The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly, director of the Development Research Institute at New York University, opens with an indictment of the development community: "The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich, 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."

According to Easterly, "The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights" — an odd claim to make in 2014, given the recent focus by nongovernmental organizations, multilateral agencies, and donor governments on the rights of women and girls, small and medium-sized businesses, and stakeholder engagement in development efforts.

For Easterly, in contrast, "The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people is the moral tragedy of development today....Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist. Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them. One cannot avoid this moral choice by appealing to ‘nonideological’ evidence-based policies...."

To support his thesis, Easterly structures The Tyranny of Experts as a sort of "debate" between proponents of so-called "authoritarian" development and "free" development, with sections titled "The Blank Slate Versus Learning From History," "Nations Versus Individuals," and "Conscious Design Versus Spontaneous Solutions." At times, however, the book comes across less like a debate than a rambling jeremiad about the futility of applying one-size-fits-all technocratic approaches in underdeveloped countries. Indeed, the curious reader will soon find him- or herself wondering why the authoritarian development model that Easterly is so dismissive of was adopted by the development community decades before President Harry Truman announced the first U.S. foreign aid program in 1949. The answer, for Easterly, is self-evident: "[B]ecause it offered power and a rationalization of that power to...the Great Powers, the humanitarians in rich countries, and political leaders in poor countries."

Citing everything from the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, to the life stories of now-forgotten economists, to official reports and unofficial remarks, Easterly details how a technocratic approach to development enabled the victorious Allies "to justify or excuse racist, colonialist, or imperialist policies" by presenting themselves in the guise of the "benevolent autocrat, using [their] superior technology to better the welfare of colonial subjects." State-led technocratic development also provided a young Sun-Yat-sen with a plan to strengthen the Chinese economy and resist Western imperialism, while various African leaders used it as a way to legitimate their nations’ demands for independence and justify their unchecked power. Similarly, by limiting their funding to research on "facts and solutions" with the goal of providing "material benefits," private institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York were able to avoid charges of political favoritism and interference.

But while Easterly’s description of how the paternalistic development model was born of a marriage of political convenience between the public and private sectors rings true, it doesn’t much advance his argument that poverty is about rights, or a shortage thereof. For that, Easterly presents a hodgepodge of anecdotal historical evidence to argue that open, legal-based systems with checks and balances on government power — the kind of systems that tend to foster respect for individuals and individual rights — almost always prosper, while closed, autocratic systems — which tend to perpetuate collectivist values — do not. All of which leads him to suggest that long-term democratic capital is the most relevant variable for economic development. (He does not buy former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that collectivist "Asian values" produced that country’s economic miracle, for the simple reason that, according to Easterly, there was no miracle: East Asia’s per capita GDP, which had been on par with Europe’s in 1500, had fallen far behind by 1960.)

Unfortunately, the anecdotes Easterly has chosen often muddle his argument as much as they illuminate it. For example, in noting that Great Britain and the Netherlands prospered from trade with their New World colonies, becoming more oriented to individual rights as their respective trading classes grew in wealth and power, he doesn’t fully address the role of slavery as a lynchpin of that trade. He also details the economic and social evolution of a single New York City block from a "half-free" slave’s farm, to a red-light district, to a Depression-era shantytown, to a focal point of the Greenwich Village-based preservationist movement led by activist Jane Jacobs. Yet the ironic conclusion to Easterly’s tale is that the block now houses high-end boutiques and $2.7 million co-op apartments — a strange choice to illustrate the superior value of "free" as opposed to "authoritarian" development.

Another flaw in the technocratic approach, Easterly argues, is its reliance on frequently unreliable, short-term data. As an example, he points to recent improvements in child mortality rates in Ethiopia touted by Bill Gates and Tony Blair. But Gates’ emphasis on "setting clear goals, choosing an approach, measuring results and then using those measurement to continually refine our approach" is meaningless, writes Easterly, if government data allow for wide margins of error, as they do in this case. (Never mind that Gates himself has acknowledged the difficulty of using data to improve the delivery of effective interventions.) Economic data has its own problems, and Easterly notes that the inherent unreliability of GDP-related data "has received suspiciously little attention from those prone to worship national growth rates — that is, national policy makers and the experts and aid agencies set up to advise them."

One partial solution to the problem, he argues, is to use only long-term data. But such data invariably show that countries don’t matter, regions do. Indeed, a 1991 paper he co-authored with future Treasury secretary Larry Summers and "development superstars" Michael Kremer and Lant Pritchett "established just how little national policies actually do affect growth." And a series of papers published by others in the years since have shown that "most instances of economic reform do not produce growth accelerations." Nor does rule by autocrat matter; the temporary growth seen under some can be attributed to the economic volatility inherent in poor countries, which in many cases just happen to be ruled by autocrats. In fact, long-term historical data show that "[t]he growth advantage is with democrats."

Of course, the biggest problem with insisting that bottom-up solutions fostered by the long-term accumulation of democratic capital is the only effective way to reduce poverty is that it stops short of offering concrete suggestions for development model reforms. "We must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor," Easterly writes — a statement few, if any, would dispute. But his subsequent arguments about what we should do never quite cohere. Even his thesis that the real cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic systems that create opportunity for all is diffuse. Meandering anecdotes, section headings such as "Another Key Moment in This Book," and generalizations about "[t]he disrespect for poor people shown by agencies such as the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, with their stereotypes of wise technocrats from the West and the helpless victims from the Rest" don’t help the cause. As thought-provoking as some of Easterly’s analyses are, many readers on finishing the book are likely to be left thinking it might have benefited from a little top-down organization.