The Roots of Corruption: Mass education, economic inequality and state building

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The Roots of Corruption:
Mass education, economic inequality and state building

Eric M. Uslaner

Department of Government and Politics

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742-7211


Senior Research Fellowship, Center for American Political Science and Law,

Southwest University of Political Science and Law, Chongqing, China

Bo Rothstein

The Quality of Government Institute

Department of Political Science

University of Gothenburg

Box 711, 405 30 Gothenburg


To be presented at the Workshop “Building State Capacity: The Other Side of Political Development” Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, May 4-5, 2012

This is our second co-authored paper and in this paper we have reversed the order of authorship. Our contributions are equal. We would like to thank Sofia Jansson for excellent assistance for the section on religion and education in this article and David Sartorius for very helpful comments on early education in Latin America.

The roots of corruption are highly contested. We argue that there is a path dependence across almost a century and a half and present five theoretical arguments for the existence of a causal mechanism between universal education and control of corruption. We show a powerful statistical link between education levels in 1870 and corruption levels in 2010 for 78 countries, a relationship that remains strong even when controlling for change in the level of education, gross national product per capita, and democratic governance. Regime type is generally not significant. We then trace early education to levels of economic equality in the late 19th and early 21st centuries—and argue that societies with more equality educated more of their citizens, which then gave their citizens more opportunities and power, reducing corruption. We present historical evidence from Europe and Spanish, British, and French colonies that strong states provided more education to their publics—and that such states were themselves more common where economic disparities were smaller.

The problem and the arguments
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the evidence that corruption is a general social ill has been mounting. Included in concepts such as (the lack of) good governance, quality of government and state capacity, corruption not only prevents economic prosperity but also have strong negative implications for population health, people’s access to safe water, economic equality, social trust, political legitimacy, intra-state as well as inter-state peace and people’s subjective well-being (Uslaner 2008, Holmberg and Rothstein 2012). Theoretically, the dramatically increased interest in research about corruption is related to the “institutional revolution” in the social sciences that began in the early 1990 that stressed that being able to create a certain type of rules and regulations determined the well-being of societies (North 1990, Acemoglu and Robinson 2012).

One result of this is a profound change in the attention given to anti-corruption by many policy organizations. From being largely ignored until the late 1990s, anti-corruption has become a prime issue for organizations such as the UN, the EU and the IMF. Many states’ international development agencies have put anti-corruption high on their agenda.1 However, despite the many anti-corruption efforts that have been undertaken during the last fifteen years, there is very little evidence that corruption throughout the world has declined.2 Neither international anti-corruption commissions, nor conditioning aid upon the establishment of anti-corruption agencies or even the rise in democratization has led to a substantial reduction in corruption (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2011; Rothstein, 2011, 105-107; Uslaner, 2008, 32-36, 69-74). As shown by Uslaner (2008, 24-27), when states are compared, both high and low levels of corruption persists over very long periods of time which is an indication that there is a general lack of understanding why it is so hard to curb.

The analyses we present below indicate that the reason for this massive policy failure may be that anti-corruption policies to a large extent have been based on a theoretical misconception of the very nature of the problem, known as the “principal agent” theory. Our conclusion is that ad-hoc tinkering with institutional design or economic incentives will not solve the problem because systemic corruption is deeply rooted in the underlying economic, political and social systems. We shall make three main arguments. First, we will show that current levels of corruption have very long and deep historical roots, implying that this is not a problem that can be addressed without profound social and political changes. Second, broad based mass education is a central factor behind low levels of corruption. More precisely, countries’ level of education as far back as 1870, measured as the mean number of years of schooling, strongly predict levels of corruption 140 years later—more so than overall economic prosperity, democratization, or the growth in education levels over time. Third, social and economic equality and state-building were important factors behind variation in the establishment of universal education during the late 19th century.

Institutions matter for economic prosperity and social well-being has become a standard argument in development research. There are, however, two main problems with this argument. One is a lack of theoretical distance between the independent and dependent variables. We think that it should come as no surprise that countries that have “extractive” as opposed to “inclusive” legal and political institutions (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012) are less prosperous. In a similar manner, it seems self-evident that countries with “open access” orders are more successful than countries with “limited” or “closed” social orders (North, Wallis and Weingast 2009). A second problem is a lack of precision in what specific institutions that need to be “inclusive” or “open”. These authors point at a very large set of social, political and legal institutions but without indicating which of them that are more (or less) important. The third problem with the institutional argument is that it lacks convincing explanations for why some countries get “good” institutions and others not. In other words, the root of corruption and other forms of “bad governance” is largely left unexplained in this literature. We want to address these three weaknesses in the institutional argument by making a case for the importance of a specific policy/institution that as an independent variable is theoretically separated in time and space from our dependent variable (corruption). In addition, we want to explain what made some countries establish this institution/policy (broad based education) more than others.

Theory: Why education, economic inequality and state-building?

Searching for historical explanations for a problem like corruption, there is certainly no end to the number of potentially interesting variables. Since our variables operate at the aggregate level, we want to specify theoretically how we perceive the causal mechanisms between broad based education and a country’s ability to control corruption. We identify five such potential causal mechanisms. Firstly, according to Persson et. al. (2012) as well as Mungiu-Pippidi (2011), systemic corruption should be seen as a problem of collective action. This idea is a critique of the main theory in this field that has understood corruption as problem that fits under the so called “principal-agent” model in economics (Rose-Ackeman 1998 , Klitgaard 1988, Persson & Tabellini 2000). The latter theory states that corruption occurs because an honest “principal”, due to information problems, cannot monitor her “agents” whom will fall for the temptation to engage in corrupt behavior. The policy advice that has come out from this theory has been that the “principal” should increase control and change the incentives for the “agents” to a point where the fear of being caught is higher than the greed that leads agents to engage in corruption. The problem for this theory is that in a systemically corrupt setting, it is difficult to see who this benevolent principal could be. It is very unlikely that this would be the political leaders since in a corrupt system they are usually the ones that collect most of the rents. It is also unlikely that the honest principal could be the people since they face a massive co-ordination problem.

People in systemically corrupt settings participate in corrupt practices mostly because they perceive that most other agents play this game and that it therefore makes little sense to be the only agent that acts honestly. We base this on results from experimental research that underscores the centrality of reciprocity in strategic interactions. As Fehr and Fischbacher (2005, 259) have stated it: “If people believe that cheating on taxes, corruption and abuses of the welfare state are widespread, they themselves are more likely to cheat on taxes, take bribes, or abuse welfare state institutions”. Corruption takes the form of a multiple-equilibria coordination problem, within the framework of which the choice of action should be expected to depend on shared expectations about how other individuals will act. Without trust in that most other agents are willing to stop demanding or paying bribes, most agents in a corrupt setting see no point in changing their behavior. This turns corruption into a social trap because it is difficult to manufacture generalized trust (Rothstein 2005).

Moreover, as suggested by Delhey and Newton (2006), when people in surveys answer the question if they think that “most other people can be trusted”, there answers can be interpreted as an evaluation of the moral standard of the society in which they live. While generalized trust is difficult to manufacture by political means, numerous studies have shown that education has a positive effect on generalized trust, also at the micro level (Helliwell and Putnam 2007; Uslaner, 2002, chs. 4, 8; Yamagishi 2001). Thus, although we have no measures of the level of trust 140 years ago, it is plausible that countries that established broad based free education at that time also increased the level of generalized trust among the population in their societies.

A second theoretical argument for why universal education should be important has to do with the importance of literacy and mass-media for curbing corruption. A free press with a broad circulation is important for curbing corruption (Adsera, Boix, and Payne, 2000). The effectiveness of a vigilant press for curbing corruption depends on wide-spread literacy is. If most people cannot read, there will be fewer newspapers sold and the popular knowledge about corruption and the demand for accountability and “clean government” will be lower. Others, however, have contested this relationship (Rose-Ackerman, 1999, 167; Uslaner, 2008, 37, 67).

A third theoretical argument for the importance of broad based education has to do with our understanding of what corruption is and, not least, how the opposite of corruption should be defined. The standard definition of corruption is usually “abuse of public power for private gain”. This definition is problematic because it does not say what should be counted as “abuse”. An alternative definition that has been suggested is that the opposite of corruption is “universalism” in public policies (Mungui-Pippidi 2006), or “impartiality” in the implementation of public policies (Rothstein 2011). A state that is governed by universal or impartial norms of fairness saying that “like cases should be treated alike” is not generally corrupt. The opposite of justice is not equality because justice sometimes requires unequal treatment. Instead, it is favoritism which is what corruption (and clientelism/nepotism) is all about and as stated by Goodin (2004), the opposite of justice is favoritism.

Establishing broad based free education is likely to establish the idea that the state need not only be an instrument of favoritism, extraction and oppression, but that is can also be an instrument for social justice and equal opportunities which in its turn will induce generalized trust. However, establishing a “credible commitment” that universalism, fairness and impartiality will be respected turns out not to be a simple thing. The incentive model that comes out from the principal-agent theory is in this respect detrimental for combatting corruption because such a strategy likely to crowd out the trust that is necessary for overcoming the collective-action problem (Miller and Whitford 2002). In order to break out of social trap situation (also known as a sub-optimal equilibria), the agents need to convinced that most other agents are willing to change their behavior from opportunism to collaboration and for this to happen, a very strong (convincing) “signal” must occur (Ziegler 1998). Our argument is that a state that establishes broad based free education is sending out such a very strong signal about being committed to universalism, fairness and impartiality to its citizens, at least in this area. In the ideal cases, the state provided all children, irrespectively of their social and economic background, with the right to basic education.

A fourth theoretical justification for a causal link between universal education and low corruption runs through economic equality. As shown by Uslaner (2008), economic inequalities increase corruption. The causal chain is complex since it is characterized by “feed-back” mechanisms since corruption increases inequality. However, as we will show below, it was often the more equal societies that established broad based education. Universal education is a powerful policy for reducing economic inequalities, which then lowers corruption. Over time the great educational inequalities between the rich and the poor in countries that went for universal education were sharply reduced, though not eliminated (Morrison and Murtin, 2010). In the highly stratified societies of the 1870s, the introduction of universal or (near universal) education must be understood as a quite substantial increase in the degree of equality in human capital. Simply put, education decreased inequality which is known to be a factor that leads to higher levels of corruption. Access to education provided more people with the skills to find good-paying jobs without having to rely on traditional feudal, corrupt or clientelistic structures of power (Uslaner, 2008, 239-241).

Our fifth argument is about the importance of gender equality for levels of corruption. There is a strong positive correlation between gender equality and low levels of corruption, even when controlling for a number of other variables and even when one compare regions in a corrupt country such as Mexico (Wängnerud 2012). A society that establishes universal free education will also increase gender equality since in such systems boys and girls are given the same amount of education, something that still is not accepted in many parts of the world. Establishing (at least formal) gender equality in education is a strong signal about impartiality and fairness of the state, especially if one considers the situation 140 years ago.

There are thus a number of theoretical justifications for why establishing broad based free schooling should have a positive effect on curbing corruption. Such education increases generalized trust, general literacy, perceptions of impartiality and fairness of the state, economic equality, and gender equality. These are all factors that in other studies have been shown to have a positive effect on curbing corruption.

If broad based education determines levels of corruption, then we need to know what may explain the establishment of such education. We focus on two variables that have a strong influence on the establishment of broad based education: economic equality and state-building. Highly stratified societies restrict opportunities for the poor to better their situation—and educational opportunities are a major reason why the universal welfare state leads to greater equality (Rothstein and Uslaner, 2005). In the historical cases known for having dealt with corruption during the 19th century in a successful way, state building turns out to have been important. In some cases, universal education was a means to strengthen the capacity of states after having lost wars while in other cases it was a means to strengthen the capacity to win future wars (see below).

Murtin (n.d.), who developed the historical data set on education, shows that the mean number of years of schooling in 1870, is a very powerful factor shaping infant mortality, total mortality, and life expectancy in the late 20th century. It is also a powerful predictor of the level of democracy in a country over a century later, providing evidence that high levels of education lead to better institutions, but that democratic institutions do not produce more educated publics (Murtin and Wacziag, 2010, 16, 21).

Below we will show that the level of education in the 1870s shapes corruption 140 years later—more so than overall economic prosperity, democratization, or the growth in education levels over time. We also show that former colonies had lower levels of educational attainment in 1870, though some (in Latin America) fared better than others (mostly British and French possessions in Africa and Asia). European and North American countries developed the welfare state first—and that state was able to provide education to a wide range of citizens. In colonies—and countries ruled by small elites (notably Turkey, China, and Japan)—only small numbers of young people were educated.
The Data and the Results

We examine the roots of contemporary corruption by examining the linkages with measures of educational attainment, inequality, and democratization in the 19th century—more specifically the period around 1870. There is nothing special about this period—we have no theoretical reason to believe that this date is special. We chose 1870 because it is the earliest date for which mean levels of schooling are available. We make no claim as to how long a country’s historical social and economic conditions will continue to shape its quality of governance. However, the results we present below indicate that such conditions matter at least a century and a half later.

Our measure of corruption is the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Transparency International for 2010 which is largely based on expert surveys.3 While some have criticized this measure (notably Abramo, 2005), others (Kaufmann, Kray, and Mastruzzi, 2007; Lambsdorff, 2005) have defended it and similar measures with vigor—and we find their responses convincing. Additional validation for this measure has come from two recent surveys of representative samples or citizens showing that measures based on the perceptions by “ordinary people” and experts correlate to a surprisingly high degree (Berchert & Quant 2009; Svallfors 2012). In the CPI, the most corrupt countries have the lowest scores on this index, the least corrupt the highest values. We use new data sets on historical levels of education developed by Morrison and Murtin (in press) and on historical income levels by Bourginon and Morrison as well as existing data on democratization, percent family farms, and percent Protestant.4

We begin with our central result. There is a striking relationship between the mean number of years of schooling in a country in 1870 and its level of corruption in 2010 (see Figure 1). Moving from the lowest levels of education (.01 for four African nations) to the highest (6.07 in Switzerland) leads to an increase in transparency of 7.06—the difference between Angola, the fourth most corrupt country, and Canada, the fifth least corrupt nation. Colonies in 1870 with almost no schooling were the most corrupt countries 140 years later while the most highly educated nations were the least corrupt. The relationship is very powerful: the r2 between 1870 educational levels and 2010 corruption levels is .699 across 78 countries. The legacy of the past in terms of broad based education matters for governance 140 years later.


Figure 1 about here

Is the mean number of school years simply a proxy for a country’s wealth? Yes, the two are strongly related (r = .777, N = 46). However, the level of education in 1870 shapes corruption far more than does GNP per capita in the same year—much as Murtin (n.d.) finds for mortality and fertility rates. The bivariate relationship between GNP per capita is weaker than that for education (r2 = .542, see Figure 2) . In the regression, the most educated country in 1870 is now 4.5 units less corrupt than the least corrupt country, while the wealthiest state is just 2.5 units less corrupt than the poorest colony (see Table 1).


Figure 2, Table 1 about here
Is it then all about the past? Mostly, though not completely. Note first that countries with high levels of education in 2010 also had more educated publics 140 years ago (r = .760). The countries with the greatest gains in levels of education were Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Italy—which had low levels of schooling 140 years earlier—as well as the mid-level countries of Australia and the United Kingdom. Sixteen of the countries with the biggest increase in mean school years were in the 20 most educated countries in 1870; and 17 of the 20 countries with the smallest growth in education were among the least educated third in 1870. Our regression predicting 2010 levels of corruption from both 1870 education levels and changes in schooling over 140 years shows that both are significant (Table 2). The impact of historical levels of education is 2.5 times that of change in education (6.36 units of the CPI corruption index compared to 2.71). However, there is evidence of a catch-up effect. Countries that had the fewest years of schooling in 1870 (less than two) had stronger growth in education levels—but, even here, the countries that were at the “top of the bottom” experienced the greatest growth rates in schooling ( r = .613).


Table 2 about here
What about political institutions? There were relatively few democratic regimes in the latter part of the 19th century compared to today. There are measures of democratization, though for fewer countries. We re-estimate the model in Table 2 including the Polity IV measure of democracy in 1870 (see n. 4). The sample size is reduced to 40 countries. But the story is straightforward: Democracy in the late 19th century doesn’t matter for contemporary levels of corruption. The coefficient is insignificant and going from the least to the most democratic nation increases transparency by a mere .27 points on the ten point scale. The mean level of education effect is 5.95 units and education level change leads to a 2.96 unit boost in transparency. This is not an issue of collinearity. The correlation between mean school years and democracy in 1870 is just .435 and the simple r between democracy in 1870 and corruption in 2010 is only .421, while the r between corruption and mean school years 140 years earlier is .825. In sum, the educational roots of corruption are much stronger than its democratic foundations.


Table 3 about here
What type of schooling matters? We show below that more inclusive (that is, universal) education in the latter part of the 19th century was more likely to be found where governments, rather than private groups (most notably missionaries), took responsibility for funding schools—and in countries where there was a greater degree of economic equality. Outside the West, much of the world in the late 19th century were either colonies or former colonies. The colonies had no control over their own budgets and the colonial powers paid scant attention to educating the public in their colonies. The Protestant churches in Western countries supported public education more than the Catholic churches did. Before the twentieth century regions with more Protestant individuals within the same European countries did have higher literacy rates, especially among non-elites and women than their catholic counterparts (Woodberry 2011). In Europe, the type of religion was more important than economic prosperity. Scandinavia, lowland Scotland, and Iceland were all very poor and yet had broad-based literacy. What they had in common was the Protestant religion that resulted in religiously financed literacy campaigns.

The Catholic Church invested in education only where it faced competition (such as in Ireland, North America and in the British colonies) or where facing a secularizing state such as France. However, where competition for the souls was lacking, education was not a prioritized area for the Catholic Church as the cases of Italy, Spain and Portugal clearly show. At times, the Catholic Church also feared literacy as this was seen as a means to a Protestant reformation (Gill 1998). Gill also argues that Protestantism more often stresses a personal relationship to God, while the Catholic religion sees that this rather is done by priestly meditation. The result, according to the author, is more activity by Protestant churches than among by the Catholic church for mass education. Protestantism also implied that everyone would need direct access to the word of God in the form of being able to read the Bible in their own language (Woodberry 2004). We do not argue that the content of religious principles made the difference. Instead, it was the existence of competition for the souls and the idea in Protestantism of each individual’s access to the “word” that made education more widespread and equal in Protestant countries. The Catholic Church had a different approach. As the Bible text was read in Latin and hence seldom translated, mass education was not a priority for the Catholic Church unless it was competing with Protestants or with a secular state.

There is also a connection between state-building and Protestantism. In several of the countries where Protestantism succeeded (England and the Nordic countries), the church became an official part of the state. This made it easier for these states to use the schools that was either run by the local parishes or in other ways heavily influenced by the clergy as instrument in for nationalistic state building, not least by influencing the content in disciplines such as history and literature (Tingsten, 1969). It seems reasonable to infer that a state that had this influence over the clergy, which in its turn ran the schools, would increase the state’s willingness to finance broad based education.

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