Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Bedtime Story of Socialism

Here is a story I heard on the Internet (the below is the condensed version):
An economics teacher wishes to teach his class a lesson about socialism so he will average grades. He promises that "no one will fail and no one will receive an A." Of course what happens is that on test 1, the average is a B and the hard workers resent the slackers. On test 2 it's a D as no one does any studying anymore. Then an F as the whole idea of doing classwork collapses--and everyone fails. The teacher says "I told you so." In some forms (not the link) there are several numbered points added to the end.
The key to understanding this story is that (a) the story itself tells you nothing in a literal sense--it is as much a fairy tale as Hansel and Gretel is a literal warning to stay the fuck away from gingerbread houses but that (b) the story tells you everything you need to know about the guy posting it to Facebook or emailing it to you.

There are a few things you need to keep in mind--I'll enumerate them so you won't have to trouble yourself with the difficulty of counting:
  1. The teacher lies. He tells the class no one will fail and no one will receive an A--then he fails them. This is important and it's repeated in both versions (which are different in other ways) of the story.
  2. The actual story is a great deal longer than what I've posted but conveys almost exactly the same information.
  3. The author follows up at the end with numbered points. If you were annoyed by my reference to the 'difficultly of counting' above--but not by the story, you are exactly the guy for whom the story was written.
This Has Nothing To Do With Socialism
Socialism is about the collective ownership / control of the "means of production" and a centralized / planned economy and only passingly about with things like social justice and re-distribution*. These are layers that have built up like sediment because of the political collateral of describing things as socialist (see: Red Scare). How do you know that the story is taking you for a ride? Here's your first question:

Who Is The Hero?
Stories usually have a hero or protagonist who takes action. Even fairy tales have winners and losers. In this case, who are we told the hero is? It's the teacher. The reader is expected to experience self-satisfaction at the failure of the students (and let's hope their imaginary college careers were destroyed by the F in a class they probably had to pass because otherwise making an example of them won't work).

The teacher, of course, knows what is going to happen, and, like a vengeful god, is going to mark his subjects (synonym: grade / mark) because he is displeased. I'm going too far? Consider this: in the story, what is money? It's grades right? Who makes the grades? The teacher. What is "the means of production"? It's passing a test. In order for the story to have any currency whatsoever the teacher's grades must be absolutely just. If the class easily passed the 2nd test and the teacher decided that wasn't the lesson he wanted to teach so made the third test impossible the story wouldn't work.

So the actual hero of the story can't really be a character in it--the hero (whom we, the reader, are expected to cheer) is supposed to be, not the government--but the environment. He isn't picking winners and losers--oh, hells no, he's not even calling balls and strikes--He is the laws of physics. The students, unlike in, you know, actual socialism, don't co-own the "means of production"--they must all work as they did under capitalism--separately taking those tests. The teacher is not just the mint that makes the money, he is also the machines that create the goods. He is the factory floor and foundation and the economy and the students still just work there. Those imaginary tests he gives had better be as fair as the laws of physics in our world ... and he ... He (the teacher) created them.

Ask yourself this: if the students actually collaborated to work together to pass his last two tests as a team, what would he do? You already know the answer--you heard about it in Sunday school:

That's The Tower of Babel
That's right: Professor Phipps might be okay with trashing these kid's college careers or throwing the university's bylaws out the window--but you can bet your bottom dollar that he wouldn't stand for cheating for one nanosecond. Oh, hells no.

This is why he lies to the students at the start. If he tells the truth: "You must all work together in order to pass" then ... well, you know, they might.

Why Were You Taken In?
You shouldn't be asking yourself that yet. You should be asking: "Why is the story so damn long?" The Omnivore did in one little paragraph but it took me like 100 more words or something. If those words (I'm leaving out the numbered lessons at the bottom where they exist) don't add anything to the content of the story, why are they there? The answer is not just that they prolong the tension, it's because they have the subjects of the story 'take actions.' The students must do things like "decide they want a free ride" and "insist that under socialism no one would be poor" and "study little." In other words?

They must sin.

And not repent. Even after the error of their ways (the D) is shown to them and they fall to "bickering and blaming" they do not change their behavior or ask the teacher to revert to a more fair grading system. It can be no surprise to them that they are going to get an F--no one is doing any work and the syllabus says the Final Exam (the, uh, last Judgment) is coming (maybe, you know, no one knows the exact date--I could see that, no?). But they all perish academically anyway.

You were taken in because that is what you wanted to see in the way you wanted to see it. Without those words you don't get the justice aspect. In other words: you are all good with 'social justice' ... so long as it is meted out by God or, if we can't get God, at least a tenured professor.

That is why it's so long.

What About Those Numbered Points?
At the bottom of the piece are several numbered points which spell out things like:
1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
Were these added because the author was afraid someone might not get the point? No--no one made it past the first paragraph without getting the point. When you read these, you noticed something: the construction of the enumerated points is ... a little odd. A little off. Words are either repeated unnecessarily, such as 'prosperity' and 'receiving' and 'government' or else, in the case of the last one I listed, an odd opposite structure  is used (multiplying vs. dividing).

The reason why you didn't object to these is that they were exactly what you expected: the morals of the story. You'd just read the fable--having it follow up with morals carefully couched in overly didactic language isn't just a bonus--it's required. When I suggested counting my numbered points above might be onerous that was annoying--because I wasn't telling you a bedtime story for capitalists.

Actually, I was ... and am. It's just not the one you want to hear.  

This Story In Real Life: Lawsuit.
This Story In Real Life: Doesn't actually happen.

* A real experiment in classroom socialism substituting grades for money might involve the students being tasked to, for example, create and administer tests themselves or maybe forcing them to work on collaborative projects where they all share the "risk" in some of their grades. However, one can quickly see that this doesn't work for reasons outlined above.


  1. Sorry Marco but you are not as smart as you think you are. You can try to call me stupid in a blog or whatever but it makes no difference to me. I think the same thing about your views. Next time though, don't patronize me and just use my name

    There is something that keeps you from recognizing reality. You seem to want to over-complicate everything so you can feel superior for understanding it or something and you seem to want to disagree with literally everything just so you can explain why you don't agree. Is it so you can feel smart or is it because you hope other people will think you're smart?

    I don't understand how anyone would not understand that this is just a story meant to simplify one part of a complicated concept, Socialism. Using a story to simplify and illustrate a more complicated idea isn't new. We do it all the time. I have seen you do it!

    This story illustrates a human trait that explains why Socialism doesn't work. It isn't an exact example of Socialism. It wasn't meant to be. It was an example of humane nature in the absence of reward. Without reward there is no motivation. And when you reward failure, then people are motivated to fail. If you don't understand how that relates to Socialism then you don't understand Socialism.

    1. ^ You're a pretty bad troll you know that? You clearly didn't read the whole article (Likely because most of it was "over-complicated"). Like most trolls, you haven't posted any logical rebuttal of the arguments put forth in the article, you simply strung together a few personal attacks on the author which were poorly written to boot. I don't really know why you bothered to post this, because no one reading it will actually take you seriously or respect what you wrote.

  2. And just so everyone knows, my name is Zachary DeBoer. I am the person that Marco is referring to in this blog. Just so that everyone knows, and I don't really care who calls me stupid. I probably think you are stupid too...

    1. I don't think you're stupid--I think this is playing to you in a specific fashion. There's plenty of stuff out there that plays to me in a similar fashion and, like the fish not seeing water, sometimes I don't see it until well after the fact.

      That may not be the case for you--but I think it could be.

      The problem with the piece is that it doesn't illustrate that "Without motivation to succeed there is failure." It sets up an artificial and self-righteous context and then tries to make the question self-answering. That's satisfying but it isn't an argument (and the way the story is structured it's especially insulting to the reader).

      For what it's worth, my personal trainer sent me the same story about a year ago and I had similar comments for him (and I think the world of him).

  3. Heh. I recall during my brief career in higher education, I was assigned one group project. I told my teammates, “Dudes, just let me do it.” I did it. We got an A.

    1. I call it an efficient allocation of resources. For me to integrate their work would have been way more work than doing it myself.

      And I did not want an average grade.

      But anyway, yeah, the classroom story is false and silly.