Last Friday, on another blog, I did a link-to/short-comment-on piece, linking to and commenting on this report. It was about Chinese students lying about their qualifications in order to get into British Universities.
Harry Hutton (esteemed writer of this hugely entertaining and clearly much frequented blog) added the following very interesting comment to my posting:
It’s a big problem with the IELTS exam in mainland China – people turn up to do tests for other people. They also come in with live mobile phones, to record the script. But there is zero cheating in Hong Kong. I don’t know why this big difference, but it is so.
Cards on the table, I do not know why there is this big different either. And never having been to – or for that matter anywhere near – Hong Kong, or mainland China, I am a lot less qualified even to guess than Harry Hutton is.
However, I choose to offer a guess nevertheless.
Hong Kong has been a rampantly capitalistic economy for the last half century, and rampantly capitalistic economies make people more honest. Oh not in the short run, but they do in the long run. People learn, at first the hard way, and then by being eloquently taught by the people who did learn it the hard way, or who already knew it and whose experience confirmed it, that honestly pays off, in the long run. In the short run, you may get some small or even big advantage by cheating. But in the long run, the damage you risk doing to your reputation for honesty by cheating, whether at a game, in the market or in an exam, is a risk not worth taking.
The biggest single reason why someone is unemployable, if he is unemployable, is that he is dishonest. Incompetence can often be corrected, with luck and application. Ignorance, ditto. And if a basically well motivated and honest person simply cannot master the first job you give him despite days or weeks, or even months of honest effort, why then, you can find him another job, if you have one for him. If not, you can enthusiastically recommend him to someone else who can, for his honesty if not his competence. (Remember: your recommendations have to be honest too!) But dishonesty is a deal breaker. Well, it would be. Dishonesty means that you break deals, so why would anyone want to make a deal with you, if that is what you do?
To put all this in modern econmicspeak, in a society in which people are entitled to shun you and have no obligations towards you that they do not freely accept, what is now called ‘human capital’ grows rather than shrinks.
I vividly recall participating in a radio panel discussion in which our chairman, a prmoinent newspaper editor, said that free market capitalism was all very well at accumulating capital of the physical, steel and wheels, bricks and mortar variety, but that when it came to ‘moral capital’, it consumed the stuff, and eventually exhausted it. This is the direct opposite of the truth, which is: that free market capitalism is not only good at encouraging the accumulation of physical capital, but that it is especially good at encouraging the accumulation of moral capital. It is the collectivist, politically dominated societies (such as mainland China), the societies in which how you are paid is quite separate from what sort of character you are or worse, are paid according to how nasty you are willing be, that consume moral capital.
Moral capital is no triviality. It does far more than merely decorate the cake of society with an icing of decency. No moral capital means no cake to put icing on in the first place. A society where people who say that they will ring you back do ring you, in which people turn up for things when and where they say they will turn up, who declare that (for instance) a structure is safe only if they really think that it is safe, is a society that is going to function a whole lot better than one where people are not to be trusted, to keep an appointment, or to express an honest opinion regardless of how much money is being waved under their noses to say something dishonest.
Banks, to take a particularly portentous example, simply cannot work at all unless the people who run them are regarded as trustworthy, and the only way that can happen for any length of time is if they actually are trustworthy.
I know, from reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, that everyone who was involved in any sort of trade or business – not just those who could ‘afford to be honest’ but everyone – took their reputations for honesty and square deal very seriously. They could not, that is to say, afford not to be honest. So, why should it be different in Hong Kong now? Hong Kong, I am guessing, has recently been a very Victorian sort of place. Long may it last.
This tradition of honest dealing survives only very incompletely in Britain, and this is quite rightly regarded as a major threat to Britain’s economic future. This is because, although wise enough to impose wise economic policies upon Hong Kong, we were not wise enough to impose similarly wise policies upon ourselves.