Democracy, quality of government, and the average voter

Piergiuseppe Fortunato, Ugo Panizza

04 June 2011



The standard efficiency argument in favour of democracy is based on the idea that free elections are an effective instrument for ousting inept and corrupt politicians (e.g. Sen 2000). This view, however, is based on the assumptions that voters are capable of monitoring and evaluating government actions.

The ability of monitoring elected officials, in turn, depends on the availability of high quality information about the actions of these officials. A recent literature finds that increased media presence improves electoral accountability (Besley and Burgess 2002) and that better rules and practices of disclosure by politicians are associated with lower corruption (Djankov et al. 2010).

In order to evaluate the actions of politicians, voters need to be able to process the available information and understand the impact of the actions of elected officials on their welfare. Voters unable to process information and make rational decisions are as ineffective as uninformed voters. Winston Churchill, who had a dismal view on voters' ability to process information, once said: “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

But from where does this ability to process information come from? It seems reasonable to assume that higher education should increase citizens' ability to make rational electoral choices and that a country's average level of education should be positively associated with civic culture. According to Almond and Verba (1963), “the uneducated man or the man with limited education is a different political actor from the man who has achieved a higher level of education”.

In a recent paper (Fortunato and Panizza 2011), we develop a simple model of candidate selection in which the outcome of the electoral process is determined by the interplay between the level of democracy and that of education. In the model, politicians of different quality decide whether they should run for office by taking into account the probability of winning the electoral competition. We show that democratic institutions and education complement each other. Democracy leads to the election of better politicians only if the level of education is above a certain threshold. Improvements in the level of education, in turn, can only affect the quality of the elected officials if the cost of entry into politics is not prohibitive (i.e. in democratic systems). Our model has also something to say about corruption. In particular, we find that, even though high-quality politicians are not inherently more honest than low-quality politicians, more competent elected officials endogenously adopt a more honest behaviour.

When we take the model to the data we find support for the idea that the correlation between democracy and the quality of government is statistically significant only in countries with high levels of education. Figure 1 illustrates these findings. We plot first the relationship between the quality of government and democracy at different levels of education (left panel of Figure 1) and show that the relationship is negative (but not statistically significant) for countries with low levels of education (fewer than 4 years) and becomes positive and statistically significant when average education reaches 8 years. Analogously, the relationship between the quality of government and education (right panel of Figure 1) is insignificant for low and intermediate levels of democracy but it becomes positive and statistically significant in countries that are deemed to be fully democratic.

Figure 1. Democracy, education and the quality of government

In the paper, we acknowledge the potential endogeneity of our core explanatory variables and run a set of Monte Carlo simulations aimed at testing the robustness of the results. We find that our results are fairly robust. Even the presence of extreme endogeneity would not reverse our estimations.

Our research suggests that the success of democracy ultimately relies on the quality of the average voter. Democratic elections do not help (and may possibly harm) in the recruitment of a competent and honest political elite in countries with largely uneducated populations. At the same time, education and political consciousness of the masses improve the quality of elected officials only if channelled through democratic institutions. One caveat of our work is that our model abstracts form political actions that take place outside the traditional electoral process. Recent work by Campante and Chor (2011) suggests that, by increasing the probability of uprisings, education may provide incentives for good government even in non-democratic regimes.


Almond, G and S Verba (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Sage Publication.

Besley, T and R Burgess (2002), “The political economy of government responsiveness: Theory and evidence from India”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117(4),1415-1452.

Campante, FR and D Chor (2011), “‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime’: Schooling, Political Protest, and the Economy”, Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP11-018.

Djankov, S, E Glaeser, R La Porta, F Lopez-de-Silanes, and A Shleifer (2010), “Disclosure by Politicians”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2:179-209.

Fortunato, P, and U Panizza (2011), “Democracy, Education and the Quality of Government”, POLIS Working paper 155.

Sen, A (2000), Development as Freedom, Alfred A Knopf.



Topics:  Education Politics and economics

Tags:  education, democracy, politics

Economist, United Nation Conference for Trade and Development

Professor of Economics and Pictet Chair at the Graduate Institute, Geneva; Research Fellow, CEPR