It stands to reason that compared to the poor, rich people educate their children more. That’s because they have more wealth and can spend more on education. Rich countries therefore have a more educated population compared to the poor, which naturally implies that their populations are more literate. But since at some time in the past every currently rich and literate country was poor and illiterate, it’s interesting to ask which came first — the literacy or the wealth.
Literacy comes Before
The positive correlation between wealth and literacy suggests causation. The direction of causation can be inferred from the historical evidence. Literacy levels went up first and then economic growth followed. Those countries that are still poor today are those that have low literacy levels. This causal relationship is easily established analytically. In the previous post “What Comes Before” I noted that literacy makes agriculture more productive, makes the released labor employable in non-agricultural sectors and consequently increases productivity. Policy implications follow.
Literacy is an absolutely fundamental skill but it is also a most unnatural skill. We don’t need to be taught to speak or comprehend the spoken word. Every one of us learned naturally, without any instructions, the language(s) we were immersed in as children. But reading and writing have to be taught and learned, and usually involves considerable effort and cognitive costs. Learning that skill, however, is highly rewarding. It opens up an amazing world of ideas. Nearly all other learning requires a foundation of literacy. Without it, a person is incomprehensibly handicapped to the point of being mentally crippled in a world of ubiquitous technology.
Here’s a true story. At the guest house of a major multinational corporation in New Delhi some years ago, I asked the caretaker whether he used the internet during this spare time. The place had computers for the guests to use for the web. They were hardly used and I told the caretaker that he would be able to learn a great deal by using them. I offered to teach him the basics. He thanked me and said that he couldn’t because he was illiterate.
Speaking for myself, I would be figuratively blind, deaf and dumb if I could not read and write. Life would have been immeasurably harder for me if I had not received the education I did — all based on the fundamental learned skill of reading and writing. So it is easy for me to understand that anyone else who cannot read and write is figuratively blind, deaf and dumb. That handicap effectively closes off so many opportunities to live and to work that it predictably leads to individual poverty. Consider then what effect it has on the economy of a nation when a significant share of the population — hundreds of millions in India’s case — are not literate, leave alone not educated.
The Literacy Barrier
We live in a world awash in technology. I use the term “technology” for brevity to mean “products of technology”. It is the use of technology that increases the individual’s (and therefore the collective’s) productivity. The ability to use technology depends at a minimum on literacy. If the collective cannot use technology, it produces little and that leads to widespread poverty.
India is a poor country and poverty is widespread. There are many causes for that dismal state of affairs, ranging from poor governance and bad policies to resource constraints. But the most critical barrier to prosperity is the lack of universal literacy. No country in the history of mankind has developed without it. I would willingly eat my shoes if you can point out an exception to that necessary condition for a country’s prosperity.
Note that universal literacy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for prosperity. So now on to the policy implications.
Around the time of India’s independence, literacy rate was around 30 percent. Now the percentage has gone up to around 60 percent. (We can quibble with those numbers but that does not affect the validity of this argument.) The absolute number of illiterates in India has gone up — from around 225 million to 480 million — since 1947. Of all the stupidities that the government then (thanks to the incompetence of Nehru & his bunch of miserable minions), not ensuring that India becomes 100 percent literate within a decade stands out as the costliest. All they did was to put the government in charge of education and quite predictably that resulted in the disaster we see today.
Did I say that Nehru was incompetent? Sorry, I meant Nehru was criminally incompetent. And those that followed him were not all that much different. No surprise there since most of them were his spawn.
I hear that there is talk of the New Delhi government making free wifi available for the public. Spending public money on luxuries when the bare essentials are unfunded is insanely bizarre and surrealistic. These people who promote such indefensible waste of public funds are following in the hallowed footsteps of Nehru the Nabob of Cluelessness.
It is possible to achieve 100 percent literacy in India. Unnatural though literacy is, it is easily mastered by all except the congenitally mentally handicapped or the very old. In 2004, I had advanced a scheme to achieve 100 percent literacy within three years. After 11 years, the proposal still stands.
In the next bit, I will probably discuss technology. If there is a demand, there will be a supply.