I recently heard a news commentary that referenced a story about a professor who taught his class about socialism by applying it to their grades. Supposedly, the outcome was progressively diminishing grades until everyone essentially gave up and failed the class. Disbelieving the account, I looked it up on Snopes.com.

Apparently the account is a legend, probably written as an object lesson by a staunch capitalist and circulated via email for years before being posted on various websites in various forms. In further research, I found postings where hot debate ensued between socialists and capitalists about both the meaning of the story, the validity of the story (assuming it was even true), and whether that evil professor wasn’t breaking a number of rules by grading that way. I also found an amusing reversal where the professor graded capitalistically and the wealthy kids ended up buying their work to get all the A’s while the middle class kids had to drop out to create the work for the wealthy and the poor kids got neither A’s nor money for their work.

Among the primary criticisms I read against the socialist grading story was that it wasn’t true socialism. Those making this point argue that those with greater ability should/would tutor the kids who struggled until everyone got an A, or at least a B. Other criticisms indicate that this wasn’t real socialism for one reason or another, often including that old “means of production” line.

But let’s be clear. If you boil down socialism to it’s core principle, you get the following: equal opportunity or apportioning of the outcome to each individual, contributed to by the whole. Since socialism is intended to work in a society, the ideal is that everyone would get equivalent pay for equivalent work, whether they’re farmers, laborers, businessmen, scientists, or whatever. Whatever people produced would be taken by the whole (be that the government or other organization), divided up fairly and equally and each would get his or her share.

As an ideal, I like socialism. Under socialism we’d pay anyone who worked in the basest jobs, those necessary for our society to exist, the same thing we pay everyone else. After all, we need them to do those jobs so we can do these jobs right? Of course, right.

The socialist grading story actually does that, but in one dimension. We can debate whether the students should have helped one another or not, but in the story they didn’t. More importantly, in historical attempts at socialism, they didn’t, so that aspect of the story is valid. The point of it is this: some students were able to produce a lot (ie. get an A), while other students weren’t so able (ie. B-F). Likewise in a society under socialism, some will not be able or willing to work and necessarily be subsidized by those who produce more than them. By averaging the grades, the professor in the story does in one dimension what socialism would do to all dimensions: take from all what they produce, average it and return the parts to each.

So far so good? The story could have continued with the smartest students continuing to perform well. Other students, buoyed by not getting failing grades, might then have worked harder to bring up the average and the class would have taught that mean old professor a lesson. Of course, the story doesn’t go that way, and neither does society.

Welfare has been a significant cost to our country for decades. And it wasn’t until limitations were put on it that the roles of those receiving it finally diminished. Why is that? Welfare is a little like socialism. We take from those who have and give it to those that don’t? On the surface that’s good. But what happened with welfare? While, yes, many people are ashamed to be on welfare or want to support themselves and get off as quickly as possible, there was an increasing number of people who just wanted free money so they could do nothing. The same is true for all of society. If you tell everyone they don’t work, they’ll be supported by those that do, a certain fraction of the population will drop out and live on the work of others.

So, the writer of the story was not wrong to project the student’s who did poorly but got good grades (relative to what they deserved) wouldn’t work harder. What about those students who earned an A on the first test but got a B?

Here we get to incentive. Some people are naturally hard working, they do as much as they can because that’s just what they do. Most of the us though need incentive. In school, I worked hard because I wanted that A in every possible class. If just learning stuff was good enough I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard. The same is true for society at large. There are a number of professions that are extremely demanding, hard, and require incentives for there to be enough of them for there to be any benefit to society.

Doctors for example. They have many years of training in addition to what most of us get, just to be able to do what they do. Then they have to deal with difficult problems, difficult people, long days, limited personal and family life, and so on. Without incentive (ie. more money to be made) most doctors wouldn’t have bothered. Yes, some would have, but there’d be a severe limitation on availability. So, the writer of the story was correct to depict the students who initially performed well, backing off and performing progressively poorly on the tests.

These two aspects of socialism, the free ride, and lack of incentive, are the backbone of the argument against socialism. True, socialism doesn’t espouse these qualities in the ideal definition, but they come as part of human nature.

So my conclusion here is this: The story is a good object lesson about socialism, not executed according to the ideal, but according to history and human nature.

Next time: Capitalism, or Comparing Oranges to Moldy Apples

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