Students who cheat are more likely to want public sector careers. That is the core finding of Rema Hanna of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Shing-Yi Wang of Penn’s Wharton School in a recent Working Paper, ‘Dishonesty and Selection into Public Service’, from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Some 669 students about to graduate university in Bangalore, India were put through a series of simple tests or tasks.  In one they were asked to roll a dice in private some 42 times and report the results. Clearly the totals will range from 42 (42 X 1) to 252 (42 X 6) with 147 (42 X 3.5) as the average. The higher the number the students reported the more they were paid and 34 per cent of them came in with so many fives and sixes that they were above the 99 per cent level of probability. Comparing that 34 per cent with stated employment preferences, the authors write ‘Overall, we find that dishonest individuals – as measured by the dice task – prefer to enter government service.’

Also published in 2013 was a study of Swiss students in which 35 per cent of all rolls were reported as a six (it should be about 16.7 per cent) and 62 per cent as a five or six (it should be about 33.3 per cent), so this is not some uniquely Indian trait. Indeed the Indian students were noticeably more honest than the Swiss. The academics also had access to a pool of 165 current Indian government employees who took the same test. The higher scorers were more likely to be engaged in fraud than the lower ones, it transpired.

Three other findings intrigued me.

Firstly, corruption and ability were not linked: in other words the potential high-flyer and the potential paper-shuffler were equally likely to cheat. Secondly, surveying the students as to their thoughts about corruption was not at all useful. Finally, there was the issue of charity. Each student was given a sum of money to divide between him or herself and a charity, with the money donated to the latter being doubled by the funders of the experiment. Future government workers kept most of the cash; future private sector workers donated more – so much for the stereotypes of the selfless civil servant and the hard-hearted capitalists, and a clear vindication of earlier work by economists, summarised nicely in Who Really Cares by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

I was left wondering which way the street is going. Are the more corrupt people among us inexorably drawn to government? Does government further corrupt with its lack of property rights and clear incentives? Is it all some downward vicious cycle? Or are the more honest among us simply repelled from first principle by the thought of wealth redistribution and working with such corrupt people and institutions?

While Switzerland ranks 7th, India is in the middle of all the countries measured by Transparency International and the UK and USA only just scrape into the top 20. There’s fertile ground for further research here.

John Blundell is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs

2 thoughts on “Dishonest students prefer government careers”

  1. Posted 20/12/2013 at 14:14 | Permalink

    John’s post reminds me of both Keynes and Hayek, which is remarkable. On page 396 of Volume VIII of Keynes’s Collected Works (‘A Treatise on Probability’) he refers to a large scale experiment in rolling dice, where the results differed considerably from what theory would predict. I remember being irritated by Keynes’s assertion that ‘the explanation of this is easily found … the dice must have been very irregular.’ No doubt this is the most likely assumption — but it is an assumption, not a fact. John’s assumption that Indian and Swiss participants who claim to have rolled unusually plentiful quantities of fives and sixes ‘must have been’ cheating is similar. They may have been cheating, but (for example) those dice too may perhaps have been irregular? Turning now to Hayek, many of us will remember that Chapter 9 of ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is entitled ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’. Of course he was talking about the leaders in a totalitarian system, and I hesitate to equate that with government service. But let me try to summarise one of his key points in a couple of sentences. In a planned system the question is no longer what most people agree on, but what is the largest single group whose members agree enough to permit collective direction of all affairs? Any such numerous group (he suggests) is likely to consist of the worst elements. It may be that those who are comfortable with governments using coercive means to order us all about feel so strongly about the ends they desire that they are prepared not to be too scrupulous about the means they employ.

  2. Posted 26/03/2016 at 20:04 | Permalink

    I appreciate the level of caution shown here with respect to making the “obvious” conclusion. I did not any of the papers, so I don’t know what justifies this: “The higher scorers were more likely to be engaged in fraud than the lower ones, it transpired.”

    I think back to my own former desire to work for the federal government, and I remember part of that equation being the idea that government jobs did not pay that well, but that they were relatively secure, because they had a monopoly on the “business” they were in and strong unions. I knew that there was an elaborate set of rules which supposedly protected employees against being forced to break the law, and that in interactions with private business, the government held all the cards.

    In the foregoing, I see in my former self a mix of motivations and tradeoffs: security over opportunity, power over weakness, purity of motive vs. profit motive, and (in my mind, anyway), the ability to resist and denounce corruption without fear of reprisal.

    I would be interested to hear studies which measure these motivations in those headed for government service, and the degree to which these motivations remain in experienced government workers.

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