The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor Hardcover – Mar 4 2014
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New York Times Book Review
Bracingly iconoclastic.... Easterly’s stories unfailingly reinforce a select number of crucial themes, the boldest being that the people of the so-called underdeveloped world have been systematically betrayed by the technocrats in charge of the global development agenda.”
Eduardo Porter, New York Times
"William Easterly ...is one of the profession's most determined skeptics...In the real world, Professor Easterly says, development occurs as people identify problems and push for solutions through their political systems. Setting goals that nobody is truly responsible for achieving not only misrepresents what causes poverty but also substitutes goal setting for real action.”
Los Angeles Times Review of Books
There is something indomitable about William Easterly, and he has struck the development establishment where it is weakest: its appalling human rights record.”
[Easterly] is one of the most consistently interesting and provocative thinkers on development.”
A provocative book that will rile the development world. But it deserves to be read by all those technocrats who jet around the planet with their simplistic top-down solutions, often ignoring rights they themselves take for granted. Ultimately, it is a timely blast against the complacency of those who think progress and prosperity can be detached from politics.”
Times of London
This powerful polemic against top-down aid projects convinces.”
A passionate, if fitful, argument against the conventional approach to economic development.”
Easterly (New York University) has written a book that grabs a reader’s attention from the first sentence .Highly recommended”
Readable and fascinating.... I found a valuable if somewhat iconoclastic read and would recommend it to anyone in the social sector”.
Cato Institute's Regulation
"The Tyranny of Experts is intellectual comfort food for people who are skeptical of the idea that the only things standing between us and a world free of poverty are insufficient funding and political will.”
Shelf Awareness for Readers
Easterly makes essential points about human rights, the need to accommodate local factors in developing countries and the terrible mistakes that can result from deals with corrupt regimes or self-interested organizations. His argument is made with passion and ample illustration.”
Tyranny of Experts takes various tacks--historical, theoretical, technological, statistical--to explain, in theory and in practice, why international development economics should fundamentally rethink its premises and practices.”
A provocative traverse of history and philosophy.”
"Easterly delivers a scathing assault on the anti-poverty programs associated with both the United Nations and its political and private sector supporters....A sharply written polemic intended to stir up debate about the aims of global anti-poverty campaigns."
Easterly's research may help start a dialog about identifying better methods for alleviating global poverty and should assist readers interested in humanitarian efforts who want to draw their own conclusions about how to aid the world's poor."
Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development
This book is deeply radical and thought-provoking, and brilliantly entertaining. Easterly invokes Kahneman, Hayek, Hirschman; the free cities of 12th century Genoa and 18th century New York; the Erie Canal, Fujian and Benin; the "prison" of the nation state; the new generation of econometrics applied to human history, and more in making his argument: It is individual rights and political freedoms that safeguard spontaneous, shared and sustained development, and the prevailing technocratic approach subverts those rights at great cost to the global poor its adherents would help. Development insiders will, with some justification, complain about one-sidedness and exaggeration. But no one who starts this book will be able to put it down, or be able to undo its influence on her thinking about the deep determinants of development progress.”
Angus Deaton, Professor of Economics and International Affairs, Princeton University
Knowledge and expertise are fountainheads of prosperity and freedom, yet experts, especially foreign experts, have frequently been instruments of the very oppression that they seek to alleviate. The Tyranny of Experts tells the extraordinary story of authoritarian development. Those not familiar with Easterly’s previous books are in for a revelation, and the many long time aficionados will be delighted to be back in the hands of the master.”
Paul Romer, New York University
"Easterly's new book shows that the expert approach to development rests on an engrained but unexamined premise: that people in poor countries cannot be trusted to make their own decisions. As this wide-ranging and compelling account shows, this assumption is doubly flawed. It's morally offensive and a sure guide to bad policy."
Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University
"Bill Easterly is simply the most interesting and provocative economist writing on development topics today."
Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winner, Professor of Economics at Columbia University
"In this impassioned book, William Easterly draws on a wealth of examples from history and from around the world to support his forceful call for a radical transformation in the way the world views development. Easterly shows that many of the contemporary debates about the nature of development have their roots in history and he argues that the rights of the individual and democratic values should not be trampled on by those seeking faster economic growth."
Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University
"Bill Easterly is the development economist, and he has come up with yet another striking and original success. This is the book that puts together the role of government, the failures of experts, and the best way forward into one comprehensive package."
About the Author
William Easterly is a professor of economics at New York University and a director of NYU's award-winning Development Research Institute. He lives in New York City.
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To put it in an aphorism, they didn't ask the people if they would rather get respect and no aid rather than aid and no respect.
Easterly sees the consequences of this dominance as being tragic, with governments and their hired experts having run roughshod over the interests of poor people. His book provides many examples of callous remarks by development officials dismissing the hardships their policies have imposed on people whose lives were plenty hard enough to begin with. Easterly is skeptical of the technocratic, data-driven policies that Bill Gates has been associated with in recent years, doubting the reliability of both the data these policies are based on and the rosy assessments of the outcomes of the policies.
Easterly worked for years at the World Bank and had a ringside seat at the formulation and implementation of the Bank's polices, most of which he now sees as ineffective and, often, counterproductive. He certainly has the credentials to make these arguments; it will be interesting to see what counterarguments the development policy establishment makes. I would hate to think that Easterly's arguments will be ignored, but he notes that similar arguments in the past have been.
Much as I like the book, I do have a few caveats. I like the fact that the book is fairly brief and very readable -- I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been! -- but the scholarship seemed a trifle thin to me. Particularly the first few chapters, which deal with the origins of development policy as found in British policy during the later stage of the empire, policy in Nationalist China, and U.S. policy in Latin America, seem to rely heavily on a few secondary sources. Even then, I'm not sure how thoroughly he has read some of these sources. For instance, in discussing Harry Dexter White's views at the Bretton Woods conference, he relies on Steil's recent book on Bretton Woods. But Steil makes rather a big deal of White's having turned out to be a Soviet agent, a fact that Easterly doesn't mention, although it would appear to provide additional insight into why White supported authoritarian policies.
Easterly also indulges in a little too much "roadmapping" of the "as we saw in the last chapter" and "having discussed x, we will now discuss y" and "once we finish discussing y, we will discuss z in the following two chapters." Kind of reminded me of an undergraduate term paper.
These are quibbles, though. Easterly has written an important book. One that I hope Bill Gates and the rest of the development policy establishment feel obliged to come to grips with.
In The Tyranny of Experts, the author of the seminal book The White Man’s Burden drills down into the history of economic development around the world in search of its causes. What he finds has little to do with any of the factors bandied about among contemporary development professionals.
“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” William Easterly writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”
Instead, Easterly maintains, the fundamental pre-condition for successful development is democracy paired with deep understanding of local history. He calls the establishment of the World Bank “the moment of original sin . . . in which the Bank disavowed the ideals of freedom . . .”
Academia has been good to William Easterly. Presumably, when he was forced out of the World Bank because of his outspoken criticism of the Bank’s support for corrupt regimes and pro-Western favoritism, he was looking for a platform on which he could continue his campaign to shift the consensus among development professionals from top-down “solutions” to support for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. He’s gotten that platform, but his position on the faculty of New York University has also moved him to dig more deeply into the intellectual roots of his thinking. The Tyranny of Experts is one result.
This book is intellectually very ambitious. Easterly finds the common denominator for successful development not in policies, procedures, or leaders but in an environment in which the rights of poor people are respected. On the most fundamental level, he insists, the biggest success stories in development are to be found in what we’ve grown used to calling “the West.” In these rich countries, democratic government accountable to voters left them essentially free to exercise their genius for innovation. Variations on the capitalist system provided the incentives for individual initiative and hard work, the result of which has been a meteoric increase in per capita income during the past two centuries in the West, compared with a slow increase for the Rest. Yet development professionals ignore the stunning, long-range success of the West and turn instead to models based on short-term (and usually temporary) growth spurts.
In recent decades, it has been fashionable to point to China as proof that development is best facilitated by “benevolent tyrants.” Easterly finds this argument unconvincing for at least three reasons:
(1) The major boost to Chinese productivity, and hence the biggest factor in increasing the country’s per capita income, was the grassroots movement among farmers freed from collective farms to till their own land. This development began taking hold in 1978, at the same time as Deng Xiao Peng’s accession to power, but had as much to do with the Chinese breakthrough as Deng’s actions as Secretary of the Communist Party. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the Party made official the dispersion of landholding that was already widespread throughout the country.
(2) Easterly proves that the only factor that correlates closely with sustained, high-octane development is regionalism. China, after all, lies in East Asia, home of what Easterly calls the “Gang of Four” breakthrough economies (otherwise known as the “Asian Tigers”): Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Statistical analysis proves that’s no accident.
(3) The anonymous spread of the potato “increased the calories, vitamins, and nutrients produced by a given amount of land, thus sustaining a larger population” and offers “more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower” than any conscious policy of the Party, much less of Premier Deng. I found this claim so puzzling that I checked out Easterly’s facts: lo and behold, the American Journal of Potato Research reported more than a decade ago that “China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India.” (Who knew? I can’t recall ever seeing potatoes in a Chinese meal!)
One of the most valuable aspects of this book is Easterly’s habit of finding revealing truths in areas others never consider. The importance of the potato to China is just one example. Another is his conclusion that “one of the regional factors that held back African development was that Africa had too many nations.” (It’s obvious — once you read the book.)
The Tyranny of Experts is a brilliant inquiry into economic history, with excursions into political science, sociology, and other disciplines. By making a solid case for individual initiative as the driving force in development rather than the policies of leaders, William Easterly has made a major contribution to the field. However, there in one major area in which I take issue with the author.
Economist that he is, Professor Easterly uses per capita income as the exclusive measure of development. This choice is problematic both because it’s a poor reflection of the well-being of poor people (who are, after all, the principal concern of the field) and because it presumes that economic growth — the output of more and more stuff — is necessarily good. If I earn $700 per year (about $2 per day) and Bill Gates earns $2 billion, it’s small comfort to me that our “per capital income” is $1,000,000,350. And if Mr. Gates consumes enough water and electricity to maintain his 66,000-square foot house that could otherwise meet the needs of . . . well, lots of people, that’s far from good for the planet — or for you or me. (Not so incidentally, Easterly calls out Bill Gates for special criticism for his exaggerated faith in quantifying change.)
Incidentally, I also note that in two references in his book to those who comprise “development professionals” Easterly includes only staff of the World Bank, the United Nations, and the overseas aid agencies of national governments. He excludes NGOs, many of which employ large numbers of professionals working in development programs throughout the Global South. I find this peculiar.
There is so much more that’s worthy of comment in this outstanding book that I can’t possibly do justice to it in this short review. All I can say is, if you’re involved in any way in economic development work, or simply concerned about ending poverty, The Tyranny of Experts is essential reading. Despite its flaws, it’s simply brilliant.
To make his point, Easterly examines a broad range of statistics, anecdotes, documents and quotes from development experts and organizations. Criticizing the supposedly apolitical approach of organizations like the World Bank, he shows how development institutions have undermined individual rights. In this he is certainly not alone - much of the book reminded me of a kind of cross between Michael Goldman's "Imperial Nature" and any of Paul Farmer's books about individual rights and development (perhaps "Pathologies of Power" would be a decent comparison). A significant contribution Easterly makes to this body of development literature is that he includes a brief and selective analysis of how cultural values, individual rights, and economic growth go hand in hand. Drawing on academic studies, he shows how democracy and cultural freedom work in a virtuous feedback loop; where oppression has taken place, social trust tends to be very low, which hinders the development of democracy and individual rights. This is a significant insight, although clearly made previously by the studies that Easterly cites.
Surprisingly, while Easterly examines the British Empire and American international engagement from the standpoint of political rights, tracing the strand of imperial-minded racism that tainted the origins of the development community, he attributes economic growth in Britain and America almost solely to political freedom (more by declining to mention empire and territorial expansion outside of the political context than by making this argument explicitly). Yes, there is a statistical link, as he recognizes, between the existence of checks on authoritarian power in Western European countries at the beginning of Atlantic trade and their benefit from that trade (p. 137-139). Furthermore, individual incentives play an important role in invention and technological development as well as trade and weathering economic shifts. Yet I feel that this book comes up short by being somewhat selective in the histories that it tells as well as glossing over the exploitation permitted (some would say created) by markets. We can agree that individual rights are essential and valuable as ends in themselves. While criticizing the development community for overlooking history, Easterly holds up the countries with individual rights for their citizens as examples for other societies/political entities to follow yet gives short shrift to the history of economic development in these countries themselves. America grew to its current status as a world economic leader because of individual rights, but also because of the expropriation of land in North America, the development (alongside individual rights) of an expansionist attitude in culture, and financial power that extracts value from beyond its own borders. Individual rights in Britain at the beginning of Atlantic trade may have helped the island nation gain technological advantages and dominate sea trade, but raw materials from the empire and the exploitation of workers in Manchester factories also played a large role in getting Britain to where it is today. Easterly's selectivity suggests that there is a lot of work to be done in bringing a broader history of development to light.
To a large extent, development has become a business that is about sustaining itself, whereas it should be about ultimately eliminating the need for a development community. In advancing this viewpoint, Easterly is doing a service to many. Having worked in both local and international development organizations, I will say that despite my reservations, Easterly achieves his goal of contributing to the development debate in a way that opens the floor for future conversation and research.
The bottom line: While it may not be completely groundbreaking, I do think Easterly's latest book does a good job synthesizing information on the recent history of development and pulling together various strands of theory (economic, political, and cultural) into the development debate. It is a worthwhile read.
But Easterly's book is inadequate for a number of reasons which I will just note. I developed this more in a blog entry I wrote.
Easterly's concern is too focused on what I might call "economic freedom" as opposed to "state intervention." He seems to see little middle ground between "free enterprise" and "the authoritarian state" - or development agencies.
Easterly seems to see most everything in black and white terms with several dichotomies:
• Free development versus autocratic development
• Conscious direction versus spontaneous evolution
• Blank Slate versus learning from history
• Nations versus individuals
• Individualistic versus collectivist values
I don't think the world - or human society - is so structured.
I also think his view of development is narrow, since it is focused on economic development. There is more to development than money. I think there can be really just societies where the incomes are low. It's not always a question of money.
There is much more that I find problematic - partly because I believe he is working from a faulty understanding of what the human person is. His individualist understanding of the person owes more to some US and European economists than to a careful philosophical consideration of the person.
There are also problems in his logic, especially in the way he intimates - while denying - that correlation and causation are linked.
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