Change the culture
By Scott Sumner
The recent college admissions scandal has received a lot of attention. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of confused thinking on this issue. Here’s the NYT, discussing the criticism received by parents who bribed college officials:
The playwright David Mamet, the couple’s friend and collaborator of many decades, sprang to their defense in an open letter urging people to hate the game of corrupt college admissions rather than hate these players, whose parental instincts were understandable.
That’s doubly wrong. David Mamet’s friends (and others like them) are a big part of the “game of corrupt college admissions”. And his friends should be stigmatized (and perhaps jailed) despite the fact that their actions are understandable.
The following survey may not be accurate, but it suggests the problem may be more than just a few bad apples:
If you had the money, would you bribe a college official to get your child admitted?
Fifteen percent of all American adults would answer yes, according to a new poll. And that number rises to 25 percent for adults who actually have children ages 18 and under. . . .
Even more parents — 34 percent — said they would be willing to pay someone to take an entrance exam on behalf of their child to get him or her into a good college. Of the general public, 20 percent said they would do so.
This is certainly understandable, as most parents have an instinct to help their child. But cheating is still wrong.
One purpose of culture is to discourage anti-social instincts, and some cultures do so more effectively than others. Thus Denmark is probably ahead of the US in this area, and the US is probably ahead of many other countries where one’s obligations to the family are especially strong. Think of cultures where nepotism is the norm.
Cultures don’t just differ geographically, they also change over time. Singapore is a good example, becoming less corrupt in recent decades. Ironically, David Mamet is a particularly effective “cultural engineer”. Plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross expose the corrosive effects of corruption (in the real estate industry.) This sort of narrative art makes corruption less socially acceptable. Jail time for corrupt parents would also tend to stigmatize the activity, and thus deter other parents who have an “understandable” urge to give their kids an unfair advantage.
Now you might argue that Mamet said we shouldn’t hate these people, and that’s certainly true. But in context, I suspect he was also arguing against stigmatizing them and giving them jail time. While I have great respect for Mamet’s artistic skills, I believe in this case he’s letting his personal feelings for his friends bias his judgment. (Again, that’s “understandable”.) But the fact that an activity is “understandable” is not a reason to punish it less severely. If anything, the opposite is often true. It’s precisely because I understand these parents’ behavior that I believe deterrence would work. If a madman does something randomly, something I don’t understand, I’m less confident that deterrence would work.
Punishing anti-social behavior is a good way to improve a culture. Unfortunately, we also punish lots of behavior that is not anti-social, but is viewed that way. But that’s the subject for another post.