Law, Legislation & Lego

Roark_Lego

The teachers were becoming concerned. Week by week, the kids at the Hilltop Children’s Center were building a city out of LEGO. And as the city emerged, so too did the children’s assumptions about private property and power — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based economic system the teachers believed was oppressive and unjust. So after two months of watching they decided to ban Lego.

In the winter 2006 edition of Rethinking Schools teachers Kendra Pelojoaquin and Ann Pelo explained how the problem started:

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew and space and raw materials became more precious the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn’t play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. The other children didn’t complain much about this; when asked about Legos, they’d often comment vaguely that they just weren’t interested in playing with Legos anymore. As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how “cool pieces” would be distributed and protected. These negotiations gave rise to heated conflict and to insightful conversation.

It was only when Legotown was accidentally destroyed one weekend that the teachers realised how far things had gone. Legotown’s builders refused to allow the now scattered pieces to be put away — “They explained that particular children ‘owned’ those pieces and it would be unfair to put them back in the bins where other children might use them.” The Lego was supposed to be for all the children to play with but now a few kids were acting as if it belonged to them personally.

The teachers decided that to save Legotown they must ban it. The Lego was put away and the children were encouraged to think about power, rules and private property. Most commentators thought the teachers’ reaction was over the top. At the National Review Online, John J Miller said that the problem was nothing more than “kids were being kids.” At the Volokh Conspiracy Todd Zywicki described Hilltop as “a Bizarro world ‘ Ayn Rand School for Tots‘.” And after Rush Limbaugh and Fox News picked up the story Hilltop was pelted with angry emails and abusive phone calls.

Perhaps 5 to 9 year olds aren’t ready to think critically about the norms and values behind a market society. But the way the teachers responded is interesting. They wanted the children who had dominated Legotown to understand what it was like to be excluded by a system of rules that were set up to prevent them from succeeding. They did this by creating a Lego trading game which reveals more about how the teachers understand capitalist society than it does about the children’s assumptions:

…we designed a Lego trading game with built-in inequities. We developed a point system for Legos, then skewed the system so that it would be quite hard to get lots of points. And we established just one rule: Get as many points as possible. The person with the most points would create the rules for the rest of the game.
Our intention was to create a situation in which a few children would
receive unearned power from sheer good luck in choosing Lego bricks
with high point values, and then would wield that power with their
peers.

…We introduced the Lego trading game to the children by passing a bin of Legos around the circle, asking each child to choose 10 Legos; we didn’t say anything about point values or how we’d use the bricks. Most children chose a mix of colored Lego bricks, though a few chose 10 of one color. Liam took all eight green Legos, explaining that green is his favorite color; this seemingly straightforward choice altered the outcome of the game.

When everyone had their Legos, the teachers announced that each color had a point value: The more common the brick color, the fewer the points it was worth, while the scarcest brick color, green, was worth a whopping five points.

Children who’d once been lords of Legotown quickly realised that this was a game they couldn’t win. No rational player would trade a bricks worth three points for bricks worth only two. As a result, if you started out on top then you’d almost certainly end up on top. The children’s’ initial responses were pretty much what you’d expect — “This isn’t fair!” said one. “I don’t want to play this game” said another. In the second round the winners relaxed the rules a little — but not so much that there was any real chance of them losing.

The teachers saw the game as mirroring “the rules of our capitalist meritocracy”. This is interesting because some of capitalism’s strongest supporters have also compared the market system to a game. Friedrich Hayek wrote that the market system:

…is wholly analogous to a game, namely a game partly of skill and partly of chance… It proceeds, like all games, according to rules guiding the actions of individual participants whose aims, skills, and knowledge are different, with the consequence that the outcome will be unpredictable and that there will regularly be winners and losers (p 71).

Like the teachers, Hayek admits that some players start out with advantages that they don’t deserve. Some people inherit wealth or have parents who are able to invest heavily in their education. Others are born with talents and attributes which are in demand. But the game is justified, according to Hayek, because playing it makes everyone better off. Unlike the teachers’ game, the number of points in a real economy isn’t fixed. And for the players, the aim is not to have more points than others, but to have more points than they would have if they didn’t play.

If points represent money then the big difference between the teachers and Hayek is that the teachers see money as way of keeping score and gaining power. As they see it, capitalism teaches kids to believe that having more money and more material possessions makes them winners — that it places them higher in the social hierarchy and allows them to dominate others. In a society where people interpret superior wealth as a sign of superior merit then the distribution of income matters. If what you really want is to escape from the bottom of the hierarchy — to avoid being looked down on and pushed around — then changes which make everyone financially better off aren’t a solution.

For many economically-minded liberals it seems obvious that well-being comes from consuming goods such as leisure, education, housing, healthcare and food. Economic growth is good because it gives everyone the opportunity to consume more. And if the optimal system for generating growth also generates inequality, then that inequality is a good thing — for everyone. But what classical liberals tend to overlook is that people also ‘consume’ the contents of each other’s minds. If other people make it obvious that they find you morally disgusting, think of you as inferior, or pity you because of the kind of person you are, then your well-being will suffer. Human well-being isn’t just about the relationships we have with material things like houses and televisions, it’s more often about the relationships we have with each other.

Classical liberals like to imagine that their egalitarian opponents oppose capitalism because they’re economically illiterate — that egalitarians just don’t understand that market society is not a zero sum game. But what classical liberals often don’t understand is that egalitarians are more worried about relationship issues like status and power than they are about inequalities in consumption. Ann Pelo’s approach to education focuses on raising children’s awareness of biases associated with race, gender, ethnicity and disability. This is why it makes sense to her to model “our capitalist meritocracy” as a zero sum game. When money represents status rather than the power to consume then creating more wealth just creates a kind of inflation. Status-seeking individuals need more and more money just to maintain their position. It seems obvious to many of those on the left that we’d all be better off if people stopped seeing life as a game and money as the way we keep score.

For the teachers at Hilltop, the problem was that a small group of older children had gained control of the rules of the game. They had the power to decide who could play and on what terms. But the rules they used hadn’t come from nowhere. To the teachers, they seemed to reflect the norms and values of the broader society. What they wanted was for the children to question the legitimacy of the rules they played by.

In the end the teachers gave the Lego back. But they made sure that the inner circle of the old Legotown was no longer in control. They worked with all the children to reach a consensus on a new set of rules. As one child said: “Before, it was the older kids who had the power because they used Legos most. Little kids have more rights now than they used to and older kids have half the rights.” So how did these new rules work out? Unfortunately the teachers don’t say. Perhaps they wrote their article before they had a chance to find out.

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21 Responses to Law, Legislation & Lego

  1. Sounds like the kids get spontaneous order, but their teachers sure as shit don’t!

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    I suppose there are a few observations I could make in the traditional vein. I don’t agree that this exercise would have taught children to think about whatever pomo thing the primary teachers were trying foist on them. Indeed the children behaved much as economists would have expected: they allocated resources amongst themselves by privatising a commons.

    It is popular in certain circles to say that economic behaviour is too tightly bound up in social norms to be considered a reliable guide; that we prefer liberal economy not because it works so well, but because “society” or “media” or “power structures” or whatever dictate it. Personally I agree with Mises that this was the fallback position for Marxism when it was shown to be a dud. A bit like Christians saying “you can’t prove atheism, so we’re equally right, nerni nerni ner ner!”

    What this little exercise demonstrated is that zero sum situations suck. As a simulation of economic life it was stunted by the inability to create wealth through trade and division of labour. It probably most closely resembled feudalism, which last time I checked was swept away by the industrial revolution.

  3. Jacques Chester says:

    Though I should add that as usual Don has produced a very thoughtful and thought inspiring post!

  4. I found this comment over at the Volokh Conspiracy worthwhile:

    I find the original article fascinating. You can see so many ‘high’ economic concepts being grasped by the children, and being totally ignored by the teachers. For example, the Legos were part of a common pool. In order to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’ the children intuitively knew how to establish property rights (despite all the brainwashing of the teachers). They set up a market; and assigned value based on aesthetics, and scarcity. Each child was trying to maximize his or her ‘power,’ but in the ‘capitalist Lego Town the children were also maximizing their collective effort. The kids built huge buildings and an interdependent system of airports, firehouses and the like.

    As I read the story, it seemed that the teachers conditioned the return of the Legos upon unanimous consent among the children on what the rules of distribution would be. Under this artificial constraint each student still sought to maximize his or her share of the Legos, thus resulting in an equal distribution of the Legos. The requirement of equality imposed transaction cost that rendered the building of huge buildings; airports; and firehouses cost-prohibitive. The maximum collective effort was not being achieved by the ‘socialist’ Lego Town.

    From an educators’ perspective, the difficulty arose when the children attempted to maintain their system of evolved rules once the Lego had been disassembled. My intuitive educator’s solution would be to have a bit of time out (maybe a week or so) and then make the toys available once again on the condition that the children once again have to come up with a set of rules, but that the old rules can no longer apply. There may be other methods, but that is one that (a)encourages creativity and problem solving and (b) doesn’t suck all the fun out of the activity, as the stupid exercise in price-fixing the teaching staff engaged in managed to do.

  5. Will Wilkinson had a good article on status in a liberal market society in the Policy last year.

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  7. patrickg says:

    Jacques, how is what the teachers were trying to demonstrate postmodern? If anything, surely it’s the opposite, a modernist approach?

    I think comparisons with real world economics in this scenario are fraught for both left and right, because an economy is not kids playing with lego, and thank god never will be!

  8. Jacques Chester says:

    Jacques, how is what the teachers were trying to demonstrate postmodern? If anything, surely its the opposite, a modernist approach?

    I shook my magic 8-ball and got “Outcome Uncertain. Call it Pomo”.

  9. vee says:

    You just described everything that ever existed or ever will as post-modern.

    That said, it probably was postmodern, as it was more of an exercise in politics than economics and largely reflects what happens when a political party loses power.

  10. Fantastic post Don, Thanks. It is easy to get annoyed at the teachers. But I think by the end of your post you’d played a bit of a trick on us – or at least me – and made us think that perhaps the teachers’ motivations were legitimate, even if the game they constructed was a bit hamfisted. I’ve tried to think of games to illustrate the economy. Monopoly is the one that has made all the money – but it’s very crude. And there are lots of games on line with trading and all sorts of good things – but I don’t know them very well.

    I do have an anecdote to offer which relates to my daughters’ primary school which was at one of Melbourne’s ‘top’ private girls schools. My daughter is a fairly enterprising person and used to initiate activities. For instance she asked around to see who would participate in a play which the participants co-wrote. Quite a few girls took part and others didn’t. I think some of the ones that didn’t weren’t too impressed with this play and didn’t think it was going anywhere.

    By and by (as they used to say) a buzz developed around the play as it took shape and moved towards production. Whereupon some of the girls that had taken no part in the rehearsals wanted to participate. But they were told it was too late. Thay had had their chance to sign up but hadn’t. Some of them thought that wasn’t fair. (Perhaps they argued that they had not had their chance. And perhaps they hadn’t. I don’t know).

    But the school is very strong on the values it teaches – which it calls ‘habits of mind’ and one of these habits is ‘inclusiveness’. So Anna was told that everyone who wanted to be involved should be involved. This made the rest of the process a nightmare of disorganisation and political infighting.

    I told my daughter that this kind of thing happenned in the middle ages and that in those days the people who turn up demanding a slice of the action were called ‘marauders’. (I doubt this is etymologically accurate, but that wasn’t my point). I tried to reassure her that, although this kind of thing would go on all her life, that it’s significance would diminish (two years into high school it already is) and that the time was coming in her life (in the workplace and in the market) when someone with her energy and enterprise would be more than amply rewarded for it. I also counselled her that she should try to keep her enthusiasm in tact, but that the kinds of ideas that were being promoted at the school would need to be managed carefully. She’d need to learn all those soft political skills that were required to do so. And those skills would also come in handy in the workplace, if not so much in the marketplace.

  11. Bryan says:

    Good post Don!

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  13. TimT says:

    I guess it’s not much consolation, Nick, but the way the teachers treated that incident with your daughter sounds absolutely infuriating, and I’m sure you did all that you could.

  14. So, what’s the story in a nutshell?

    1. Big kids hog all the schools Lego to build themselves an elaborate fantasy town (as big kids will);

    2. Teachers turn a blind eye to this for weeks;

    3. Lego town gets trashed – teachers discover they’ve created a problem for themselves;

    4. Instead of reminding the kids that the Lego belongs to the school (as them what bought and paid for it), they try a cock-eyed simulation experiment;

    5. A few commentators that the big kids’ behaviour indicates that property acquisition is a natural instinctive behaviour.

    Ah, the glories of the Internet!

  15. TimT says:

    Instead of reminding the kids that the Lego belongs to the school (as them what bought and paid for it)

    Property is theft! (Etc, etc, etc) .

    If there were any justice in this world, all these legos would have been donated to poor little third-world children. Or something.

  16. jimmythespiv says:

    Filthy commo teachers.

    But seriously, any parent of more than one child often engages in this sort of levelling exercise. I routinely umpire cricket matches with deliberate bias, to keep it even and interesting for a bunch of kids of different ages and vastly different abilities. But you wouldn’ set the naturally gifted up to fail, as this bunch of teachers evidently did.

  17. Adrien says:

    An excellent post. It’ll take me a little time to digest it but I can think of a few things to say from the point of view of devil’s advocate. The problem I see with liberal philosophy is summed up when you write that:

    Economic growth is good because it gives everyone the opportunity to consume more. And if the optimal system for generating growth also generates inequality, then that inequality is a good thing for everyone.

    I’m afraid I must say that inequality is not good for everyone. Inequality is a fact of life yes. Some of us are beautiful, some ugly, most just average. The same goes for smarts of various kinds, prowess physically, courage, instinct and of course pure blind luck. But to say that the inequality of an optimal system is a good thing because the system itself is fundamentally sound (or at least the best we have) is to put a mental block on human progress and to be blind to social fault. It is, borrowing from Voltaire’s Candide, to say: this is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    Inequality, particularly if it is not natural is not for the best. It is at the very least unfortunate and at the most a shameful injustice. And no this is not an argument for socialism. Socialism as the world has known it produces an entrenched inequality. The advantages of the market is that there is comparatively greater fluidity within the heirarchy. Still inequality is not good.

    If you are ugly you would, if possible, wish to join the ranks of the ravishing but if not possible what kind or world would you dream of? One in which there was still beautiful people or one in which there were none? I suppose that would depend on the individual. Most of us would probably say that beauty is a good thing. But being that there are beautiful people and that that is universally good does not make it good to be ugly.

    Under every economic system developed by humans thus far there have been winners and losers. The fact that there are still losers is perhaps unavoidable but it is not ‘good’ to be one. My way of stating the above quoted would be:

    Economic growth is good because it gives everyone the opportunity to consume more. And if the optimal system for generating growth also generates inequality, then that inequality is an unfortunate consequence of the system which, despite its lack of perfection, creates the greatest good for greatest number thus far.

  18. As I think Gummo is saying, this whole episode – the power struggles at Hilltop, the experiment, the article, the criticisms of the article – would never have seen the light of day if the teachers had just shown the kids how to take turns playing with the lego in the first place. A simple rule whereby each child belongs to a team of five kids, and each team has access to the lego for three weeks would have been sufficient. Likewise, Anna’s teachers could have set a reasonable deadline for kids to declare their interest in participating in the play.

    That’s why we have rules – to balance competing objectives. On the one hand, social life is about sharing; on the other hand, physical resources are exclusive, and you can’t create something as complicated as a lego city unless it’s clear who is in charge of what. On the one hand, school activities should be inclusive; on the other, the budding creative genius will eventually be discouraged if she has to keep re-writing a play every time a new person joins in.

    It’s a challenge teaching kids to work out good rules to balance a range of competing principles. The lesson from the Hilltop affair seems to be that adults don’t easily grasp the point either.

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