TECH TALK: Doing Education Right: Incentives Matter

By Atanu Dey

Alistair Cooke in his weekly radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4, A Letter from America, once explained the theory of public choice to his listeners as the homely but important truth that the politicians are after all just the same as the rest of us. It is an accessible, though incomplete, definition of what public choice is about. You could read James Buchanan, who in 1986 won the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (popularly known as the Nobel Prize in Economics) “for his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making. But Cooks version is adequate for our needs to explain why the Indian educational system is a disaster.

Politicians and bureaucrats are motivated by self-interest, and the will to power and control is deeply ingrained in them, perhaps more so than in the average person. Monopoly control of any market or institution is heady power. Controlling the educational sector is gives them an enormously powerful lever for controlling the economy. It is therefore quite understandable that the opposition to relinquishing that power would be formidable. The greatest challenge that India faces in reforming its educational system arises from this, not perhaps so much from a lack of understanding of what needs to be done, or how it is to be done. It is hard to overestimate the power of vested interests amassed against doing what is rational in education.

Here we look into what needs to be done, and leave aside for the moment the question whether it will be done, and if so how it is to be done. What needs to be done can be stated in one word: liberalization. The system is in chains.

In a socialistic economy, the state controls everything with the stated objective to reach the commanding heights of the economy, as the Indian leaders have always loftily boasted of achieving. What actually happens is that the state commands and controls and flies the economy into a very deep ditch. Remember USSR? Its gone. A land lavishly gifted with natural resources and industrious smart people reduced to rubble. We have not fully learnt from their failures of the shackling of their economy. But there is a small possibility that we could learn from the successes of the limited unshackling of our own economy.

It is of course possible for governments to efficiently produce goods and services. The question rather is whether it is probable. The evidence is strong at least in the case of the Indian government that it is highly improbable. The list of government failures is too lengthy to list here. But a few instructive examples which illustrate the general idea are worth considering.

Telecommunications was the governments sole preserve. The waiting times were measured in years, the prices were high, the quality poor. When the private sector was allowed entry, the prices dropped, quality improved, demand soared, supply expanded, and best of all, the public sector incumbents started performing as well. The same story can be told about the air transportation sector.

It is important to stress that the problem is one of government control of the sector, not whether it is served by private firms or not. Even if there are no public firms in a sector, government can control the sector by restricting entry (think license) of firms into the sector, thus limiting competition. The resulting low quantities (think permits and quotas) support high prices therefore high profits. The competition for acquiring licenses is part of the rent-seeking game that is played by the politicians, bureaucrats and private sector firms. It is a nice little game (racket?) where all the players win, and the only losers are the poor consumers and the economy.

Lets look at the education sector against this backdrop.

Write to atanudey at if you have questions or comments.

Tomorrow: Markets Work

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.