Problems with using standard incentive models to explain governments’ inaction in education

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.