There have always been communes, such as the Israeli kibbutzim, but they have usually failed, mainly because of free-rider problems. If wages are uniform, shirkers flourish; also, incentives to undergo training that would increase the value of one's output are blunted. Thus we read in the New York Times article of August 27 mentioned by Becker that "Mr. Varol was born on a kibbutz in the far north, but he left at 18. He is at peace in his new home, but bitter about the past. 'My parents worked all their lives, carrying at least 10 parasites on their backs,' he said. 'If they'd worked that hard in the city for as many years, I'd have had quite an inheritance coming to me by now.'"Yet, curiously, Varol's "new home" is one of the 30 percent of Israel's 250 or so kibbutzim that, accordingly to the Times article, remain genuine communes--that is, with collective ownership and equal wages, though the collective raising of children has probably been abandoned. (Curiously, Varol's kibbutz--Ein Ha-Shofet--was named in honor of Justice Brandeis, shofet being the Hebrew word for judge.) In trying to weaken the bond between parents and children, the founders of the kibbutz movement, echoing Plato, who in his sketch of an ideal communist state in the Republic had advocated the communal rearing of children, were acknowledging that parents' instinctual desire to advance their children was inconsistent with communal equality.
The kibbutz movement is almost a century old, and it is more remarkable that 30 percent of the kibbutzim are still communist than that 70 percent are not, although the Times article does not indicate the percentage of the total kibbutz population that lives in those "classic" communist kibbutzim or how complete their commitment to the kibbutz ideal actually is. An even more durable example of voluntary collectivist living that comes to mind is found in the Catholic monasteries and convents--and notice that it is too is founded on a realization that family ties are inimical to communal ordering. A kind of private quasi-collectivism persists in poor, disordered, or anarchic societies in which tribes and clans exercise functions that governments perform in wealthy societies.
The kibbutzim were founded as collective farms in a pre-mechanized agricultural economy. Because they were small, because the skill and effort of each of the members of a kibbutz could be readily observed and evaluated, because (really the same point) there was little specialization, because the danger posed by the surrounding Arab population created a strong sense of mutual dependence among kibbutz members, because many immigrants to what is now Israel did not have good employment options, and because of the mysterious Jewish enthusiasm for communist and socialist movements, free-rider problems could be contained, and so the "classic" kibbutzim, unlike most voluntary communes, and without the religious backing of Catholic monasticism, flourished for generations. Even so, kibbutzniks were never more than 7 percent of the Jewish population of Palestine. As the extraordinarily favorable conditions for voluntary collectivism waned, it was inevitable that the classic kibbutz system would fade.
The kibbutz in its original collectivist form gives us a glimpse of pre-political human society. In a society in which there is no effective central government, as was essentially the situation of the Jewish community in Palestine until Israel gained statehood in 1948 (and even afterwards, in frontier regions exposed to Arab terrorism), smaller groups will form for self-defense and the provision of other public goods, such as social insurance. Collective ownership and wage equality are ways of protecting each member of the collective from economic and other vicissitudes; "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"--the communist slogan actualized in the classic kibbutz--is then a method of social insurance. The difference between the uniform wage that every worker receives and the below-average value of a particular worker's output because of age, infirmity, wounds, or sheer inability is in effect a transfer, in the nature of insurance proceeds, from the other workers. But it is less efficient than the forms of private and social insurance that arise when there is a government that can enforce property rights and thus enable industries such as the insurance industry to function, and that can provide social insurance out of tax revenues.
Probably, then, human beings have both collectivism and individualism in the genes, enabling us to adapt both to environments in which collectivism is welfare-promoting and environments in which individualism is welfare-promoting.