What explains the motivation to participate in criminal activities? Is education likely to have a systematic effect on the incentive to participate in criminal activities?

(CAFRED thanks Sr. Diego Paredes for submitting the following article. Articles submitted by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of CAFRED and cited data may or may not have been verified by CAFRED. CAFRED welcomes comments addressing points raised in the article. We encourage submission of third-party opinion pieces in the spirit of debate about education in El Salvador and Central America.)

By Diego Paredes, B.A. degree in International Relations with a concentration in conflict

resolution from Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

There are several studies that focus on analyzing the relationship between education and crime. Most of them are built on economic models that prove a negative relationship between these two concepts even if they don’t show a causal effect of one on the other. (It is worth noting that in economic models, a “negative” relationship means that while the independent variable increases, the dependent variable decreases; in the case of these studies, if schooling rates increase, incarceration rates decrease). Among the most important studies on this matter are those by Lochner and Moretti (2004), Ehrlich (1975) or Lochner (2007). These authors base their findings on economic theory, arguing that the development of formal skills through education, increase the likelihood to have higher wages in the job market, thus increasing the opportunity costs of incurring in illegal activities.[1] For example, Lochner (2007) explains how each potential crime entails an expected period of incarceration, which is more costly for individuals with better labor market opportunities and wages.[2] Ehrlich, on the other hand, says that people that achieve higher schooling levels have less incentive to participate in crime relative to those who don’t stay in school. Since many of them specialize voluntarily in acquiring education and therefore view their opportunity cost of time not in terms of their potential current earnings but in relation to the expected future returns on their investment in human capital.[3] However, authors like Moises Naim (2006) while also basing his arguments on economic theory, give it a different perspective in saying that crime is driven by high profits, not ethics or low morals.[4] This theoretical approach says that economic incentives explain why criminals do what they do, even at the cost of temporary setbacks that would give most people pause, such as long jail sentences;[5] precisely the opposite argument from the studies mentioned earlier.

Ehrlich also says that in contrast to crimes such as robbery, payoffs on crimes such as fraud, forgery, embezzlement and illegal commercial practices may depend on education and legitimate training.[6] However, he doesn’t follow along with this statement that focuses on a particular type of crime: white collar crime. The only other study I have been able to find that talks about the “positive” contribution of education to criminal activities is Misha Glenny’s McMafia (2008). Although he refers specifically to cybercrime, he says that it is the result of an equally complex mix. There are several prerequisites, but three are paramount: steep levels of poverty and unemployment; a high standard of basic educational levels and the presence of more traditional organized crime forms.[7] He then explains why countries like Brazil, India, Russia and China, who all meet these “prerequisites”, are the world’s leaders in cybercrime. This statement differs widely from those previously mentioned in saying that in this particular case, high standards of education actually contribute to the presence of a type of crime. This theoretical explanation can be further related to those crimes of grand corruption, where most of its perpetrators are highly educated individuals. Therefore, when does education help prevent crime and when does it not? One instinctive thought would be that it is not just about “education”, but the quality of it; this is the real challenge, to keep a righteous mindset in people’s behavior and the only way to achieve such thing is through quality education that understands and is coherent with the characteristics of each society.


[1] Lance Lochner, Education and Crime, International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd. Edition, 2007.

[2] Ibid. p. 2

[3] Isaac Ehrlich. “On the Relation between Education and Crime”, in Education, Income and Human Behavior, ed. F. Thomas Juster.  National Bureau of Economic Research. 1975. P. 322

[4] Moises Naim, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy [Kindle Edition], Anchor, 2006. P.239.

[5] Ibid. p. 240.

[6] Ehrlich. P. 322.

[7] Misha Glenny, McMafia [Kindle Edition], Vintage, 2008. P. 273

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