Potential Problems With a Surplus Co-op

There are several potential problems that could make a surplus co-op not work very well. I don’t think any of these are showstoppers, but they are issues that will have to be addressed.

First, I feel like some people are still going to say, “What you propose is theoretically impossible, human wants are infinite.” For basic necessities I don’t think so. All you can eat restaurants are an example of that. Also, the hierarchy of needs theory says that once you have your lower levels of the hierarchy satisfied you move on to higher levels. For emotionally healthy people who don’t try to satisfy love and esteem needs by accumulating material goods, their desire for the basic necessities is finite.

But there is the danger that the co-op will turn into something like a college dorm. Everyone is forced to accept an identical apartment with low quality furnishings that get trashed all the time because nobody cares about taking care of anything because there’s no individual ownership. That could happen, but a lot of the problems of college dorms are due to the emotional maturity level of the residents. It’s ridiculous to think that in a community of a few hundred people they wouldn’t be able to work things out and agree not to act that way knowing if everyone acted that way they’d all be worse off. Game theory might say people will always be selfish and short-sighted, but people often don’t behave how game theory says they should.

And there are other ways to deal with the problem. You could have free housing, but still make people individually liable for damage. You could have “housing” be an empty apartment and people have to provide their own furnishings.

As far as forcing everyone to have the same you could have different size apartments. The basic level is free and you pay for upgrades. If there are several different communities to choose from and members of a community have a say in the community design then the available choice shouldn’t be any worse that the current system where you have to pick from what’s available in your price range.

There’s also a problem where certain community members may contribute less or create more costs than average. For the most part I don’t think this will be a widespread problem. People in these kinds of communities won’t be the type to count pennies and get upset if someone else gets 3% more benefit than them for the same cost. The whole point of the community is to avoid the cost and hassle of keeping track of those kind of details. Everyone pays a non-onerous price, and everyone gets their needs met. If you get upset if the cake isn’t sliced exactly equally then you won’t want to live there.

But there will still be the possibility of a few problem residents who are just irresponsible an uncooperative. I do think the community will need a way to kick people out after reasonable attempts to solve the problems. There may even come a time when the community is torn by issues that can’t be resolved, and there should be a previously agreed upon process for dissolving the community.

Even if some communities don’t work out it doesn’t mean the surplus co-op model isn’t useful. Every year many small businesses go broke and go out of business. Libertarians would never accept that as evidence that small businesses are an infeasible form of organization because many small businesses do succeed, and even when a business fails the participants often try again with a different business and succeed. So it will be with surplus co-ops.

There’s a final problem that a co-op could turn into a cult. I get a sense from libertarians that they feel it is inevitable that any system based on cooperation will always become a totalitarianism where a leader or ruling class oppresses everyone else. I don’t think it is inevitable, but it is a possibility. Awareness and openness are probably the best defense against this problem.

A surplus co-op would probably only work for a self-selected group of people who want to live in that sort of community. It would need procedures for kicking out bad apples, or even dissolving the community entirely. The process of planning economic production would require time and effort and probably some social norms. But I think it’s entirely feasible.

Such a community could provide a welcome alternative for those who don’t want to live in an every-man-for-himself libertarian world while removing moral objections for a more libertarian system outside those communities for those who want that.

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