While the power was out this weekend, and I was free from electronic distractions, I had a chance to read Ran Abramitzky’s The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World. The book is a sort of economic history equivalent of good micro-history, or good business history. It tells a particular story in great detail but uses that story to shed light on broader issues. Being an economist, Abramitzky collects and analyses as much data on the kibbutzim (one of the things I learned is the plural of kibbutz) as he can to examine problems of free riding, adverse selection, and brain drain. But the book is built around a very personal story. His grandparents helped to found and fought to protect Kibbutz Negba; his mother grew up there, and he clearly has fond memories of visiting there while he was growing up. His aunt, uncle and brother still live in kibbutzim. He uses the story of the origins, successes, and recent struggles of this and other kibbutzim to address broad questions of equity versus efficiency, and of material versus non-material incentives. There is also an interesting chapter on the history of communes in the United States.
The book is a pleasure to read. And, although kibbutzim are unique, the economic issues that they have faced are not.