In middle school, I had a really good teacher for social studies. (I don’t think I realized how good she was at her job until much later.) On one occasion, she wanted to demonstrate to us the difference between capitalist ideology and socialist ideology.

Her demonstration came in two parts: first, she handed out pieces of candy corn in random quantities to all the students, and told us we could play games of rock-paper-scissors with one another to increase our lot. Every time you won a game against someone, you got to take one of their pieces of candy. Games could only be initiated with consent from both parties, if I remember correctly. We played games for maybe five or ten minutes, and much candy corn traded hands. This was meant to represent capitalism.

Then, she collected all the candy and handed it out once again, this time giving exactly two pieces to each student. There was no trading phase in this round, so we just sat there for a few seconds considering the even piles of candy in front of us. This was meant to represent socialism.

Finally, with the second round of candies still on our desks, she asked us for our thoughts about which system was better. My own opinion, if I remember right, was that I favored the socialist way of handing out candy corn. (This is not an endorsement of establishing socialism as the arbiter of other resource conflicts.) I don’t remember most of what my classmates said, but the general consensus was that the capitalist system was better, because in that system, we had a hand in our own fate. If we weren’t happy with the amount of candy we got, we could, by golly, get up and do something about that.

(Interestingly, they also described capitalism as being “more fair”. I’m pretty sure I raised my hand at that point and said that, regardless of which option you think is better, the latter was clearly more fair. But at least one person persisted and said that fairness means having agency. At the time I thought that was dumb, but now I think it’s just invoking sense two of the word “fair”, where it means not that everybody gets the same treatment but rather that the outcome each person gets depends predictably on their actions. This is not to be confused with the equality/equity distinction, which looks at the first sense of the word “fair” and asks whether “same treatment” means “same opportunity” or “same outcome”. But this is a tangent to my main point in this post.)

(Also, I don’t think it mattered that rock-paper-scissors wasn’t a game of skill. Something something, it still imbued people with a sense of agency, something something.)

Anyway, the discussion wound down, and it was getting to be the end of class. The teacher had promised us that, yes, we would eventually have an opportunity to eat actual candy, and just before the bell rang she said we could eat the candy on our desks before we left. We did, and then we left.

Did you spot the problem?

I’ll give you a minute. Scroll down when you’re ready.

The problem is this: even though most people thought that the first system was better, nobody objected when the candy we actually got to eat was the candy given to us by the second system. I can’t say for sure, but I feel reasonably confident that if we, a group of middle schoolers, had been given random amounts of candy to actually eat, where the amount each student got was decided by the teacher’s whim, we would have lost our minds.

And, I think this would be true even if we’d had an opportunity to influence the amount we got. Somehow I think that if that had been what really decided the amount of candy we got to eat, rather than the amount of candy pieces that symbolized money but were ultimately just chips in a game… well, I think it would suddenly have seemed a lot more noticeable that some people didn’t have to influence the amount they got to end up with a lot, and others did. There seems to have been a dissonance between what my classmates endorsed and what they actually wanted — between what they objected to as an abstract idea and what they would have actually complained about if it had happened. Hence the title of the post.

(Somehow I also think the effect would have been especially strong in those who got the least candy to begin with. But that’s also a tangent to my main point, which is the dissonance thing.)

I don’t have anything especially insightful to say about this. I just thought it was kind of interesting.

New Comment
12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

My objection would have been that these feel like totally arbitrary ways of illustrating "capitalism" and "socialism". Sure, they single out some aspects of the two that have enough of a resemblance to the real-world systems that you can justify the choice, but someone who was sympathetic to socialism could have constructed a very different setup that would have made the kids more sympathetic to it. (E.g. representing capitalism with something where you could invest your candy to get more candy, combined with a random initial division of candy, to create a "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" effect.)

That said, I like your observation of the bait-and-switch where kids actually got the candy represented by the socialism system! I wonder how conscious that was on the teacher's part.

Yeah, if a model of X seems better than a model of Y, it could be a fact about X and Y, or about how the models were constructed.

Missing from the model of capitalism: people start with wildly different amounts of candies, everyone who ends up with less than N candies gets spanked by teacher at the end of class (to simulate starving and being homeless), most people start with less than N candies so their participation in the games is kinda mandatory while for others it is optional, the rules of "rock paper scissors" are also negotiated and can be made asymmetric so people with less pressure to participate in games can use it as a leverage to get better deals...

(More precisely we would need different types of resources, at minimum two representing time and money; everyone starts with lot of time, but different amount of money; money can be traded freely but time can only be converted to money as a part of trade.)

Missing from the model of socialism: party members actually have more candies than others but anyone who mentions it gets all their candies confiscated and gets spanked; no one gets spanked because of lack of candies but the total amount of candies in socialist camp is much lower than in the capitalist camp and they also taste worse; when the teacher asks which variant is preferable those who are in the socialist camp and say they prefer capitalism also get spanked and their candies are confiscated...

More complicated model is more complicated. Remember, you're trying to get some basic understanding into (most of) a group of uninterested middle schoolers in about 45 minutes time (of which you actually have divided attention from some subset of the kids for maybe 25 minutes of useful lesson time), not examine the failure modes of world economic systems throughout history.

Instead of simulating systems from existing and historical circumstances, we simulate idealized versions of socialism and capitalism. Then kids can learn the underlying theory, and it's easier for them to notice where a real system has gone off the rails. This is foundational stuff here, not college level analysis.

idealized versions of socialism and capitalism

And how you construct those models has a huge impact on lesson learned.

My objection is not just that you learn too few things about socialism -- everyone gets the same amount of resources, and it is incredibly boring -- but also that both of them are wrong. It's like telling kids "everything is relative" and pretending you just gave them an ELI5 version of Theory of Relativity.

(My ELI5 version would be something like "in capitalism everything is sold for money so rich people make the big decisions; in socialism it is arbitrarily assigned by people who have the political power".)

This is likely the first time these children have been exposed to any formal economic concepts. Moreover, we employ an instance of capitalism in the US, and we don't routinely teach anybody to critically examine the systems that underpin their own culture. As a result, this lesson needs to be the board book version of Introduction to Basic Economic Systems. That kind of summary is always "wrong" in that it presents a grossly oversimplified representation of the idea, and hardly ever approaches the difficulties of actual implementation. The goal isn't so much to be "correct" as such, nor to be anything like "complete", but to plant the seed ideas on which we can construct a more accurate education later on. Maybe we can get one kid from the group to start asking questions. The implied summaries of "equal opportunities for trade" and "equal resource distribution" are ideas on which Capitalism and Socialism can be hung, ideas that can lead to discussion of those systems in the same way that "massive objects change nearby space" is an idea on which Relativity can be hung. Go any more complicated than that, and you run a highly elevated risk of building a model that is complex enough that (a) you don't have enough time to present the lesson in your 6th grade classroom, and (b) you're going to lose even more of those kids' interest since you're increasing the friction of both participation and comprehension with harder-to-remember rules.

The lesson we're trying for here is "Economic systems are a thing, they can look pretty different and have different outcomes".

Plant the ideas first, then refine them later by providing incrementally more complete and detailed models, and by providing opportunities to have questions answered. (I guarantee that teacher would have spoken to any kid after class.) All initial exposures to new ideas are misleading in some way (usually in many ways), but you've got to start somewhere that the ideas can actually stick! (And this lesson obviously stuck with at least one student.) It's possible to correct misconceptions, but not possible to make a kid retroactively interested in a complicated topic.

Agreed that my primary objection is that these are really bad examples of capitalism and socialism, since both were massively authoritarian regimes (candy comes from teacher, teacher specifies exactly what can be done with candy).  

I don't actually know how one COULD demonstrate the difference in a single middle-school lesson, though.  In fact, I'm not sure I understand what people generally mean by the terms: a lot seem to use "capitalism" to mean "ridiculously protected monopolies and near-oligarchy to benefit the past winners" and "socialism" to mean "sane capitalism, though with bait-and-switch levels (that is, changing depending on the argument you're having) of forced redistribution".

I object to the demonstration because it's based on the false assumption that there's a fixed amount of value (candy, money) to be distributed and that by participating in capitalism, you're playing a zero-sum game. Most games played in capitalism are positive-sum -- you can make more candy.

Good point! I admit that although I've thought about this incident many times, this has never occurred to me.

A better demonstration of capitalism would be to give people sweets for answering questions, and for there to be several kinds of sweet to trade. That way you get bargaining between people with different preferences in sweets. 

The problem is this: even though most people thought that the first system was better, nobody objected when the candy we actually got to eat was the candy given to us by the second system. 

Objecting to candy being handed out might mean getting no candy at all. There was no time to fight against the authority person (the teacher) to get a different candy distribution shortly before the bell rings.

This is confirmation bias. You have one datapoint of people not objecting to the authority's free candy (at the end of class, no less), and when there was no other option (no one had saved the previous distribution). If the order of the two systems had been reversed, you most probably would not have seen any objections either (and anyhow we do not have this datapoint). 


The "capitalist" system is also more fair in the sense that it gives you strictly more control over which probability distribution you want for your candies. As always, more control given to dumb people can backfire for them, but most people do prefer having it. 


Another nitpick: The whole experiment was rigged because people who actually won the gambling had a bias towards the "capitalist" system, while the losers had a bias against it. And it used a game that is almost completely luck-based, while real-life is a lot more skill-based.