Highly Educated Countries Have Better Governments

Why? Citizens complain more, forcing officials to be more accountable.
NBC Universal

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.



Botero, Ponce, Shleifer 2014

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.

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Stephen Lurie is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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