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 One could go as far as to say that the economic incentive to individuals in such communities has been replaced by a social one: the approval (or censure) of fellow members.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.


Can one be both socially conservative and libertarian? Answer: yes

Roger Simon discusses something I had been meaning to write about. His post touches on the tension between social conservatism and the libertarian impulse.

I myself identify as both a social conservative and a small-l libertarian. The contradiction, in fact, is only an apparent one. Allow me to explain.

First of all, there is a fundamental difference between libertarianism and libertinism. Libertinism seeks not liberty but license — the license to ‘do as thou wilst’ while being fully insulated from the consequences of irresponsible behavior. Libertarianism, on the other hand, seeks to get the state out of one’s wallet and bedroom to the extent practically possible, but by definition rejects the concept of the state insulating one from consequences of one’s own irresponsible behavior.

Yes, I believe deeply in a number of values that are generally considered socially conservative, and believe society would benefit greatly if more people would strive to live by these time-proven values. But I believe in furthering them by persuasion and personal example, not by state coercion with its reverse Midas touch.

The answer of every GOP candidate when asked about social issues (other than work ethic and self-reliance, which were still considered social issues when I was young) should be this: “My beliefs are well known, but I do not believe it is the government’s task to enforce them. Now, about the federal deficit and the economy…”

Of course, here’s the flipside: if you don’t want public resources to be used to enforce your beliefs, neither should they be used to enforce those of the other side (no subsidized abortions or s3x changes, no creating a ‘protected/privileged class’ out of a s3xual preference,…). And if you want to engage in risk behaviors (be they nutritional, sexual, smoking,…) do not seek to simultaneously deny us the right to criticize these behaviors yet tax us to foot the bill for them.

And the flip side of rejecting state coercion in “family values” matters is, what ‘cousin Dave’ calls, “get[ting] government out of the business of rearranging society with its offerings of perverse incentives. ”

“Bring the state back to basics.” Even if you do believe that the state should do some stuff beyond what I call “night-watchman duties” (national defense, public law and order, border protection, international relations), as long as it cannot handle the essentials properly it should not concern itself with peripherals. One does not argue about interior decoration while the house is on fire.

Replacing the aristocracy of money by the aristocracy of pull

Ayn Rand is an extremely verbose author, but she could be very concise and to the point when she put her mind to it. Witness this scene from ‘Atlas Shrugged’: the crony-capitalist James Taggart starts on a familiar rant and suddenly gets cut off:

We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-chasers. We will build a society dedicated to higher ideals, and we will replace the aristocracy of money by–

“the aristocracy of pull,” interjects d’Anconia.

Bingo. Had she been writing today, she might have said “the aristocracy of clout” or “the aristocracy of connections” or in Israel or Russia “the aristocracy of protektziya“.

Make no mistake: there is no such thing as a purely equal society. As George Orwell had his fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein put it: every society in human history has had a High, a Middle, and a Low. In a capitalist society, the High tend to be those with the most money. In a society of the type envisioned by the ‘social justice’ crowd (a term like “People’s Democratic Republic” in which every word actually means the opposite of its plain meaning) all that will happen is that who is part of the ‘High’ gets determined no longer by one’s net worth, but by the number and quality of one’s connections.

I have seen this first-hand in socialized medicine systems, where indeed money could not buy you access to gold-plated treatment — but being connected to the right people could. As an Israeli friend told me: “I’d go to the hospital and say my name is Yossi Cohen and get one type of treatment; I’d go back and say my name is Prof. Joseph Cohen from [name of famous research university] and get the red carpet. It ought not to be like this but this is reality.” (Or it was, until private medicine started making significant inroads.)

Now guess what kind of people figure they would be the High in such a system? Yes indeed, the New Class. This is what ‘social justice’ is really about: a disaffected group from the (upper) Middle trying to set itself up as the new High, using the Low as mascots or (electoral) cannon fodder.

Now what? The long game and the short game

Like many of us, I was heartsick over the election. Not because “our team” lost, but because what is without doubt the worst president in living memory, after a term in office that reads like a litany of disasters and miserable failures, managed to secure reelection despite at least two major scandals that would have brought down any Republican president — who, of course, would not benefit from a gleichgeschaltete press.

I’ve read plenty of “we are doomed” articles over the last few days, and certainly understand the despair speaking through them. John Hinderaker struck a backhanded positive note: namely, that the person dealing with the damage wrought by the first 0bama term will be none other than Barack Hussein 0bama. (Clementine Churchill “Winston, this may be a blessing in disguise.” Winston Churchill: “At this moment it seems quite effectively disguised.”)

I am not sure we’re lost or doomed, but I think we have to play two games at once: a short game (on economics) and a long game (on social/moral issues). Forgive me the “stream of consciousness draft” nature of what follows.

A number of pundits have struck a “two tribes” or “one nation divided” theme: America nearly equally split into two nations. Actually, I’d go even further: two nations that don’t even speak each other’s language. I don’t agree with, say, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum on many issues but I share enough of a reference framework with them that I understand what makes them tick. Your average MTV-head (or, for that matter, the indie rock-fan bashing “eMpTyV”) won’t even get where Romney or Santorum come from — and they tend to be so low-information on anything not immediately relevant to their daily lives that they are easy targets for media manipulation.
It’s like — as happened to me the other day — somebody walks in on you listening in obvious bliss to music on headphones, and just hearing cymbal noise and what sounds like vocal shouting because nothing else leaks from the headphones. The person coming in thinks you like crap noise, while you are actually hearing Deep Purple’s “In Rock” album in all its sonic glory.
To some kid that’s been brainwashed by entertainment TV on “hookups”, consequence-free s3x, and glorification of non-heterosexual s3x, somebody like Romney is never going to be able to explain his position (ahem) on marriage, let alone on abortion. (I’m not even thinking of Santorum’s, and don’t get me started on Todd Akin, an embarrassment that managed to blow a shoo-in Senate seat). Even when the kid might be open to the idea that a foetus is not just some clump of tissues that can be flushed at will until right before birth (and even when born alive after a botched abortion, according to some extremists such as a certain former Illinois state senator), they are vulnerable to all the “back-alley abortions” “steal your lady parts” etc. propaganda of the other side. And here’s the clincher — women from the more so-con side, even when personally atheist or agnostic (like Dr. Helen Smith, a.k.a. “Instawife”) won’t even get why the women from the other side aren’t turned off by this obviously simplistic, manipulative, and patronizing propaganda.
It used to be that positions, liberal or conservative, might have been taught in school in a relatively dispassionate fashion, leaving people (comparatively) free to make up their own minds. What happens now is that kids get little or no actual information in school (and whatever they do get is thin on information and heavy on propaganda), and nothing but propaganda (glorifying one perspective and demonizing another) through the popular culture. As Sarah Hoyt pointed out, outliers can exist in the latter, but only after they have already become established and feared in some niche — Brad Thor, for example, can be an outspoken conservative, or some Justin Bieber-type singer can be an evangelical, or Bob Dylan can be a quasi-Orthodox Jew [though even he has to at least be seen as genuflecting to the hipster orthodoxy once in a while].
Therefore, on social and cultural issues, only the long game can be played. I am not even talking about persuading people, simply of convincing them that there is another perspective at least as valid as the therapeutic left-liberal one they take for granted. It is high time to make the culture celebrate “diversity” beyond the skin-deep kind of race and ethnicity, but this is a slow game that (Bill Whittle makes this point masterfully) requires essentially the patient building-up of a competing popular media infrastructure.
So much for the long game. On economic issues, however, the short game can and should be played, if only because we are so close to the economic abyss that the daily consequences will hit very soon and very hard, way beyond the extent that they are already hitting many people. At some point very soon “other people’s money” will run out, and the “blue model” discussed at great length by Walter Russell Mead will crash. If 0bama weren’t such an economic innumerate, he’d (quietly, so as not to upset environmental extremists) push for maximum development of US oil resources to have an export commodity available for “the day after” Arab oil runs out — because nanny statism of the type he envisages can only be financed (while it lasts) if you’re literally sitting on a gold mine with the whole world lining up to buy.
In other words: the only message that the GOP can, in the short term, preach outside the choir is the economic one of “we have no more money and better do something about it before it all comes crashing down”. This message should be stated clearly, forcefully, and insistently. This will not fall on kind ears — as the hysterical reactions to the ‘Ryan plan’ illustrate — and entrenched interests will do all they can to demonize the GOP here too. But here the GOP has been able to score at least tactical victories at the local or regional level (note Scott Walker in WI), and in the short-to-medium term, their best ally are “the cold equations”: either the GOP will be ignored in the short term and then gain new respect as “the gods of the copybook headings with [financial] terror and slaughter return”, or they will be hearkened to and in the process become stronger, or adult leadership will come back to the D party and it will adopt modified forms of GOP solutions and then claim their ownership, justifying itself to its base by explaining how much worse the medicine would taste if the GOP did it. (The latter outcome may take the wind out of the GOP’s sails in the short run but may actually benefit it in the long run — as it will be seen as a responsible partner by supporting effectively GOP-lite policies from the opposition benches.)
In both long and short game — as the late lamented Andrew Breitbart understood better than anybody else — the legacy media is Enemy Number One and this should be kept in mind at all times. Covering for D presidents may not be something new (think of FDR and JFK), but the blatancy, near-universality, and shamelessness of today is something unprecedented. Insty has referred to them over and over as “DNC operatives with bylines” — if they aren’t actual operatives, they have become functionally equivalents thereof. As veterans of the Chicago Machine, the 0bama consiglieres will know how to reward their friends: I am willing to bet nearly my bottom dollar on an overt or covert bailout or subsidy of the legacy media “in the public interest”. Treating them as ‘the enemy’ does not always mean being confrontational or aggressive: Breitbart was at his most devastating to them when playing mental jujitsu games with them.
Us obsessive newsbloggers/newsblog readers are making the mistake of targeting high-information voters. A president (and his followers) behaving like middle schoolers just won re-election — because that is the level of information and maturity of half the electorate! Therefore, we must target our message simultaneously to all levels of information and attention span, and in such a way that the consumer can choose their level without feeling patronized.
You may call me a dreamer, but I can’t believe I’m the only one.
On a final note: there is one subject notably absent from the above, immigration. With the economy in the current doldrums, the wave of illegal immigration from South of the border appears to be petering out as even menial work “that Americans won’t do” is no longer abundantly available. As much as the stories described by Victor Davis Hanson make my blood boil, nothing will put a more effective end to these than (for lack of any fiscal alternative) severely curtailing transfer payments to the ‘documented’ and ‘undocumented’ alike. For good reason, Milton Friedman was an advocate of both minimum-government and  open borders: one can easily (and only) afford the latter if one has the former.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle (one of the very few redeeming features of the execrable Daily Beast) had predicted an 0bama win, but in the short-to-medium term foresees a fracturing of the ‘permanent’ D coalition  as the money runs out and it will be impossible to continue paying off all interest groups at the same time, forcing difficult choices between them. She uses the term ‘Hobbesian war of all against all’: I might have chosen the term Ragnarok.

Innumeracy and wordsmith “intellectuals”

Insty today hit a raw nerve:

TAXING THE RICH: The math just doesn’t work. But as we’ve seen, Obama and the dems seem deep in the grip of innumeracy — or, alternatively, they hope the voters are.

It goes further than just the 0bama administration. In the circles of “wordsmith” intellectuals, who live or die by their pen, articulateness is all too often confused with intelligence. When one engages some of these people (say, J’ism school grads) in discussion on nonverbal subjects — including totally apolitical ones — one often encounters astonishingly limited minds in the numerical (and, to a lesser extent visuospatial) realm. The word “innumeracy” is only a mild poetic exaggeration in many cases, and dead-on accurate in some others. A school and college system that increasingly allows pupils/students to avoid grappling with math and science only makes things worse.


On fiscal crisis denialism

It is quite amazing, really. People like myself are being called “global warming deniers” and told we are the moral equivalent of Shoah deniers for having some skepticism over the catastrophic AGW scenario and being opposed to making sweeping changes in the economy and society to avert a far-off, uncertain threat predicted by opaque computer models.

Yet these same people have their heads completely buried in the sand about a clear, present, and imminent  fiscal crisis which can be understood by anybody who has ever had to balance a budget. And anybody trying to make even baby steps to do something about that problem is immediately accused of wanting to starve seniors, making the poor eat dog and cat food,… and other blatant ploys of emotional blackmail.

Of course, in the latter case, the New Class/government class would lose out on both jobs and patronage if solutions were implemented, while in the former case, implementation of the “solution” would entail a vast increase of government/regulatory jobs for themselves, patronage for their mascots/electoral cannon fodder, and power & control over all of us. Coincidence? I didn’t think so either.


Are unions evil? No, just obsolete

The absolutely despicable behavior displayed by the pro-union thugs in Wisconsin (check out the Althouse-Meade team’s citizen journalism straight from Madison) has turned out to be everything the make-believe media claimedf the Tea Party was. It may be seductive to some on the right to think that unions are evil, and one could be forgiven for thinking the WI public sector unions were following the book by Draco Carnegie (Dale Carnegie’s evil twin): “How to lose friends and alienate people”.

Unlike some conservatives, I do not harbor starry-eyed illusions that bosses never exploit workers, and that workers never need represesntation or protection. This is not because of any residual liberal convictions but because — like any good conservative — I realize entrepreneurs are humans too and no human flaws will be alien to them.

Once upon a time, unions did a lot of good in remedying intolerable working conditions. However, when the “sweatshops” and slave-labor mines of old fell before the twin onslaught of worker activism and technological progress (many “progressives” are incapable of admitting that technological progress has done more to empower non-privileged individuals than all social engineering schemes ever devised together), the unions saw themselves faced with the need to either reinvent themselves or fade away.

Sometimes, as discussed in this golden oldie by Steven den Beste, an organization that outlives the problem it is meant to address will successfully reinvent itself. Far more commonly, the organization will artificially seek to perpetuate a problem in order to justify its continued existence and expansion, or try to inflate residual isolated problems into grand societal challenges . The UNRWA is a tragic example; an organization like SPLC a merely farcical one.

Robert Samuelson has a must-read article in the Washington Post today. Get thee over there, but let me share with you some data from the article that really floored me.

How much of the workforce do unions represent? Turns out, just 11.9% nationwide. In the private sector, thiis drops to just 6.9% (!), while in the public sector, 36.2% of workers is unionized. (These numbers, actually, imply that 17.1% of the American workforce works in the public sector.)

In other words, as Samuelson argues, unions are becoming largely irrelevant in the private sector, and are essentially becoming a public-sector phenomenon. Which is why attempts to curtail their influence in their last remaining bulwark are (correctly) perceived by union leadership as an existential threat.

Moreover, Simon at Power and Control (crosspost at Classical Values) points to data suggesting that the unions are in dire financial shape.  They “went for broke” in supporting 0bama, in the hope that he would oversee either a massive expansion of the governmental workforce, or introduce union-friendly “card check” legislation restoring their power base in the private sector, or both.

Ironically, Federal government employees (as distinct from state and local ones) have greatly curtailed collective bargaining rights:

While labor unions that represent federal workers do have some collective bargaining rights, provisions in the Civil Service Reform Act passed under President Carter in 1978 restrict federal employees from using it for pay or pensions and federal workers cannot be forced into a union or required to pay dues.

Pournelle’s Iron Law states that any bureaucratic organization will eventually become dominated by people that work not for its stated ends, but for the organization for its own sake and for the sake of their own private bureaucratic empires. Precisely this is what happened to unions in the USA.