then they adopted those views. If you like submerging yourself in a group, you’d be happy there. But it’s a world of round holes, so if you’re a square peg, you’ll feel most out of place.

    The self-selection of those staying versus leaving is probably accentuating those group-minded tendencies in one of the few remaining old-school kibbutzim. For someone with an inclination to observe and write, that might provide a good opportunity to describe life for what must the great-grandchildren of the original dream for a voluntary, little ‘c’ communism.


    We should not gloat that our current modern way is better. All too many children today grow up in too small a family, meaning a single mother struggling just to keep her head above water. When I cared for children with leukemia, I saw how hard it was for such truncated families to cope with a major illness. Both extremes in family life have serious deficiencies.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia (about caring for children with cancer)

  3. I have no problem with people voluntarily committing their personal incomes and assets to a group effort as long as anyone can leave anytime they want. However when socialism is imposed on a society, it must involve using government coercion and compulsion. Generally, people commit a crime should they attempt to leave the country.

    As such imposed socialism violates the Commandments that forbid coveting and theft. Since it was always justified on the basis that it would benefit society, that the resulting institutional lies violate that Commandment as well.

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