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.
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
…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.