The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World
By Ran Abramitzky
Princeton, $29.95, 360 pages
It’s funny to think of kibbutzim as an experiment in radical social equality, since they excluded nonskilled and non-Ashkenazi Israeli Jews. That paradox is not totally lost on Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky, who writes, in the middle of “The Mystery of the Kibbutz,” “It is legitimate to ask whether being selective and not admitting weak members of society is consistent with the ideals of equality and mutual aid.” But that isn’t really the concern of Abramitzky’s book, a neat, epistemologically modest précis of his research on the economics of kibbutzim, the Israeli socialist communes that split work and resources equally among their members for nearly a century. Abramitzky is not interested in whether kibbutzim achieved true equality per se so much as how they maintained equal sharing among their members, despite massive incentive problems.
Every society is forced to make trade-offs between productivity and equality; people have no incentive to work hard if their efforts aren’t rewarded with higher pay (the free-rider problem, in the parlance of economists), and, on the flip side, the talented and hardworking will leave for a society where they can earn more. How did kibbutzim address these problems while retaining their members? To answer this and other questions, Abramitzky relies on clever econometric analysis of census data of kibbutzniks and non-kibbutz Jewish Israelis. A large part of the answer, though Abramitzky doesn’t frame it in such damning terms, is that kibbutzim weren’t egalitarian at all but relied on screening mechanisms to keep people out based on education and skill level and on ideological commitment. These strategies were probably necessary for the kibbutz experiment to be feasible at all, Abramitzky argues. How else could they keep out people who wanted the benefits of living in a commune without doing any work?
Fair enough; taking the kibbutzim’s claim to equality at face value doesn’t detract from Abramitzky’s analysis, limited in scope to the incentive problems with kibbutzim. Before the kibbutz financial crisis of the 1980s, when kibbutzim had to pay back large sums of debt, all kibbutzim distributed income to their residents equally. There was no private property — residents sometimes didn’t even own their own clothing, but would reach for clothes in the communal bin. Kibbutzniks fought over whether to let members keep their Holocaust reparation payments from Germany or to redistribute them collectively. “When someone received a gift from the outside — for example, if a family member from Tel Aviv gave a radio to his cousin in a kibbutz — the kibbutz member was required to give the radio to the kibbutz so that all members could enjoy it,” Abramitzky writes. “In some cases, such a gift triggered the kibbutz to buy radios for all members.”
Meanwhile, as Israel grew richer and as the first generation of kibbutzniks replaced itself with their less wide-eyed children, kibbutzniks’ outside option — abandoning kibbutz life to make it in Israeli society — became more attractive. Kibbutzim developed lock-in mechanisms that made it difficult for members to leave. They didn’t let members hold cash, even though it wouldn’t, in principle, have violated socialist norms to distribute incomes equally in cash.
But many did leave, especially after Israel’s financial meltdown of the 1970s and ’80s. Kibbutzim were blamed for financial mismanagement by the newly empowered Likudniks. Their coffers were emptied by debt repayments before they, and other segments of society, converted to a market economy. As standards of living dropped, kibbutzniks who were better educated were more likely to leave. In a bid to retain their most productive members, almost all kibbutzim abandoned full equal sharing for a hybrid system that blended a baseline safety net with market wages and private property. Responding directly to those changes, young kibbutzniks became more likely to pursue higher education. The wealthiest kibbutzim were the best able to sustain an equal sharing structure (Kibbutz Hatzerim, for example, which made its fortune running the global irrigation manufacturer Netafim), and a minority of them maintain full sharing to this day.
Of course, kibbutzniks were motivated by more than financial incentives. There was what Abramitzky vaguely calls ideology or idealism, some indeterminate measure of how devoted members were to the kibbutz’s social vision, regardless of any financial gain or loss to themselves (technically, in the economics framework, pleasure from the fulfillment of an ideology is its own incentive). Abramitzky’s analysis doesn’t seriously take stock of what it means to be committed to kibbutz ideology, of what narratives kibbutzes told about themselves as they gave up on full equality, or of the dialectic between kibbutz ideology and broader Israeli society. This is not the book’s fault so much as it is a persistent blind spot for economics, which seems positively allergic to thinking about culture. Abramitzky doesn’t thread the needle between the kibbutzes’ policies of exclusion and the decline of the Labor Party. Once Israeli Mizrahis became politically organized, and the pro-market right-wing learned to speak to them, kibbutzes’ failure to integrate Israel’s diverse population became the kibbutzniks’ undoing.
To a nonspecialist reader, the argument’s narrowness may feel almost callow, but there is something comforting in Abramitzky’s tidy lines and graphs, painting a tight picture of causality from kibbutzes’ incentive structures to the choices of the people within them. The text is bookended by the story of his own family, whose trajectory reflects the rise and fall of kibbutzim during the 20th century: His grandparents were among the founders of Kibbutz Negba, and their daughter, Abramitzky’s mother, chose to leave. As a young economics student, Abramitzky argued with his uncle (by his own account, obnoxiously) about the feasibility of kibbutzim, with an assuredness that he now appears to regret. Now, there is not a whiff of cynicism or tendentiousness in his analysis. The boldest claim he’s willing to make about kibbutz ideology is that “[e]quality is natural and desirable for many people, but it is difficult to manage in light of the forces that undermine it.”
Abramitzky argues that kibbutzim offer insights into how to make an egalitarian society prosperous and viable. This may be true in a limited sense (if you can’t sanction people financially for shirking, sanction them socially), but the broader lesson of kibbutzim seems the opposite: A welfare program that isn’t inclusive of everyone is not legitimate or viable. For many of the reasons Abramitzky lays out (population size, heterogeneity, different levels of motivation), a fully inclusive safety net calls for at least some move away from full income equality. The early kibbutzniks couldn’t have foreseen the challenges of Israel’s diversity, but the failures of kibbutz utopianism need not be lost on today’s multiethnic societies — not least the United States.
Marina Bolotnikova is the associate editor of Harvard Magazine.