Issues with rationalising governments' inaction in education citing lack of electoral incentives

Often, people use standard incentive frameworks to explain governments’ inaction in education. The argument goes that governments don’t put efforts on education because providing education is not a vote winning instrument. In other words, education doesn’t figure in electoral agenda. The inference is that people don’t vote based on education, hence governments also don’t work.
This seems like a intuitively reasonable argument but this is absurd way of thinking.
I had earlier blogged on the trap of judging political parties using standard incentive frameworks. My three arguments were:
1. Standard incentive frameworks optimise for contexts of mediocrity. Anything worth achieving is NOT achievable ONLY with external incentives OR with a low threshold for deterrence. What incentive did Gandhi have to lead freedom movement? What incentive did Elon Musk have to start SpaceX? Remarkable things can’t be achieved with external incentives alone. Internal motivation is crucial here.
2. Standard incentives may be applicable to individuals working for someone, but not to entities that are responsible to do something. Incentives are to address principal-agent situations, where agent is working for someone. This isn’t applicable to cases where there is a moral responsibility on someone to do the task. If parents don’t feed a child, do you justify it saying that there is demand-supply incentives problem?
3. Incentive frameworks are useful to contexts where progress can be tracked regularly and there is a check-list of tasks for which the adherence can be checked. This isn’t the case with education. It involves constantly adapting to context; results are concretely visible only in long term; there are too many variables in action, making it difficult to attribute responsibility. In such cases, even if forced, governments can get away by appearing to do something when pressure builds, without actually doing anything. The stick approach isn't effective in this case.
I want to add two more arguments to this list.
4. Saying that governments don’t focus on education because there are no electoral incentives is a form of victim blaming. Instead of saying that governments are wrong and have to mend their ways, it places the blame on victim — you didn’t vote, hence you didn’t get education. This is a convenient justification and is music to governments’ ears because it helps them evade responsibility. In contexts with numerous other pressing problems, it is illogical to expect that all get attention and that government should work only on those that get attention.
Marx had recognised this long ago when he said that religion is the opium of masses. Religion teaches masses that the cause of their suffering is something else, their karma etc. It stops people from realising the real-word causes for their suffering and prevents them from taking steps to address them. We are also doing something similar here.
Governments are responsible to provide education. It is one of their basic functions. They must do it. Period.
5.  Saying that lack of electoral incentives is the reason for governments’ lack of efforts presumes that election agenda is always set by people’s demands. This isn’t entirely true. Many times, political parties frame the agenda, bring new narratives, make people realise that these are important issues for their life and convince them to vote. These agendas range from doing identity politics or promising to eradicate poverty. If parties can make a ‘new aspect’ that isn’t initially explicitly demanded by people, as an agenda, why shouldn’t they do the same with education too? Why are they allowed to shift responsibility to voters, as if voters alone frame agenda all the time?
One can note that all the above arguments are equally applicable for health care.
It’s time we stop finding metaphysical reasons for governments’ inaction and call spade a spade. Governments’ are not putting enough efforts on education and health care. They alone are responsible for it. Not people.

Of course, it is another matter if governments put enormous efforts to improve education and health care and enhance their quality but still if people vote on caste, religion etc. But governments should first reach that stage and then say this. This is definitely not acceptable when they haven’t put any efforts.


  1. Hi Karthik:
    I am one of those people who believes that education won't be a key focus for the government in India as it is not an electoral issue. The points I would make to your arguments are:
    - I don't think I am blaming the "voter" but just saying that the "voter" is a very rational person and, come election time, looks at the various parties and decides which one is best placed to meet his or her needs (economic, political, social, etc). Given the "voters" large unmet needs in more basic government services such as water, electricity, roads, garbage collection, jobs, etc, the voter gives less importance to education in her decision making. This is not the case in more developed countries where education is much higher on the agenda as more basic needs have been met. And the politician therefore focuses her energy on the issues that will bring most electoral gains.

    It's only once in a long while that great statesmen such as Mahatma Gandhi come around who have the ability to take a very long view of politics. The average politician is just looking to win the next election.

    I know this is a skeptical view of human nature but ... :-)

    1. 1) My argument is that we should NOT make "electoral incentive" as a pre-requisite for governments' efforts for the reasons mentioned in the post.

      2) One can go into in-depth analysis of what voter wants, what affects them etc but my submission is that such mode of analysis is dangerous and also unproductive. It is similar to research on the political economy of teachers. Such analysis is an outcome of slow-action and lack of government's intent. Insights from this analysis are of little relevance, for instance, to government that is resolved enough to address the teacher resistance issue. Same is the case with electoral incentives.

      3) One needn't need to blame the voters for not voting based on education. The moment we are making electoral incentive as a criteria for governments' action, we are indirectly legitimising governments' inaction, and putting blame on voters. That may not be the intent, but that's what it ends up being.

      4) Governments needn't be Mahatma. They have done many things in the past, which weren't explicitly demanded by voters. It was based on their pure self-motivation and because they think it's the right thing for the country. No reason why we shouldn't expect them to do the same regarding education.

    2. Also, the description of current day developed countries' and their voters' preferences is misleading. If a country has to become high-income country to make education an electoral issue, which will in turn make governments' work on education, then no country would have ever improved education. They would have been struck in a trap.

      In most places wherever drastic reform happened, it didn't happen because of people taking to streets. It happened because leaders of those countries at that point of time made it their priority, despite no such primary demand from people, and worked on it.

      The latest example is Poland.