Education As A Public Good: A Digest

Many understand intuitively the notion of education as a public good. Broader approaches to societal development are often harder to “sell” than narrowly focused reforms that try to achieve “one thing at a time”. This may help to explain why the powerful intellectual leadership of Manmohan Singh in bringing about the needed economic reforms in India in 1991 was so concentrated on “liberalization” only, without a corresponding focus on the much needed broadening of social opportunities.

There is a deep complementarity between reducing the overactivity of the state in running a “license Raj”, and removing the under activity of the state in the continuing neglect of elementary education and other social opportunities.


Close to half the adult Indians are illiterate and quite unable to participate in an increasingly globalized economy. In the United Kingdom, less than one per cent of adults in England would be described as completely illiterate, although this absolute definition is not often used.

[Page 127; Development as Freedom  by Amartya Sen]


“More common is the use of the term “functionally literate”’. Around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as “functionally illiterate”. They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems. Many areas of employment would not be open to them with this level of literacy and they may also struggle to support their children with reading and homework, or perform other everyday tasks.


Of these approximately 5.2 million, around 3.5 million are at the upper end of the scale and have strengths and weaknesses in particular areas, rather than being at the same level for all areas of literacy. Most feel more comfortable with reading than with writing. Around 5 per cent, or 1.7 million adults in England, have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.”

[National Literacy Trust: Taken from internet 15/11/2014:]


Combining extensive use of markets with the development of social opportunities is part of a broader more comprehensive approach which emphasizes the important nature of freedoms of other kinds such as democratic rights, security guarantees, opportunities of cooperation and so on. The identification of different instrumental freedoms is based on the valuation of their respective roles as well as recognising and valuing their complementarities.


Instrumental freedoms serve to accomplish certain goals as a means or an instrument to achievement. These include economic entitlements, democratic freedoms, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security. This line of thinking is illustrated by many thinkers including Hernando de Soto, who argues that to achieve healthy economy, the people of a given society must be represented by the law, and feel represented by the it. In short, the law of property rights underpins the exchange of property. For discussion and criticisms on De Soto’s work:


The shared communal benefits of basic education, which may transcend the gains of the person being educated, may be thought of as a public good component as well, as means for private gain. The persons receiving education benefit from it, but in addition a general expansion of education and literacy in a region can facilitate positive social change such as the reduction of birth rate and mortality. It also acts to enhance economic progress from which others can benefit too.


The effective reach of education services may require cooperative activities and provisioning by the state or the local authorities. The state has typically played a major role in the expansion of basic education across the world. The rapid spread of literacy in the past history of today’s rich countries has drawn on the low cost of public education combined with its shared public benefits.


It is remarkable that some market enthusiasts recommend now to the developing countries that they should rely fully on the free market even for basic education – thereby withholding from them the very process of educational expansion that was crucial in rapidly spreading literacy in Europe, North America, Japan, and East Asia in the past. The alleged followers of Adam Smith can learn something from his writings on this subject, including his frustration at the parsimony of public expenditure in the field of education:


“For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people, the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education” (Smith, Wealth of Nations; 1976 Campbell and Skinner edition; volume 1; book 2; page 27; and volume 5; book 1; f; page 785)


The “public goods” argument for going beyond the market mechanism (Free Market Ideology) supplements the case for social provisioning that arises from the need of basic capabilities, such as elementary health care and basic educational opportunities. Efficiency considerations support the argument for supporting public assistance in providing basic education, health facilities and other public (or semi-public) goods.


This article is primarily a digest of his work and aims to inform the reader of the arguments running through the book Development as Freedom surrounding education and its relation to economics and welfare.  To assist people in comparing the original text, place notes have been studded throughout this to help you reference the original source:

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

Oxford Paperbacks; New Edition (18 Jan 2001)

ISBN: 0192893300