We know why education is good for individuals. The promises of college graduation range from the poetic (intellectual stimulation and love of learning) to utilitarian (increased earning and power potential), but everyone seems to know that educated individuals stand to gain something.
What we don’t really know is why education is so good for societies. Sure, politicians regularly wax poetic about the collective benefits of education—most often the economic ones—but the complex connections are left out. The strongest relationship remains obscure: More educated countries consistently have better governments, on any number of ratings. Here is education compared to the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
Compared to the clear outcomes that schooling endows on pupils—like literacy or basic arithmetic—how governments and countries benefit from an educated populace is less transparent. One popular idea is that educated citizens are better voters (e.g. Dee, 2004)—and a more engaged voting population would make government more accountable. Be that as it may, there is a crucial issue: The relationship between education and government persists outside of democracies. For example, countries like Qatar (monarchy) and Slovakia (democracy) have similar levels of education and government ratings, but very different systems. There must be another reason more educated societies make more accountable government.
A new paper, “Education, Complaints, and Accountability,” published last week in the Journal of Law and Economics suggests one possible mechanism: the power of complaining. The authors, Juan Botero and Alejandro Ponce of the World Justice Project (where I work as a research assistant) and Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University, conclude that “educated citizens complain more.” And complaining gets results: “These complaints lead to better conduct by officials fearful of being punished, which in turn leads to greater accountability and a higher quality government.” The study finds that individuals with higher educational attainment are significantly more likely to lodge complaints against their government, about general services, police abuse, and corruption.
The theory, in short:
One reason why government improves is that citizens complain about public officials who mistreat them: policemen who beat them up, officials who demand bribes, teachers who do not show up…A public official choosing to break rules must trade off the risk of being disciplined, no matter how small for each individual complaint, against the benefits of misconduct. As citizens’ complaints proliferate, the risk of an investigation and disciplinary action rises…As education levels in a country rise, so does the number of complaints when officials misbehave, which raises the expected costs of misconduct and thus encourages better behavior—asking for fewer bribes, avoiding abusing people, showing up to work.
To test that logic in a comprehensive way, the authors consulted a huge international data set covering more than 80 countries, made up of three sources: data from the Rule of Law Index, the International Crime Victim Survey, and the Global Corruption Barometer. Questions from these surveys, based mainly in the Rule of Law Index surveys, asked representative samples from the largest cities in each country about their experience with complaint, in addition to recording their education history. Particularly, the participants were asked if they had submitted “any complaint about the services provided by the different government agencies in your country (including registration office; customs office; public health services; tax office; land allocation office, etc.)” during the last year, and “whether respondents experienced police abuse and, if so, whether they reported it.” Information from the crime victim survey and corruption barometer supplemented information for crime and corruption complaints, respectively.
The results varied widely for both complaints and education: The percentage of individuals who had submitted a complaint ranged from 2 percent in Georgia to 38 percent in Ethiopia; the percentage of college graduates in a city went from 4 percent in Sri Lanka to 71 percent in a Russian city. Overall, though, the authors conclude, education had a significant effect on complaints. The worldwide mean for complaining was 15.6 percent, and college graduates are 5.1 percentage points more likely, and high school graduates 2.8 percentage points more likely, to have submitted a complaint. On reporting police and military abuse the authors “find a sharply higher and statistically significant probability of reporting,” where college graduates are 8 percentage points more likely to complain than non-high school graduates compared to a 47 percent mean. On break-ins, the gap is 10.2 percentage points between college graduates and those without a high school degree (high school grads gained 5.2 points); on armed robberies, college graduates reported the crime 8.8 percentage points more. This is all to say, the authors assert, that, “the effect of education, particularly college education, on reporting crime is huge.” Taken together, they write, the results show that “education encourages complaints about misconduct.” The results also indicate a number of related phenomena: The relationship between education level and complaining is particularly strong in autocracies and developing countries; “police violating the law will be punished is a strong predictor of the probability of complaining about misconduct and reporting crime”; and “educated countries have a lower incidence of public and private misconduct.”
Of course, as with any study, there are some complications. First, the effect of education on complaining doesn’t hold up well in countries with a highly educated populace. This is likely because “the knowledge of how to address government misconduct is more widespread and there is less fear of reprisal” in these societies: Those with less education might benefit and learn from their complaining neighbors. Second, technology can matter: “Having a cell phone sharply raises the probability of reporting police abuse and burglary, although not of complaining about government generally” (computers don’t). Ultimately, though, the authors find that education is not likely a proxy for something else: Complaining does not substantially depend on income, trust, or social status.
There are unique effects, the authors find, about how education changes an individual’s relationship with the state: “Educated people might merely know better how to complain effectively,” they suggest. “They are more literate, more articulate, and more knowledgeable about where to go and how to complain.” Moreover, those with high levels of education tend to have less fear of the police, perhaps because “they know the law and the rules and hence can stand up to officials.” Though the authors are careful to note that their evidence can’t necessarily prove causation, the logic does make sense. More limited studies, on a local level, have found the same effects of education, from ethics complaints in Florida counties to complaints in provincial capitals in China.
Assuming the links between education, complaints, and accountability have at least some strength, there’s a lot at stake. For developing countries, and for international funders of those countries, prioritizing education might make sense in order to combat issues of corruption or government misconduct. These countries might simultaneously reap the benefits individuals receive from education (work readiness, etc), in addition to adding citizen oversight to government institutions, all through one investment. For developed countries, this finding might go some way to explaining structural inequalities, particularly around cities. What if complaints partially explain why Chicago’s educated and wealthier white suburbs, for example, have better infrastructure than its predominantly black, less-educated, and low-income South Side? Is education and complaints why gentrifying areas physically improve? It’s at least something to investigate.
For all countries, the possibility of actually teaching complaints should come to the fore. The effect of education on complaining is, at best, a side effect of curriculum itself. Societies that seek better government might do well to invest in civics classes that teach youth how to advocate for themselves and their community. In the US, civics requirements and courses are often wanting, and most often suggest that voting—not an American best—is the sum of participation. The impact of teaching civic participation—including but not limited to filing complaints—could help ensure that government services focus where they need to, or at the least create a record of ignored requests that would be useful later for public pressure. It’s almost surprising, in fact, that this sort of non-partisan civic education hasn’t become part of public education systems: Wouldn’t everyone agree that government should be held accountable to the people? Teaching middle school students that they can file a service request for a pothole (for example), or having high school classrooms submit FOIA requests (particularly given forthcoming simplifications) shouldn’t sound so far-fetched. It’s no more complicated, and perhaps more important, than many topics already in public curricula.
When countries invest in education, their government improves. If complaints help drive accountability, then teaching complaining—like has never been done before—could lead to enormous collective benefits. If “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” as is often said, complaint might be the height of public service.