The Tyranny of Experts – William Easterly

“Development seems to be almost exclusively about the fate of nations rather than the fate of individuals. We seem to care more about Zambia than about Zambians.”

In the 4th century BC, Plato sailed to Sicily in order to help educate the tyrant Dionysius the Younger, the leader of the city of Syracuse. He believed he could turn him into a philosopher-king, the perfect leader of a country, despite his tyrannical tendencies. It did not turn out well. Plato would end up banished (though it could have been worse: the tyrant’s father had sold Plato into slavery when they disagreed) and the tyrant was bad as ever until he was overthrown in a coup.

Though he doesn’t mention Plato, Easterly worries about a similar modern problem. He points to the World Bank-supported theft of land from farmers in Uganda for a British company’s forestry project, about which the World Bank refused to conduct an investigation, or their support for development policies which resulted in the forced displacement at gunpoint of around 1.5 million farmers in Ethiopia so land could be leased to foreign investors, for which UK aid is now being sued. The development industry, he argues, has a nasty habit of accepting or supporting dictators and human rights abuses in its quest for development, accepting a false bargain of material development in exchange for overlooking human rights.

Development experts get all excited about their favourite policies, and then find that the democratic process to enact those policies is messy and slow. With the best of intentions, some turn to autocracies and let the end justify the means. This, Easterly argues, is not only immoral but also ineffective. In the short run, supporting an autocrat who rewards loyalists and punishes everyone else eliminates incentives for growth: in the long run, it leaves a legacy of poverty and poor human rights for generations (see Why Nations Fail for more on this).

As befits a book that emphasizes local context, each chapter begins with the specifics of an individual or region developing, from the Mouride Brotherhood, an Islamic order based in Senegal that produces wildly successful international traders, to Hyundai in South Korea. I was disappointed that, as Easterly himself admits, the data to decide whether autocracies are bad for growth just doesn’t exist, and the book is not really convincing in either direction, though there are certainly reasons for skepticism. Readers hoping to be convinced that China is bad or good for growth will be disappointed. Well taken, however, are his moral and long run criticisms: he rightly points out that in the absence of statistical fact about whether autocracies boost growth, the burden of proof surely lies with the side that violates human rights.

Disclosure: I read The Tyranny of Experts as a free advance reader copy – it is released on March 4th. You can get it here (or in the UK or Canada). I’ve also had the opportunity to see Easterly speak in person about one of his previous books; he’s an excellent speaker, for what it’s worth.

One thought on “The Tyranny of Experts – William Easterly

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