Communism in China and Israel
Because of Israel, this conservative evangelical finds himself sympathizing with the visions and ruminations of Karl Marx. With one caveat, of course.
Part 1: China
I am eternally grateful to Hudson Taylor, perhaps the greatest Christian missionary since the Apostle Paul. His fearless and pioneering China Inland Mission brought the Gospel to the Qing Empire in the 19th century, the way missions are supposed to be done: quietly, tirelessly, without self promotion, without coercion, without affecting politics or culture – salting the lives of the missionaries into the local fabric.
Hudson Taylor’s legacy, however, ended up as one of three strikes against my grandfather a century later, in what amounted to a royal rogering by Mao’s socialist China – and by extension, Karl Marx the ethereal idealist. You see, my grandfather and grandmother were members of the educated, Christian upper class. That is a big, fat, strike one. Grandpops was also carrying some non-Han Chinese genes. That’s strike two. And, he had a fierce temperament. Not the exact mold when you want to raise up an army of cattle-like drones. Strike three. And so he toiled away the prime of his life, constantly undercut by conniving individuals and the impossible layers of inefficient bureaucracy, sent to outposts in Xinjiang, in an endless tragic comedy. It wasn’t until my grandparents came to the United States late in life that they could finally let the past go.
Against this backdrop, it should not be surprising that my family and myself identify with the conservative Christian evangelical community. This philosophical framework is summarized with another triumvirate, an antithesis of sorts of the three strikes that hurt my grandfather: a love for and willingness to defend freedom and liberty, the belief in the indomitable and ingenious human spirit, all grounded in the precepts of the Bible and grace of God. I have always maintained that the essential divide between liberals and conservatives is not compassion, for both care for the poor. It is, rather, size of government. Conservatives give from their own pockets and hire from their own businesses, while liberals trust in the government to solve society’s problems, and therefore promote its expansion (and taxes). The deficit, therefore, is irrelevant: conservatives tax less and spend less, while liberals tax more and spend more.
This brings us to the point that I want to focus on as my lynchpin rationale of why collectivism (whether communism, socialism, or even continued expansion of government) is a bankrupt ideology. And that is the moral authority of government. Since the government is not a living human spirit, every penny of government spending is taken from the pockets of individuals of society. Individuals who work in governments do not have the moral authority to take money from their representatives. As such, every penny is under social contract. Certain items, such as national security, are necessary to be managed from a federal level, but that is the exception, not the norm. Other items, such as a neighbor’s health insurance, are not things that an individual is morally obligated to provide for. But this does not mean that conservatives am heartless and cold: I for one give to my own charities, which are much more efficient and do much more social good than any nationalized healthcare system ever will. And I get my paycheck from the backs of the free enterprise system that depends on a competitive landscape and has brought unparalleled material prosperity to our nation. This lynchpin rationale, however, is challenged by the example of Israel.
Part 2: Israel
The kibbutzim of Israel are socialist-Zionist communities, of 100 to 400 families, that operate under the utopian principle of “from each his ability, to each his need” share the land and enjoy the same living standards, and where democratically elected representatives rarely sabotage the good of the community for personal gain. Historically, they have been agrarian communities, but recently have moved towards industry and high-technology enterprises. In 2010, these small communities, with a total population of slightly over 100,000, accounted for 40% of Israel’s agricultural output and 9% of her industrial output, and in many ways are the cultural and social “heartbeat” of the nation – and a link to her past. A similar number of Israelis live in moshavim, also small, primarily agrarian communities not unlike the kibbutz, but with private ownership and taxes proportional to output (albeit with farms of the same, fixed size).
The Jewish state has always had leftist leanings. The first aliyas to Palestine came from eastern Europe and Russia and brought with them socialist-utopian ideologies. The Israeli Black Panther society sprouted in the early 1970’s in Jerusalem. For decades after Israel’s founding, she was the state in the Middle East that legalized Communist political parties. From her founding charter onwards, the education system was nationalized and everyone had access to free education; hovering around 10% of national GDP, this is a significant collectivist burden, especially considering the large waves of immigration. But it worked; Israel has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, was home to the highest rate of doctorates before being supplanted by Chapel Hill, and Tel Aviv is known for her large collections of bookstores much like Amsterdam for her Red-light district and London for her pubs.
Israel has also been the home of some of the most progressive social policies in the world. In many telecasts, there is a caption at the bottom of a real-time, sign-language interpreter so that the deaf have equal rights. A city-bus system is being sued for not providing equal access to the handicapped. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would have been laughed off the Knesset decades ago. Along with gay rights, Israel’s female rights and minority rights are decades ahead of her neighbors, and even those of the United States. One out of every five Israeli is Arab, and Arabs serve in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court (even judging former presidents), and as generals in the military. The only nation in the world to conscript women, Israel passed an amendment in 2000 stating that women have the same rights as men to serve in any position in the Israeli Defense Forces. Israel has as good a claim as any other nation to equal and fair treatment of its women. The concept that everyone is created equal by their Maker is a tribute to the Jewish people’s monotheistic tradition, the first of its kind in human civilization. It is one of several reasons, which will be elaborated in the final chapter, of why collectivism has worked in Israel.
There is level of cognitive dissonance that is coming into view here. How can a conservative evangelical such as myself, holding the Constitution on one hand and the Bible on the other, come to grips with the fact that the collectivist-utopian vision and hope has not been discredited, but rather is alive and well, in the nation Israel? Is this a glimpse of the way Christ will rule from Jerusalem, a truly utopian global community, where there is no want, where all are equal, and where moral law will be written into the hearts of everyone? It is difficult not to get carried away, but the author will confess that it is through the lens of Israel that he, for the first time, connected if not sympathized with the visions and ruminations of Karl Marx.
Part 3: Explaining the Successful Case of Israel
The essential reason is that collectivism shines in Israel is that she does not suffer from the same degree of the principal-agent problem of government. This classic dilemma is simple to explain: government officials take their own interests ahead of those of their constituencies and the system as a whole. This leads to rent seeking, bureaucracy, nepotism, and a litany of other sins. Contrast that with a manager of a private company, where it is in the individual’s interests to innovate and grow, so that both him and his employees can benefit. A State Department investigator has no incentive to process a security clearance any faster than the minimal requirement, for he/she sees no extra dime in the next paycheck. As such, investigations can drag on for months, and a offer of a promising summer internship at the US Embassy in Beijing can be withdrawn in the morass of inter-agency bureaucracy (this happened to the author). Private companies, on the other hand, finish such investigations in as little as ten days because they are competing for business.
Israel owns several distinguishing characteristics that factor against this principal-agent problem. One is her small size – both at the kibbutz / moshav level and the nation as a whole. This places the community heads and government representatives closer to the people they are representing, even rubbing daily lives with them, and they see their fates much more intertwined than if they were thousands of miles away. It is also significant that Israel’s communes are family-centric and willingly established rather than through state decree.
But size and intent alone cannot account for this success in Israel. In fact, in many small, especially closed, communities, levels of corruption and abuse abound. One only need to look at the historical record of small utopian Christian-cult communes in the United States to be convinced of that fact. But the essential difference comes to light when viewing Israel’s communes as a microcosm of Israel at large: a closely knit community of people bound together by race, culture and religion, a mix of Judaism and Zionism, as well as a millenia-old shared and documented history. Combine that with the immediate threat security threat of her Arab neighbors, whose lands and people outnumber Israel by factors of 500-1 and 50-1 respectively, and who have repeatedly called for the extermination of and waged war against the Jewish state, and there is a strong sense of community and togetherness, a “we are all in this together” mindset (think the manager of a private company) that is vital to a successful policy application of collectivism.
Delving further into the concept of Zionism, the idea of a particular people tied to a particular homeland is a sustainable boon to the local economy. Whereas the Diaspora Jews lived in slums and even the successful ones were largely financiers and scholars without ties to their temporary homes, Jews in Israel have “made the desert bloom.” They have cleared marshes, irrigated deserts, tilled the soil, and erected bustling communities in areas that were once deemed inhospitable and spiritless haunts during the Ottoman Empire. This is because they have tied their fates to the land, for the long haul.
This has also made Israel a best-practice case for the progressive environmentalist. A long-time champion of sustainable growth and the well-being of her ecosystems in part because of her ties to the land, Israel has generally steered away from “profit at all cost” short-run models of businesses that have cleared away forests, mined the lands and introduced toxic chemicals, and such. In this regard, Israel has stood out in contrast to most of the developing world this past half century that has left a legacy of a damaged earth and morbid pollution. It can be argued that Israel has achieved the elusive balance that has eluded the green agenda and cap and trade legislators here in the States, because Israel’s green agenda is driven by individual volition as much as government edict. How many American citizens are not urbanites renting around, but rather are so tied to their ancestral land that they do not need their government to tell them to take care of it?
This is one of two factors that also serve as the link between Israel’s socialist collectivism and progressive social policies. The other is Israel’s religious heritage that has helped Israelis internalize the inherent equal of each individual. This mindset is true of secular Jews as well: Israel’s founder Ben-Gurion never stepped foot in a synagogue but advocated this concept, as do Israel’s left today. It is evident in Israel’s almost unparalleled gay, female, and minority rights record, as already mentioned, and in mutually enforcing manner, it also undergirds Israeli society with a moral code that acts as a hedge of sorts against economic and political rent-seeking, the bane of communist human government. Finally, the value of knowledge and education that is a tradition from the Scriptures translates into higher literacy rates – and social and political awareness. This means that the average citizen is more inclined to hold their representatives accountable for actions. This is also true of fellow representatives; Benjamin Netanyahu recently joked in a message to Congress that if we here think politicians here in the United States engage in heated debate, we should visit the Knesset for a day.
Israel’s people, downtrodden through the centuries but having preserved their cultural and ethnic heritage, and raised from the ashes as a Phoenix from the Holocaust, seem more willing to relinquish personal freedoms related to the self for the sake of community, as opposed to the tug and pull dynamic that defines much of the American people vis-a-vis their government. The Jewish people are unique in that they identify as a nation on several grounds – ethnic, religious, historical – and as a particular people with ties to and love for a particular land. This is the perfect storm that has allowed collectivism to flourish. But it would be a mistake to try to replicate that model in societies that may have some but not all of lack those characteristics. The historical record of China, if nothing else, should serve as a reminder in that regard. And as such, the author can rationalize his apparent cognitive dissonance and remain convinced of his truth, which, of course as all claim of their own, is The Truth.