Get a Compound
By Bryan Caplan
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.