Bryan Caplan  

Voluntary-but Bossy-Socialism

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Voluntary-and-laid-back socialism sounds good to most people; that's why Cohen's camping trip thought experiment works.  Involuntary socialism, in contrast, sounds terrible to almost everyone; that's why Cohen's thought experiment fails to advance what most avowed socialists have in mind. 

The more interesting question, though, is intermediate: How does voluntary-but-bossy socialism sound?  Check out this 1998 WaPo profile of the Twin Oaks commune and see for yourself.  Key facts: The commune members have long since learned that even people who express interest in their lifestyle rarely like it for long.  (Talk about Social Desirability Bias!)  Indeed, the commune can't even convince its own kids to stay.
Anyone seeking to join Twin Oaks must first live here for three weeks as a visitor, a test run for both sides. If they decide to apply, they must submit to an exhaustive interview session followed by a membership vote. After years of being at peak capacity, Twin Oaks is now trying to recover from an exodus that left a dozen vacancies, many of them from longtime members. The current population hovers near 100. In the commune's fledgling years, the average member was 23 years old with two years of college, and left in less than a year. Now the average Twin Oaker is 42, has a college degree and stays for eight years. The commune is overwhelmingly white, with roughly the same number of men and
women. Some 600 people have joined Twin Oaks since its inception, yet there are no second generation members. As one recruiter puts it, "Communards do not breed communards."
Even with this screening process, adverse selection runs amok:
Families are discouraged by the lack of structured day-care or educational programs, as well as the quota limiting the number of children in the community to around 15. And while the environmental and pacifist ideals of Twin Oaks at times attract deeply passionate and committed people, recruiters like Keenan find that most who express interest fall into a far different category.

"This is not a standard lifestyle choice," Keenan allows. "The sort of people who tend to move here move a lot. They've not made deep emotional connections because of that . . . Someone said the visitors' program selects between loners, losers and drifters." Sooner or later, he is confident, the true loners feel crowded, the losers feel overworked and the drifters drift away. At the same time, the core of competent and capable members continues to erode. Leaving seems contagious, and the departures happen in waves. The reasons vary -- broken romances, families wanting a place of their own, disenchantment with the inevitable discovery that a commune is not one big, happy family holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" around a bonfire in the woods.
Compared to involuntary socialism, voluntary-but-bossy socialism is paradise.  But that's not saying much. 

HT: Mark Steckbeck


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Richard Besserer writes:

Postscript:

Kat Kincade, the founder of Twin Oaks quoted at length in the article, finally quit the commune herself at the age of 70, moving into a small house in Mineral, a nearby village in Louisa County. The last straw was apparently the refusal of her fellow commune-dwellers to install air conditioning when Virginia summers began to take too much of a toll on her health.

Kincade returned to Twin Oaks only when she became too physically weak to take care of herself in Mineral. The people of the commune cared for its founder till her death in 2008, aged 77.

Jeff writes:

I believe this is also a key fact:

The commune Kat helped start that June afternoon 31 years ago is what some members describe as a hypervillage today, with an annual income of more than $500,000, mostly from the sale of high-quality rope hammocks that will end up in the back yards of the Range Rover yuppies Twin Oaks holds in polite contempt.

How long would this commune last without that 500k in cash coming in every year? Not very Walden II, is it?

JA writes:

I still wonder if there are any communes that do not require their members to work in the commune. It's feasible (in the I can imagine it sense) to have a commune with teachers, professors, professionals, blue collar workers, etc. that simply all put their money in a pot.

I can't imagine many people finding that desirable, but in Denmark they have some communal living arrangements where four or five families live together (they have their own individual space), but eat dinner together and take turns with some domestic work. So maybe you only cook one day a week, and people are there to help watch the kids, etc.

Pajser writes:
Involuntary socialism, in contrast, sounds terrible to almost everyone; that's why Cohen's thought experiment fails to advance what most avowed socialists have in mind.
The society requires two things to satisfy my criteria for "voluntary socialism" on the state level: democratic elections won by socialist party and right to secession. Modern capitalist countries do not provide right on secession, but right to exit only. If one believes that it is enough to make capitalism voluntary, the same criteria should be applied on socialism. Cohen's camp thought experiment and fair, but in my opinion, unsuccessful Brennan's attempt to show that capitalism can be equally or more moral means that if people have choice to make their states more socialist (and keep the same amount of voluntarity) it is moral choice. It is very bold conclusion.

Twin Oaks commune, as described, and even more on this video, looks very well to me.

Emily writes:

@JA: Some religious orders work that way: members work various jobs in the community and their salaries go into a communal pot. It takes a great deal of commitment to join a religious order and there's a long formation process, so you can likely avoid some adverse selection problems that you'd otherwise get. (And there's a shared value system and external support.)
There are also cooking co-ops where some domestic work is shared but people hold onto their own incomes.

Floccina writes:

I know the topic is if people were perfect but Twin Oaks shows that you can screen difficult people out even socialism can be OK but if you got to screen people out capitalism would be much better.

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