The Socialist Classroom in Action

The story below arrived in one of those mass emails that an old school friend sends out on a daily basis. No doubt you’re on some similar list. You learn to hit “delete” without opening.

For some reason, I opened this one for a change. It turned out to be an apocryphal tale, a good explanation of how things work in the real world.

Schools give out inflated grades as a matter of course now: can’t afford to bruise little Johnny’s self-esteem by giving him whatever grade he’s really earned. However, if the methodology in this story were applied across the board, our children would learn the hard lessons of socialism young enough to recognize its perils before they were put in harm’s way.

If anyone knows where the story started tell us, please.

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class.

This particular class had insisted that socialism really worked: no one would be poor and no one would be rich, everything would be equal and ‘fair’. The professor then said “Okay, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism. Instead of money, we’ll use your grades.”

All grades were to be averaged and thus would be “fair”. This meant that everyone would receive the same grade, which meant that no one would fail. It also meant, of course, that no one would receive an A…

– – – – – – – –

After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who had studied hard were upset, but the students who had goofed off were quite happy with the outcome.

As the second test rolled around, the slackers studied even less now – they knew they’d get a good grade anyhow. Those who’d studied hard in the beginning now decided they wanted a free ride too. Thus, going against their own inclinations, they copied the slackers’ habits. As a result, the second test average was a D.

No one was happy.

By the time the third test had been graded, the average was an F.

The scores never increased but bickering, blame, and name calling began to be the environment in which this class operated. It had been their own quest for “fairness” which had led to this unintended result of hard feelings and grievances. In the end, no one was willing to study just for the benefit of everyone else. Therefore, all the students failed…to their great surprise.

The professor explained that their experiment with socialism failed because it was based on the least effort by all. Laziness and resentment were the outcome. There would always be failure in the situation they’d agreed to in the beginning.

“When the reward is great”, he said, “the effort to succeed is great, at least for some. But when government takes all the reward away by taking from some without their consent and giving to others without their effort, then failure is inevitable”.

This story resembles “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” except that there isn’t any way to improve one’s lot by choosing to take a chance. You are stuck with the dumbing down of those who don’t care.

From what I’ve read of Walter Williams’ work as a professor of Economics at George Mason University, this is the kind of folksy tale he would have used with his students. So perhaps it originated with him. If this didn’t originate with Dr. Williams, it nonetheless represents his style.

If you want to study a series of lectures on “Economics for the Citizen”, try Dr. William’s essays, here. He wrote them while on sabbatical since he wouldn’t be teaching that semester. The man is a born teacher so he has to keep his hand in the game.

Here’s his summary from Lesson VII:

There’s a reggae song that advises “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife.” Mechanics have been accused of charging women higher prices for emergency road repairs. Airlines charge business travelers higher prices than tourists. Car rental companies and hotels often charge cheaper rates on weekends. Transportation companies often give senior citizen and student discounts. Prostitutes charge servicemen higher prices than their indigenous clientele. Gasoline stations on interstate highways charge higher prices than those off the interstate. What are we to make of all of this discrimination? Should somebody notify the U.S. attorney general?

The summaries make you want to read the whole lesson.

One of his books, Liberty vs. The Tyranny of Socialism, is in its second printing and is now available again from Hoover Press. This page also provides a .pdf link for each chapter in full. Several of his other books are also on the site.

If you haven’t availed yourself of Dr. Williams’ humor and clarity of thought, you’re in for a treat. I used to listen to him on the radio, thus becoming a fan of the Williams method, i.e., “keep them entertained and they’ll realize that economics is not difficult and that everyone can become more informed”.

Dr. Williams is dead serious about his mission, but his philosophy is one of laughter along the way.

20 thoughts on “The Socialist Classroom in Action

  1. It had been their own quest for “fairness” which had led to this unintended result of hard feelings and grievances.

    If there is one central feature of Liberalism and socialism it is how often their ideas are overruled by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    An example: The government mandate for alternative fuels has accelerated planting of corn to produce ethanol. Like cotton and tobacco, corn rapes the soil of its nutrients. Furthermore, so much corn has been diverted into fuel production that the price of tortillas has skyrocketed in Mexico, leading to food riots. Finally, ethanol production has resulted in even greater areas of rainforest being cleared for raising corn.

    The list of backfires that have resulted from this sort of magical thinking is endless. The only mystery is how Liberals and socialists have retained a shred of credibility in the process.

  2. It’s interesting, as a side note on a posting that couldn’t have explained socialism in such a few words and examples, that on its intellectual and scientific front, all the progress achieved by the USSR was the work of people who were freer to think and enjoyed more personal freedom than your average Soviet citizen. The regime knew that the ideological constraints placed on the masses would hold it back, and therefore it had no choice but to create spaces that were kind of separate from the rest of the USSR where intellectual, artistic and scientific progress could be achieved, very much unlike what the rest of the country was like, as shown in the following excerpt from the linked article:

    Russian nuclear physicists were settled in closed or semi-closed towns and housed not in barracks but in attractive cottages, which resembled Swiss chalets or small Russian mansions, amid forests. The best Russian scientists were exempted from joining the Communist Party and had direct access to the Kremlin. The fact that Andrei Sakharov was one of Russia’s top nuclear physicists, the father of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb, and a man who had direct contact with Lavrenty Beria, the security chief, gave special power and meaning to his dissent.
    The scientific colonies were well supplied not only with food but also with culture. The political clout which scientists possessed allowed them to invite artists who were not allowed to perform before larger audiences. Vladimir Vysotsky, an iconic Russian poet, singer and rebel, gave one of his first public concerts in Dubna, a nuclear-research town.
    A large number of educated, intelligent and underemployed people in their 30s and 40s with little prospect of moving up the career ladder provided a perfect milieu for brewing liberal ideas. With time, they formed a political class. They were not dissidents and they relied on the state for provisions, but they were fed up with the restrictions imposed by Soviet ideology and they were critical of the system.
    They wanted to live “like people do in a civilised world”, they wanted to travel abroad, get food without queuing and have access to information. But they neither anticipated nor desired the dismembering of the Soviet Union.

    Ironically, that kind of freedom also helped create the kind of dissent and dissidence that helped bring about many of the domestic political agents of the eventual downfall of the USSR.

  3. Jedilson Bonfim: … all the progress achieved by the USSR was the work of people who were freer to think and enjoyed more personal freedom than your average Soviet citizen.

    That would be the American people from whom the Soviet communists stole so much work product and technological innovation.

    Imagine trying to create or invent under the following conditions:

    Soviet scientific research was property of the state. Therefore it was also subject to all of its Byzantine secrecy laws and security measures.

    Engineers or scientists working on a given project were often subjected to the same constraints imposed upon teams that decrypt top secret intelligence.

    Individuals working in decryption groups are typically given only a sentence or two to decode. The finished product is then passed upstream to people of much higher security classification who then piece together all of the decrypted components in order to read the actual transmission.

    Similarly, Soviet scientific or engineering groups were required to work on isolated aspects of a given project and never allowed to sit down together and sort out the entire problem. At a later time, the work of each person or sub-group was then assembled by a higher ranking manager who did not necessarily reveal what the end goal or overall aim of the project actually was.

    Consider the stifling effect this must have had upon scientific investigation and product engineering. It is no small wonder that the Soviet Union had an enduring reputation for shoddy goods and unreliable equipment.

    The foregoing is also a prime example of how runaway Socialist-style central planning can strangle progress in the cradle.

  4. To add to what Zenster wrote, there’s Lysenko:


    The short story is, he used Soviet party politics to dictate how agricultural science would be done in the Soviet union.

    That link gives a good short intro; there’s more out on the Web.

    From another article:

    “Scientists either groveled, writing public letters confessing the errors of their way and the righteousness of the wisdom of the Party, or they were dismissed. Some were sent to labor camps. Some were never heard from again. “

    But of course, that sort of thinking could never happen here. We know, for instance, that the Earth is truly warming, and it’s all our fault.

  5. @adsense–

    I should have “Snopesed” it first. It smells to high heaven of one of their legends.

    That wouldn’t have prevented me from using it, however. It’s a good tale.

    Thanks for thinking to do that. Dr. Williams would no doubt be amused to hear I thought this was his creation.

  6. “Socialism” describes a system in which the control and ownership of the means of production is vested in the community as a whole.The urban legend reported above creates a straw man argument for the socialist system,especially if Stalinist state capitalism is used as a typical example of socialism. Outside the US, most people in the West wouldn’t give up their “socialised” medical systems which generally produce better health outcomes than America’s. I am not advocating socialism necessarily,I don’t want the government to run the pubs or make TVs,however some services are better provided through the state.

  7. Thank you for the link, ZZMike. It is a perfect example of what happens when political power gets to dictate over science. And, yes, we’re seeing the exact same thing now with all this hysteria over the Great Warmening.

  8. mace–

    God forbid we ever have our medical care run by the state. The current level of state interference –Medicare for the elderly and hospitals for vets — show how poorly they run things, not to mention the billions that are lost on corruption and fraud.

    Socialized medicine is fine for run-of-the-mill medical care for the young and healthy. It is grim for the elderly or those with special needs, or people with cancer.

    Much of the innovation in medicine has been done by private enterprise, though Big Pharma is unwillingly yoked with government agencies. Does this help keep them clean? To some extent, but it also keeps the playing field in pharmaceuticals quite unlevel and dependent on who’s connected to whom.

    Just a small example, but one of my pet peeves: sodium cyclamate is an artificial sweetener that is available in any country but the US. Why? Because the FDA ruled it was carcinogenic. The ruling was balderdash. Sodium cyclamate wasn’t outlawed anywhere else. Just the US. We’re stuck with more dangerous things like aspartame.

    A friend who has his PhD in Chemistry and works for the FDA said he thinks LSD is less harmful than aspartame to young brains.

    Our problem in the US is the extent to which government currently interferes with health insurance — e.g., it’s not portable between jobs, you’re limited to those insurance companies which are permitted to operate in your state.

    Imagine if car insurance were limited in that way. Premiums would go *way* up, and they would do so immediately.

    Government needs to move out of health care before it does any more harm. If it did get out, the costs would go down.

    What we have in the US is an ugly hybrid monster, part private, but also fueled by government money. This creature is more expensive to maintain, doesn’t operate efficiently, and drives the cream of the medical and scientific crop into other areas which can use their talents.

  9. Dymphna,

    The US system seems rather inefficient,the worst of both worlds, tying health care to a particular job seems strange to an Australian. America spends a higher % of its GDP on medicine than other Western nations and experiences lower overall health outcomes. In Australia we have a national(federal) health care system, though far from perfect,most of the population do not want to adopt a privatised system. If you lose your job in Australia you can still get access to medical treatment and unlike the US the chance of being bankrupted by medical bills is much lower. I certainly don’t dispute the enormous contribution made by private enterprise to medical research and the provision of life saving drugs, however companies are in business to sell drugs, not health. I’m not telling Americans how to run your system, there are cultural differences after all. However I’d think that for most of the Western world “socialized” medicine in one form or another is acceptable.

  10. mace–

    The American system is already largely socialized. What Obama plans to do is to further regulate access to care based on
    “the allocation of scarce medical interventions”.

    Notice that “allocation”, “scarce” and “intervention” are all open to political interpretation and manipulation.

    The link is to a Lancet article by O’s medical advisor. Why did they chose a British medical journal as the venue for their health care plans? Probably because no American journal would touch it.

    Right now, the very young, the very old, and the very sick are taken care of. Do they get the platinum card treatment of the very rich? Of course not. It has never worked that way in any society.

    What Obama’s people have come up with is a “Complete Lives” allocation (scroll down the page at Lancet. You need to register, but it’s free):

    Because none of the currently used systems satisfy all ethical requirements for just allocation, we propose an alternative: the complete lives system. This system incorporates five principles: youngest-first, prognosis, save the most lives, lottery, and instrumental value. As such, it prioritises younger people who have not yet lived a complete life and will be unlikely to do so without aid. Many thinkers have accepted complete lives as the appropriate focus of distributive justice: “individual human lives, rather than individual experiences, [are] the units over which any distributive principle should operate.” Although there are important differences between these thinkers, they share a core commitment to consider entire lives rather than events or episodes, which is also the defining feature of the complete lives system.


    When implemented, the complete lives system produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most substantial chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.

    “attenuated”??? Good euphemism.

    Following the first two paragraphs is a clear graph showing who gets the least care: the very young and the very old.

    They claim this is an ethical allocation of resources. I say it is the sign of a degraded culture to ignore our two most vulnerable groups.

    We have been killing fetuses at an alarming rate for 30 years. Now we’re starting on old people, having them “choose” euthanasia. We’ve seen the grotesqueries of late term abortions in this country; we see what euthanasia has done for the Netherlands.

    This is not progress, it is evil.

    And, as with all allocations, the elites will never be faced with these choices. Only average citizens will be forced to watch their old people go without care and their sick babies triaged out of treatment.

    This is not paranoid thinking; Dr Rahm has outlined his plan for the Obama administration, and Dr.Rahm is O’s medical advisor.

    The nomenklatura will reign completely then, and we will be the American soviet.

  11. You can’t add several tens of millions of people in a national health care system to the current number of doctors, nurses, and hospitals without rationing medical service. And who will be effected the most by such rationing? The elderly, who will be denied life saving tests. This has already been mentioned by people close to the idiots in the government that are planning the fiasco.

  12. Dymphna,

    Thanks for the info.

    I’ll have to admit that I find the phrase “promoting and rewarding social usefulness” somewhat sinister in the context it’s used and I’m a supporter of socialised medicine. Believe me, the system in this proposal is nothing like our “fee for service” arrangement. Good luck.


    In Australia we made the transition to a nationalized health system nearly 40 years ago,it would have been a lot easier then. I infer from your comment that your government doesn’t propose to increase the number of health workers.Sounds incredible!

  13. mace–

    They deliberately limit the number of medical schools here and have for a long time. That is the fault of the medical profession.

    But that issue can be addressed without doing away with fee-for-service care. And I agree with you about not tying health care to employment. That started during WWII to get around wage controls that FDR put in place.

  14. The US spends a higher % of GDP on health care. So what? In case you hadn’t noticed, Americans are a lot wealthier than everybody else. If they want to spend some of that wealth on the best health care in the world (which it is), why is that a problem?

  15. randian,
    The point is that the US spends a higher % of its GDP with lower health outcomes(eg life expectancy,infant mortality) than other Western countries,look at the statistics, therefore its health system is less efficient than the average developed nation.I’m sure you just assumed the US has the best health care in the world without bothering to check. I’ll concede that the best medical care in the world is available to those Americans who are rich enough to afford it.Of course the US is a lot wealthier than anywhere else, individual living standards are more difficult to assess and subject to cultural bias as economists will tell you.I repeat, I’m not telling Americans how to run your health system,US political culture is different from other Western societies and it’s your business in the final analysis. However if you claim it’s the “best” you should have the data to defend your claim.

  16. lower health outcomes(eg life expectancy,infant mortality) than other Western countries,look at the statistics

    I have. The “statistics” purporting to show the US has lower health outcomes are lies. You need to adjust health outcomes and life expectancy by ethnic group, and if possible adjust the infant mortality numbers to account for differences in definition. Do and you’ll see the US really does have better health care.

  17. randian,

    “You need to adjust outcomes and life expectancy by ethnic group” Why? What relevance do ethnic groups have,we’re talking about the population as a whole.Why not exclude smokers or alcoholics from the stats?

  18. It is blacks who as a group are dragging down American health statistics with their socioeconomic behaviors. For example, over 70% of black babies are born in far from ideal circumstances, starting with being born to young single uneducated mothers on Welfare. Such babies get a rough start in life physically as well as mentally (more premature, underweight, often lacking prenatal care, rarely breast fed so less immunity etc.) Lack of proper nutrition continues throughout their lives.

    The United States imported a permanent problem along with slaves, a 13% factor that skews every last statistic in a negative fashion.

  19. laine,
    I understand your argument,the health standards of indigenous people in Australia are low too,because many of them live in isolated rural areas and most have not adopted Western health practices.Our past is haunting us as well. My point is that they are still part of the population and can’t be excluded from the overall stats. Infant mortality rates are universally regarded as key indicators of national health standards, the US does poorly in this significant category,despite its enormous resources. I’m not trying to “rubbish” the US health system,however anyone who makes claims about American superiority should offer data in support.

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