Friday, November 6, 2009
Communism is a Condo Association
People sometimes say that the Soviets didn’t practice real socialism. If they had stuck to the Marxist script, Russians would have prospered, both economically and culturally. The theory seems plausible, right up until the moment that you buy a condominium and enter into a miniature socialist state known as a condo association. When you’re a unit owner, you depend on the good will of others; you depend on collaboration and cooperation with neighbors. The result, as everybody knows, is anxiety, resentment, and a sort of arms race to see who can exploit his or her neighbors the most.
Those who care the most about the common good, suffer most and are soon disillusioned, sometimes becoming the most embittered and asocial members of the entire collective. Living in a condo association is an exercise in game theory: how much can you get away with before you create a violent backlash from others that undermines the gains you have made by not contributing to the common maintenance of the property or the work of the board. Meetings are also redolent of the theoretical communist state. They are long, boring, and ineffectual. People whine; nothing gets done. Members have their own agendas. Generally speaking, there is little concern for the common cause. If the roof is leaking, only those on the top floor of a building are interested in taking action. If one half of a building loses power, the rest of the building isn’t in a hurry to resolve the problem.
The real Soviet state was a strange mixture of extreme coercion, super-bureaucracy, slow motion suffering, and selfishness. If you’ve been to a condo association meeting, you’re likely to understand what that’s like. You know that the board has coercive power. Whether you’re broke or not, the board can decide to create a special assessment to install new stained glass windows in the hallway, build a brand new swimming pool in the common area, or raise a statue of Lenin in the courtyard. You know that the board is corrupt: It will help you, only if you’ve done something specific to help its officers attain their own personal goals.
The power to resist the board’s decision is generally limited, but can increase in inverse proportion to the size of a property. In smaller associations, an owner can effectively nullify the board’s decision since the board can’t always afford to take legal action to enforce its will. Moreover, an individual unit owner can retaliate against a decision by leaving trash in the hallway, holding raucous all-night parties, or turning up the volume on the television to make life unbearable for other owners.
In the end, most associations bring everybody down to the lowest common denominator. It’s not worth investing too much in the place, because your share of the property is only worth as much as your worst neighbor. On the other hand, condo living is a social experience. You meet people, you interact, you maintain a social existence—until you pack it in, cut off contact with any form of community, and move to the suburbs in disgust.