TCS Daily

Roadblocks to Prosperity

By Marta Glazier - January 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The other night at a friend's dinner party in Moscow I found myself in a heated debate with the hostess about "cheating." I had been talking to a very bright and precocious 15-year-old that day. Olga was extremely upset with the schooling system in Russia because cheating is just as much a part of the system as testing and perhaps, more so, than learning. True, the system is much more demanding than we Americans must face in our early academic lives, but my young friend had gone to school for about two years in the US, and relished her rewards for achieving the top grades in her class.

When I brought up my conversation earlier that evening, one of the Russian women at the dinner party said that she studied for the classes that she liked, and cheated during the classes that she didn't and this was completely normal. It didn't bother her at all when others cheated in the classes that she liked. The hostess, another American, argued to me that this was the way their society works, and it is just different. Well, I had to disagree, if not for my own personal morality, at least because this is precisely the attitude that plagues the business environment in Russia. The idea of survival, with no moral structure, well, the question that everyone is asking is, can this economic and political system survive? My friend argues, "It is! You just have to know the rules!"

This makes me wonder whether any foreigners who have lived here and question the treatment of private property have even spoken to any Russians? People are people, but what is accepted in society as ethically wrong or immoral naturally pervades the legal system, and consequently the commercial environment.

In the 8th grade, I had one of those great American history teachers who inspires you to learn for learning's sake, and, as a result, what you do learn surely sticks with you. Juicy morsels that Mr. Bell implanted in my brain included the concept and words of both The Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights in discussing individuals' rights to property. While the Declaration reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," the Fifth Amendment of The Bill of Rights reads, "No person shall be held to answer... nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

Now, according to Mr. Bell, the transition in the words from the Declaration to The Bill of Rights exemplified the significance of "property" in America, that really, the pursuit of happiness is equal to the gain of property. And neither the government, nor anyone else, has the right to take property away (without due process or just compensation).

As though statements in these documents are not enough to exemplify the magnitude of the concept of private property in American society, consider the Homestead Act of 1862, by which 270 million acres or 10 percent of the United States was claimed by "hopeful settlers." Until 1896, any American had the right to claim 160 acres of land (in certain territories of course) for $18 essentially as a filing fee, again exemplifying this tradition and fundamental equation of American society: Pursuit of Happiness = Property.

My conversation that night about "cheating" in Russian schools led to a discussion of copyrighting. When my friend said that in her Stanford graduate program, all of their materials, if not purchased text books, were approved by the appropriate publishing companies and each "pack" of copied texts was preceded by a piece of paper that stated that all permissions were found to photocopy these texts, the Russian guests were shocked and amused. None of their schools or fellow students could have afforded for everyone to pay for their own text books and to seek "permission" to photocopy seems laughable. To quote one woman, "Who would ever know?" This Spartan phrase is the pervading attitude toward property rights in Russia. If no one knows that you are taking something without permission, then you do it.

Academics, politicians and diplomats repeatedly warn against the lack of respect for property rights in Russia today. The US Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, wrote a compelling article in The Moscow Times calling for Russians to respect intellectual property rights of both artists and innovators. Piracy in CDs, DVDs, drug and software manufacturing is disrupting incentives to produce and thus foreign investment in these industries.

Vershbow eloquently states, "The ultimate result here is that, in the long run, the financial effects of piracy will continue to hinder the development of high-content-value industries that would provide some of the best jobs for Russians -- jobs that focus on knowledge, creativity and innovation... And it [piracy] is at the expense of all of us here and around the world, who are deprived of the rich cultural and scientific achievements that constitute Russia's greatest historical legacy -- and her promise of even greater contributions to our world in the 21st century."

OK, all true, Mr. Vershbow, and well said. Everyone knows that piracy, plagiarizing and stealing still occur in the West, but in contrast with Russia, that behavior is unacceptable and usually unlawful.

Help us figure out how to systematically dismantle this culture of "cheating and stealing," as we Americans would unflatteringly name it. Because we are taught two important lessons for a successful economic system as we know it that it seems to me Russians do not simply ignore, but do not understand:

  1. Cheating is bad and immoral. You should never do it and if you are caught cheating, the consequences are extremely menacing.
  2. Private property, whether that means tangible or intellectual, is equal to happiness and everyone not only has the right to dream of ownership of property, but should pursue and achieve this happiness, and no one, not even the government should get in your way.

Marta Glazier is the Deputy Publisher of The Moscow Times


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