I object (in theory)

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.