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Values & Socialism?

The longer people live under socialism, the more their value system erodes. So concludes a recent study of 259 Germans randomly picked to play a simple dice game.

Researchers from the University of Munich and Duke University asked participants to throw a die 40 times and write each result down on a piece of paper. Those with the highest totals received winnings of up to $8. The twist was that each participant had to commit to picking the top or bottom number before rolling the die. They didn’t have to tell anyone beforehand which side they favored, giving them the opportunity to lie when they saw which way the die had turned up.

If no one had cheated, there should have been a roughly equal assortment of rolls from one to six. Instead, when researchers studied the results, they saw disproportionately more high rolls than low. Players were saying they’d picked in advance more fours, fives, and sixes than should have been possible. In short, many were cheating.

“The longer people live under socialism, the more their value system erodes.”

Participants were then asked their age and the part of Germany where they’d lived throughout their lives. Some had spent years behind the Iron Curtain, while others had only known life in a unified Germany. When researchers placed the results of the die rolls next to where and when the participants had been born, they came to a stark conclusion.

Those who hailed from socialist East Germany were twice as likely to cheat as those who’d grown up in West Germany under capitalism. Time also played a factor, for the longer a participant had lived in a socialist system the greater their likelihood for being dishonest. Those who’d lived for 20 years or more in East Germany were 65 percent more likely to cheat than their West German counterparts. And the ill-effect of socialism lingered in people’s values long after its demise. Those born in the east after the fall of the Berlin Wall still showed a greater propensity for cheating than their western counterparts.

What are the mechanisms by which socialism sows the seeds of dishonesty? The authors guess at a few causes:

First, [socialism] did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to demoralization, and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official laws and cheat to game the system. Over time, individuals may come to normalize these types of behaviors.

In this day and age, after the ravages of the financial crisis, it’s become far too easy to find instances of moral laxity among those living under capitalism. Yet among the world’s economic systems, the only greater source of moral decay than the free market is the absence of a free market.

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