Monday, December 1, 2008

Eroding away any semblance of accountability

If accountability among today’s lying and cheating politicians and business leaders is bad, it seems like it will only get worse.

USA Today reports on a large-scale survey of American high school stduents:

Students cheat, steal, but say they're good
[Posted Nov. 30, 2008]

NEW YORK (AP) — In the past year, 30% of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64% have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.
The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured.

Michael Josephson, the institute's founder and president, said he was most dismayed by the findings about theft. The survey found that 35% of boys and 26% of girls — 30% overall — acknowledged stealing from a store within the past year. One-fifth said they stole something from a friend; 23% said they stole something from a parent or other relative.

"What is the social cost of that — not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?" Josephson remarked in an interview. "In a society drenched with cynicism, young people can look at it and say 'Why shouldn't we? Everyone else does it."'

Other findings from the survey:

• Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38% did so two or more times, up from 60% and 35% in a 2006 survey.

• Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33% in 2004.

• Forty-two percent said they sometimes lie to save money — 49% of the boys and 36% of the girls.

Despite such responses, 93% of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77% affirmed that "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."
This story certainly rings true, as we find Internet plagiarism is something many high school students used for years without getting caught and punished. The reaction of school administrators was appalling — mostly a mixture of denial and rationalization.

I don’t know what the root cause is, because there are so many possibilities: the self-esteem movement, the general decline of societal morality, Baby Boomer parents who taught their kids to rebel against authority, the decay of the public schools. During my recent visit to Chile, the country seemed in some ways more honest than the US, despite being surrounded by countries where corruption has been a way of life for centuries.

But whatever the cause, the impact on free markets will be terrible. A free economy requires millions or billions of decentralized self-regulating market transactions, and corruption erodes away at that system and will eventually bring it to a halt.

When dishonesty is rare — as in smalltown America once upon a time — then sanctions are workable, but when it is rampant, there are few remedies. eBay abandoned efforts at self-policing honesty after they proved vulnerable to abuse. Regulation to enforce honesty won’t work, because the government cannot be involved in every transaction.

Plus, students who get ahead by cheating will become workers who try to get ahead by cheating. These are ones who put their efforts into learning how to cheat rather than learning how to do a good job. Not the sort of work force that delivers quality goods and services, raise productivity and thus raise the average standard of life in our country.

The good kids don’t cheat because it’s wrong, not because they worry about getting caught. I don’t know where we get more good kids, but we certainly need them.

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