Rent seeking on the playground

While watching my kid play hide-n-seek and tag on the playground with other kids, it occurred to me that rent-seeking behavior starts at a very young age.  It seems natural.  It derives from the desire to win, though we tell ourselves it’s about a sense of fairness, and it can get ugly quick.

When kids on the playground are one or two years apart in age, the difference in agility and speed can be big.  The (usually) older kids will dominate the game, if it were not for rent-seeking.

The slower kids, when they realize they are getting beat handily, begin to introduce rules to make the game more fair for them.  For example, they will establish a safe base during a game of tag.  This is rent-seeking.  The slower kids use rules rather than ability to try to get the upper hand on their better competitors.

We see similar things in the business world.  In the 90s, lesser software makers ganged up and got the Department of Justice to go after Microsoft for monopolistic behavior.  The key complaint that the DOJ went after was Microsoft’s inclusion of its own web browser for free on computers that came with Microsoft’s other software.  Giving away something for free hardly seems monopolistic (usually monopolies raise prices).  But, to a competitor (like Netscape) who wanted to charge customers for an Internet browser and didn’t have other products, it hardly seemed fair.

Being fair for the slower kids means being unfair to the faster kids (after all, the faster kids probably have faster opponents at times too). On the playground this seems fair, until the rent-seeking gets out of hand.

A game of tag quickly devolves into a staring contest with most of the kids camping out on base.  Then the faster kids are the ones who claim the game is no fair and they move onto something else.

As a parent who has had the younger kid on the playground, I know it can be rough to watch.  In the short-term (and naturally), it’s easy to welcome the rent-seeking rules.  But, even most parents will protest when their own kids overreach and camp on base (You have to give him a chance to catch you!).

While this behavior appears to be driven by fairness, I believe the true root cause is the desire to win.  Even parents tend to hope that their kids have natural talents that allow them to hang with older kids.

But, maybe we should be more interested in simply having our kids experience more trial-and-error, become accustomed to dealing with and learning from loss and not worry too much about winning.

This reminds me of something Salman Khan, of Khan Academy (educational online videos), said in his TED video:

The traditional model [of education] penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery [e.g. time to move onto next subject even if you only mastered 90% of the last one].

We encourage you to experiment.  We encourage you to fail.  But we do expect mastery.

Parents and kids both seem to have the traditional model engrained.  We want mastery, but we abhor experimentation and failure.

But the secret to mastery is experimentation and failure.  I’ve heard enough successful people say that one of the secrets to their success was that they weren’t afraid to fail.  They didn’t like it.  But they learned how to deal with it.  To learn from it, brush it off and to not let it keep them from trying again.

So, there could be several benefits to letting our kids play tag with the faster kids, without a safe base.

First, they can learn how to deal with failure. And, as parents we can help them put the failure into perspective and learn from it.  So what?  Who cares?  That kid is two years older than you.  Of course he’s going to win.  But, did you have fun?  Did you learn something?  Even get them to admit that the other guy or gal was really fast and tough to beat.

Second, they might learn other tactics that could be useful.  Instead of trying to beat their opponents with speed, they might try to keep a safe distance, use obstacles to their advantage or stay close to an even slower runner.  Again, we can coach this.

Third, they will get better by being chased down and tagged, much better than just sitting on base.  (However the rent-seeking rule makers also have plenty of career opportunities ahead of them in law and politics.)

Fourth, the older kids might learn a thing or two.  I’ve watched some wise older children deliberately tone their play down.  Most of these kids are older siblings, so they’re use to (and probably have been trained in) playing nice.  Toning the play down has benefits.  If you’re not outright dominating, the other kids will not likely want to create rules to take away your advantages.  Then everybody gets to play, have fun and improve.

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