Bryan Caplan  

Get a Compound

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Critics of libertarianism frequently fault us for ignoring the value of community.  Libertarians may be perfectly happy living in a society bound together by nothing stronger than "I'll leave you alone, you leave me alone."  But psychologically normal humans crave a sense of deep belonging - a sense only big government satisfies.

On the surface, it's a plausible story.  I've always been weirdly individualistic.  I never fit in with my classmates or neighborhood kids.  Even Princeton's Ph.D. econ program wasn't nerdy enough for me.  If you're a lifelong outsider, libertarianism sounds very nice.  For everyone else, however, it sounds like a threat to the meaning of life.

The more I think about this story, though, the weaker it seems.  The million-dollar question: If people really crave a sense of deep belonging, how come almost no one voluntarily lives in "compounds" - also known as "intentional communities"?  If you're a Christian, why not live in an all-Christian apartment block?  If you're a Green, why not live in an all-Green commune?  If you're an American nationalist, why not live in an all-American-nationalist housing development?

Yes, it's conceivable your restrictive covenants will face some legal hurdles.  But where there's a will, there's usually a way.  If you want to live on a compound, your main problem isn't that you'll get sued by hostile elements trying to crash your party.  Your main problem is that you'll search in vain for like-minded people who want to join you.  Indeed, suppose a compound of like-minded people were already up and running.  How much extra rent would you be willing to pay per month to experience "deep belonging"?

Critics will probably dismiss this economic reductionism.  But that's hardly fair.  When people rent apartments or buy homes, they're happy to shell out extra money to live in richer areas, safer areas, more interesting areas.  Property developers strive to accommodate not only these common desires, but more obscure preferences for golf communities, 55-and-better communities, pristine communities, and much more.  Why then do developers deliver so few deep-belonging communities?  The nigh-inescapable answer: Because there's little demand for them.  When deciding where to live, psychologically normal humans spend dollars like individualists.

True, most people aren't rhetorically individualistic.  But actions speak louder than words.  When people talk like collectivists but spend like individualists, Social Desirability Bias is the natural explanation.  The prevalence of communitarian talk shows normal people want to sound like communitarians.  The absence of compounds shows people want to live like individualists.  Governments deliver what people pretend to want.  Free markets deliver what they actually want.

Disagree?  Then get a compound, raise your identity flag high, and count yourself lucky.  Communitarians can get most of the community they lack by by convincing a room-full of like-minded folks to a join them.  Individualists can't get the freedom they lack unless they miraculously convince the world's communities to leave them alone.

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Dan Carroll writes:

People affiliate with like-minded people by driving. It is comparatively difficult and expensive to coordinate relocation by moving in together. However, many of the neighborhood amenities that superficially appear unrelated are actually related - good (i.e., white) schools, nearby churches, "cool/hip" (i.e., young people), districts, etc. Signaling helps similar people to move close together.

Andrew_FL writes:

And here I thought the Free State Project was one big effort to make an entire state into a libertarian compound.

Alright, that's enough snark out of me.

Jonathan writes:

This post brought to mind an essay I read a few years ago called "The Quest for Arcadia" by Herring. The thesis is that intentional communities fail due to the secondary interests of members.

For instance, after WWII in the UK, many pacifist compounds sprang into existence. However, there were incompatibilities between radically different types of people living in tight quarters: nudists, Catholics, vegetarians, etc.

Even if I could find a group of like-minded people that I got along with as housemates, I would have a hard time convincing my wife that the loss in privacy would be worth the benefit of the occasional conversation on "deep belonging".

Tom West writes:

Governments deliver what people pretend to want. Free markets deliver what they actually want.

Funny, when I was young, I thought revealed preference was amazing, finally getting around the hypocrisy of people's words.

Now, I am not nearly as certain that more choices always means increased welfare. People seem to be driven to do a lot of things that simply don't seem to make them happier and that they regret doing even as they are doing them. In human "want" is multi-dimensional.

"If someone does something, this must be what they most want to do" is not the tautology that many economists would like to claim (although it's got a healthy dose of truth).

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Counter-example: the European settlement of Americas (North and South).

From a libertarian perspective, the fact that all the English settled in one place, all the French settled in another place, all the Spanish settled in yet another place and all the Portuguese settled in their own place is inexplicable.

Why hardly any English settle in Spanish America?
Why hardly any Spanish settle in New England?
Why the Swedish settle around Great Lakes?

Chris Wegener writes:

People do choose to live in compounds. They're called cities.

Harold Cockerill writes:

Bedarz Iliaci - As to the English and Spanish that's a simple one, if either wandered into the territory of the other they got killed. They got killed a lot anyways but it was worse for interlopers.

The Swede thing makes no sense. They must have shown up in the summer.

HM writes:

Isn't the point with the "rent is too damn high debate" that people pay huge premia to live in community like east coast cities where zoning regulation prevents the decentralized equilibrium from prevailing?

Maybe when communities become too large, they get called governments and are perceoved as oppressive..

Jim writes:

What actually works must be based on the biological nature of our species not on ideological delusions like libertarianism or socialism. This biological nature differs enormously between different human groups. What works for Sentinel Islanders is very different from what works for Japanese.

Jon Murphy writes:


Doesn't the existence of Chinatowns, Little Italys, and Russian Districts in cities provide evidence that there is something of a "compound mentality"?

Greg G writes:

>---"Why then do developers deliver so few deep-belonging communities?"

Because they know how to build and sell buildings. They don't know to build and sell a feeling of deep-belonging.

And if they did know how to do that they'd probably find it doesn't have much to do with the physical design of the community.

John S writes:

Jon Murphy, good point.

"Koreans comprise the majority (52%) of the population of the borough of Palisades Park" (10,000 out of 20,000 residents)

Sounds like a compound.

Also, Utah is over 60% Mormon. Surely, many suburbs, small towns, and neighborhoods exceed this figure.

Wes Winham writes:
If you're an American nationalist, why not live in an all-American-nationalist housing development?

I haven't done any formal polling, but I'm pretty sure my apartment would qualify. In fact, I doubt you'll find many in the US South/Midwest that wouldn't.

Psmith writes:

@ Chris, exactly, and this applies to virtually every other political organization as well--some good examples upthread. The question is not "why don't more people live in Platonic ideals of strong communities?", the question is "why don't FEWER people demonstrably prefer to live around people like themselves?" Lots and lots of Christians live in mostly Christian neighborhoods. Lots and lots of Greens live in mostly Green (or Green-friendly) neighborhoods. Most of America, geographically speaking, is an American nationalist neighborhood; Bryan's bubble (which, of course, is also a compound of sorts!) is the exception, not the rule. People don't need to live in communities that were planned to be homogeneous, because the market produces unplanned homogeneous communities very effectively--and those are the communities in which we live, for the most part. See also the Schelling segregation model.

August Hurtel writes:

You do mention the possible legal hurdles, but I don't think you realize quite how big they are. Do you realize it is illegal to just go buy a big piece of land and start a community? An then, to do it legally, you have to have millions of dollars and development plans upon which various government agencies will want to pronounce judgments.

Then there are the perverse incentives given to individual humans. There's practically an entire genre of 'I escaped X' and the state has been quietly working to undermine parents and local authority figures because, ultimately, good governance undermines bad governance. Or, in other words, the state doesn't want anyone to notice they aren't really needed, and that they are doing what they claim they do really, really, badly.

There there are these damn fool ideas the Cultural Marxists have been teaching children all these year. They are toxic to community, even when they want community.

This is far, far harder than you would like to believe in this modern climate.

Handle writes:
If you want to live on a compound, your main problem isn't that you'll get sued by hostile elements trying to crash your party.

I'm sorry but this is simply a false statement; there are government entities the entire purpose of which is to crash any such party with devastating lawsuits.

LD Bottorff writes:

Governments deliver what people pretend to want. Free markets deliver what they actually want.

Well said, Professor.

Critics of libertarianism frequently fault us for ignoring the value of community.
I don't know anyone who doesn't value community. The critics of libertarianism simply want to marginalize your philosophy by confusing community with using the government to impose "community" values.

Jameson writes:

Excuse me, but this has to be by far the weakest, least convincing, and indeed outright absurd post Caplan has ever made. The obvious critiques have already been commented by others. It's clear that people actually *do* tend to clump together with people who resemble them, so the whole thing makes it appear that Caplan lives in a hole in the ground. Why did he use the example of religion? It's worth noting that a common conservative critique of modern society is its large scale secularization. You'll see far more clumping along lines of professional and social status than along faith communities. That's not a sign that people don't long for community; it's a sign that faith is less and less important to their sense of belonging. This is indeed troubling to religious thinkers, but Caplan seems to think it proves something about human nature. In reality, all it says is that modern life is a lot different from the way things used to be.

It's not surprising at all that Caplan is oblivious to these things. I've been irritated many times by the way he glorifies hard core individualism. Not all of us libertarians are weirdos without any need for a greater sense of belonging than just ourselves and our families. This kind of post is the kind of anti-political philosophy that turns away so many intelligent people from the important features of libertarianism that the world needs.

Jeff writes:

I second what the first commenter said: you can feel part of something without living in a compound. You just get in your car and drive a bit. And as for people not being willing to spend money to feel like they're part of something...where do you think the money comes from to build big, ornate church buildings?

Also, you should consider that social desirability bias probably goes in the opposite direction than the one you're discussing. If someone who was, say, an Objectivist, informed everyone he was moving into a compound with other Objectivists, most people will probably think he's a bit weird, right? Because moving into this compound is almost like saying "I can't handle all these non-Objectivists; I gotta be around my own people" which implies some anti-social tendencies and some personality flaws more generally. Better to just put up with non-Objectivists than be thought some sort of nutcase, unless you really do have those anti-social tendencies.

That said, people do self-segregate from time to time in the way you're talking of. Mormons and Jews, for example. Also, the large population of Muslim immigrants in Michigan, for another example (I consider living in Michigan a great personal sacrifice, given the terrible weather and economy).

August Hurtel writes:


Many of the comments, including mine, do not call for government imposition of community. What we are doing is pointing out government obliteration of community, and that, in this case, a particular libertarian doesn't have all the facts.

This reminds me of the local movement, which of course doesn't have good economic sense, but does have good intuitive sense. Transportation costs are just one cost among many and economies of scale are important right? Well, if achieving economies of scale has anything to do with making marginal revenue equal to marginal cost, what does government regulation/costs do? They make companies larger than they otherwise would be.
The local movement could be fertile ground for the libertarian movement, especially since they tend to learn stuff when they try to start a local business. But, no, libertarians are usually pretty damn tone deaf about this and just equate large corporations with good economies of scale.

Or look at how many mainstream libertarians are all for GMOs. Why? Shouldn't it be consumer choice?

And for that matter, why not a little kick back against the anti-racists? Why not point out they should have been making government smaller so that they wouldn't have to be afraid that the sky is falling if Trump gets in?

Community is damn near impossible. The closest approximation is a upper middle class consumer luxury good- an excuse to have dinner parties and perhaps do some charity work. If it becomes unpleasant, well they've got the money to avoid it too.

Sam Grove writes:

Government, particularly at the federal level, offers a pretense of community. It's all part of the tribal indoctrination dialog.

What people actually do is associate with friends.
Very few people actually like to be totally alone, so we choose to associate with people that we can stand to spend time with, some more than others.

Socialization may give us the illusion that everyone is more or less like us in the values we hold, but political campaigns reveal great divides in the body politic.

If you've ever had bad roommates, you'll have learned that communal living is problematic.

anomdebus writes:

I am not sure about the revealed preferences argument here, but the last paragraph sums up for me the best reason for a "light on top" government power distribution. I even have a weakness towards world government because of it. I would love it if all people had the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness/property". What holds back that enthusiasm is the expectation that that world government wouldn't stop at that.

Richard writes:
If you're an American nationalist, why not live in an all-American-nationalist housing development?

Because you'd probably be sued by the federal government and people would pressure your boss to dire you if you did? You brush aside the legal consequences too easily. Before the Civil Rights Act, restrictive covenants were a normal part of American life.

ThaomasH writes:

I think much more important challenges to simple Libertarian policy solutions are 1) externalities (a market equating supply and demand for accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere), 2) collective consumption (living in a society with a more equal income distribution might be a desire for a kind of collective consumption), and 3) second best considerations (if lots of other prices are not equal to their fist best optima, is it a Pareto improvement to move price X toward its first best optimum?).

Robert Farrior writes:

We need a freedom revolution!
Revolution now!

Philo writes:

A strange post. As others have already pointed out, one can feel a sense of community with certain other people without living in a building or neighborhood made up exclusively of such people. And there is *a certain amount* of flocking together by birds of a feather: e.g., retirement communities, as well as some housing arrangements that exist only through the weak enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. I suppose your point is that the desire for deep belonging, while it exists, is *relatively weak* (and exists alongside conflicting desires, such as the desire to interact occasionally with diverse, even exotic, others).

You do provide a wonderful aphorism: "Governments deliver what people pretend to want. Free markets deliver what they actually want."

Daniel Hill writes:

A lot of the comments about voluntary segregation in housing seem to miss Bryan's point. He's talking about a great deal more than like minded people living in the same neighborhood, he's talking about communities with the emphasis on COMMUNE.

He's taking aim at those who constantly argue for greater government spending, taxation, and intervention i.e. who say in effect we should throw this that and the other thing into the pot and all share it.

There's plenty of them in my city, county, state, country. Good luck to them if they think that is the path to a good life. But as Bryan challenges them, they should go put their money where their mouths are and set up a voluntary commune--and leave me and my stuff alone!

Maximum Liberty writes:

Monasteries and nunneries.

Two points about them:
1. Many lasted for centuries, showing a revealed preference for strict communal living.
2. They became much less popular as living standards increased, showing the limits of that revealed preference.

Necessity is the mother of communalism.

Max L.

August Hurtel writes:

Monasteries, nunneries, and large families dropped off as the mommy state ramped up. People believe the state's lies that they'll be taken care of in their old age, so they don't have a passel of kids, join a monastery, etc...

They learn of their mistakes, if they are still cognitive enough to notice, when they end up in some crappy old folks home, being poorly fed and over-medicated.

Isn't there a large literature on assortive... everything?

People sort by race, educational achievement, income, etc. In terms of where they live, who they marry, where they send their kids to school...

So why would people build a literal compound when they can simply live in a certain neighborhood and accomplish more or less the same thing? Metaphorical walls (marriage, locally funded school districts, zoning restrictions, assortive everything) appear to be enough.

(See also Bryan's piece on building and living in a "bubble.")

Mike F writes:

OK - I just had to check the comments to make sure that most people thought this was as weak, lame and contrived as I did. Well done.

Philo writes:

Markets are superior not just to governments but also to charitable organizations, for the latter deliver (or pretend to deliver) what the donors, responding to social-desirability pressure, pretend to want for others.

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