Thursday, May 26, 2005

Utopias are interesting things. To me, utopia is my kids not getting sick (or if they are sick, not saying "don't pray for me, wait until I get older, if I live that long, then you can pray for me" and "am I going to die too this time"). I'm waiting on my five year old, her strep throat and her cough. Grateful for tylenol and antibiotics.

In writing about utopias, what I am really writing about is stable communal societies or organizations, not perfect places. To succeed, such an entity needs:

1. A shared culture that will work for both adults and children (I've seen a lot of attempts at utopia that worked for the adults, but that failed for the children they had, and a few that worked for kids but fail for the adults).

2. Sufficient resources to:
a. Establish the society,
b. continue the society and export from it,
c. endure, create accumulations, support members who have lessened productivity due to age.

3. Must be self-sustaining

Interesting examples include the Hutterites (a religious group of sealed communities that just keeps expanding. They export goose down to the outside world that at one point was the gold standard for goose down), small steel mills (there is a "modern" small fab plant steel mill system that is generally worker run in a communal system) and several worker managed piecework factories.

Entities that seemed like they would succeed and failed share some hinge or collapse points.

1. intellectual property issues and a changing environment.
2. rent seeking behavior
3. free riders and feather bedders.
a. the piecework factories manage to break through the "magic number of 100 to 200 adults by having a payment system that prevents free riding.
b. the worker managed railroads have worked on staffing levels of specific tasks to solve the same problem.
c. several worker owned companies have suffered from control groups forming and using that control to loot the communal good for the benefit of the group.
4. giving in to the temptation to create a management class (vs. renting or hiring it from consultants or outsiders as some unions have done).

Examples that are closer to home are law firms and other partnerships (which, for the professionals, though not the staff, are communal organizations which are prone to grow into non-communal ones), Yugoslavia under Tito (the only marxist state with a free market society), agricultural cooperatives (for machines that are effectively shared and for shared marketing tasks.

A failure of a cooperative endeavor occurs when:

1. The administrative cost is too high (centralized economies anyone?).
2. The cultural needs of the members diverge too far (you may think living in Big Bend as an artist is heaven -- but will your children who haven't learned to read by age 12?).
3. The level of assets fails to sustain the group (note, retirement planning need not be a part of the cooperative endeavor. It is for Hutterites. It isn't for steel mills).
4. Stratification destroys the communal nature.
5. External attack (the group of pacifists that got eaten by New Zealanders in the 1800s are a good example of this).
6. Problems of scale swamp the society.
7. Stratification (sometiems combined with scale issues) destroys the communal or cooperative nature.

The false issue is waste, as all systems have it.

Quick notes.

The magic size for many communal groups is 100 to 200. More than 200 and the group generates too many slackers and free riders. Under 100 adult workers and there seems not to be enough "community."

Cooperative groups can work just fine in a market society, competing with other such groups and non-communal groups. I would note that worker managed firms tend to outperform other management types inside the magic number size limits so that they can be quite competitive. It is very possible to run a country where the government runs the banks, military and universities and cooperatives handle everything else.

Universities can be used to create mental capital and intellectual property and they seem to do it well.

One thing the Amish have mastered is the art of making people suspect by virtue of their being willing to be leaders. There are problems with such a model -- especially when attacked violently by outsiders or when it needs to respond quickly. Communal systems benefit by having a slow economy vs. a fast one. (Imagine in the stock market only ran once a week instead of every day? If property had to be held for five years before you could sell it again and people preferred to live in the house their parents lived in.).

Some things are possible, some are not, though for miracles, I just want children not to die.


Stephen said...

Of course, Hutterites have a web site and there are other web resources that will give you a good idea of what they are about:

annegb said...

I think, from your description, Utopia is not for me. I am the only person living in my ideal community, with a hot tub, a computer, a color TV, and unlimited books and food. And visitors when I let them.

Yeah, no children should die. I say that now to my friends, as long as my kids are alive, we can work anything else out.

Don't tell Adam I said this, but I would rather that nobody I love dies before me anymore. Not that it's evil or anything.

Stephen said...


I need to respond to your post -- but it is a long essay, and I'm working on a different theme, but I promise to try to come back to it.

You are talking about a communal endeavor where there is a high level of personal discretion and expenditure and high personal autonomy. There are models for that, and the ideal United Order is probably set up on those lines, or maybe not.

But consider the old universities. The "tenured" professors (masters) basically taught their classes and remitted fees to the university -- kind of a partnership where each earned according to what they taught, spent the money as they felt (after they paid their room and such fees).

If you taught in such a community, visitors and others would enter only when you let them, outside of your work environment -- and, if you had the funds saved up, you wouldn't need to let anyone else in your work environment either.