Voluntary-and-laid-back socialism sounds good to most people; that’s why Cohen’s camping trip thought experiment works.  Involuntary socialism, in contrast, sounds terrible to almost everyone; that’s why Cohen’s thought experiment fails to advance what most avowed socialists have in mind. 

The more interesting question, though, is intermediate: How does voluntary-but-bossy socialism sound?  Check out this 1998 WaPo profile of the Twin Oaks commune and see for yourself.  Key facts: The commune members have long since learned that even people who express interest in their lifestyle rarely like it for long.  (Talk about Social Desirability Bias!)  Indeed, the commune can’t even convince its own kids to stay.

Anyone seeking to join Twin Oaks must first live here for three weeks as a visitor, a test run for both sides. If they decide to apply, they must submit to an exhaustive interview session followed by a membership vote. After years of being at peak capacity, Twin Oaks is now trying to recover from an exodus that left a dozen vacancies, many of them from longtime members. The current population hovers near 100. In the commune’s fledgling years, the average member was 23 years old with two years of college, and left in less than a year. Now the average Twin Oaker is 42, has a college degree and stays for eight years. The commune is overwhelmingly white, with roughly the same number of men and
women. Some 600 people have joined Twin Oaks since its inception, yet there are no second generation members. As one recruiter puts it, “Communards do not breed communards.”

Even with this screening process, adverse selection runs amok:

Families are discouraged by the lack of structured day-care or educational programs, as well as the quota limiting the number of children in the community to around 15. And while the environmental and pacifist ideals of Twin Oaks at times attract deeply passionate and committed people, recruiters like Keenan find that most who express interest fall into a far different category.

“This is not a standard lifestyle choice,” Keenan allows. “The sort of people who tend to move here move a lot. They’ve not made deep emotional connections because of that . . . Someone said the visitors’ program selects between loners, losers and drifters.” Sooner or later, he is confident, the true loners feel crowded, the losers feel overworked and the drifters drift away. At the same time, the core of competent and capable members continues to erode. Leaving seems contagious, and the departures happen in waves. The reasons vary — broken romances, families wanting a place of their own, disenchantment with the inevitable discovery that a commune is not one big, happy family holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” around a bonfire in the woods.

Compared to involuntary socialism, voluntary-but-bossy socialism is paradise.  But that’s not saying much. 

HT: Mark Steckbeck