William Easterly’s “Tyranny of Experts” is an important and enjoyable book. Easterly aims to provoke a debate about the role of rights and freedom in development, and that he does. Not everyone will be sold on his argument, but this is a conversation worth having.
At the heart of the book is the contention that the development community has been getting things all wrong by betting the house on a technocratic, seemingly apolitical model of development that ended up empowering autocrats instead. Easterly traces this original sin back to the very origins of “development” as we understand it today, and he does it well. From the Rockefeller Foundation’s early engagement in China, the Kemmerer missions and the World Bank’s shift from European reconstruction to the rest of the world via Colombia, it’s all here – with Hayek, Myrdal, Hirschman and others making appearances along the way.
The book then rambles a bit, with chapters covering the economic history of individual rights, the importance of migration and lengthy excursions into the history of Greene Street in Manhattan. None of these vignettes are poorly done and the familiar reader can easily skim through them on to the next interesting part of the story, but the meandering does distract a bit from the powerful punch of the main message. It seems a bit gratuitous at times that this, that, and the other development topic is really just another case of autocratic development versus free development. Easterly then wraps up the book with a solid – and welcome – attack on the argument that benevolent dictators are good or even necessary for sustained growth in developing countries.
Easterly is not arguing for a massive all-or-nothing rights and democracy agenda to replace the current state of affairs. He is explicitly calling for tinkering and experimentation to replace grandiose development plans and goals. Instead of hoping for an ideal state of perfect freedom where development can then finally happen, it would be worth seeking marginal improvements to individual rights. He makes this point best by reference to China’s growth record, which in Easterly’s telling is not a case for autocratic development but an example of growth being fostered by a relative increase of (mostly economic) freedom following China’s reforms after 1978. Easterly still disapproves of the World Bank’s Jim Kim praising the Chinese government for its progress, because it is still an autocracy, but less of one than it was 35 years ago, which fits the overall argument.
In spite of its occasional lack of focus, there are two powerful points that I take away from this book, as well as two big concerns:
First, there is the well-founded critique of a development model that relies on ostensibly non-political plans and goals as an expression of technical expertise as the best way forward. It is hard to work in development for any amount of time without encountering this modus operandi, and just because it is so ubiquitous does not make it any less of a concern. Easterly cites plenty of development luminaries singing the praises of governments for their commitment to, or progress against, some international development goal – and then documents the atrocities and abuses committed by those same governments. He is making an important point. Just because we (as in the development community, however loosely defined) are keeping ourselves focused on technical issues, doesn’t mean our actions have no political and moral consequences. To try and ignore these issues doesn’t mean avoiding political and moral choices; they are made by default.
Second, it’s amazing just how little evidence there is that development by national plans and international goals works or ever has worked. It is one thing to say that handing over development to experts and national plans empowers nasty governments that present themselves as the expert custodians of the plan, and quite something else if then, in spite of all the costs, the plan doesn’t even work. And yet this way of thinking is not at all a memory of the days of failed industrial planning in the post-decolonization 1960s and 1970s, it is everywhere: think of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the Millenium Development Goals, or most recently the “New Deal” for fragile states. None of these approaches seem to be doing much good, with very little evidence on whether progress (or lack thereof) in country x has anything to do with the plan, or even happened despite the plan. Plenty of solid accounts have argued convincingly that instead there is a need for politically savvy, context-specific approaches that foster tinkering and marginal fixes – just note the recent work by Andrews,Carothers and de Gramont, Booth, and more polemically by Easterly himself once before. Yet the planning bonanza continues.
Now to the concerns. First of all, Easterly very neatly avoids offering much by way of advice on how to deal with the political and moral choices development actors face in much of the world. In fact he explicitly tries to indemnify himself against this very charge by stating right in the introduction that “this is not a how-to manual for aid workers and philanthropists”, which would work a lot better if he didn’t then so gleefully charge into the World Bank, the Gates Foundations and other aid agencies and philanthropic organizations for getting things wrong. Whatever one thinks about individual rights, many countries today are governed by states that are unwilling or unable to secure these rights for many people. Does that mean development actors cannot engage? Or should they work in such countries, but not with the government? At what point does engaging with unsavoury governments for the purpose of pushing them towards improved welfare or more freedom make one complicit in the horrible things such governments sometimes do? Should development actors who fight diseases abstain from praising autocrats for fighting diseases? These are real dilemmas, and there are no easy answers, but many people who work in this field agonize over them and are not blissful or malicious autocracy-enablers (see for instance Marta Foresti’s take).
Second, Easterly betrays a strangely limited idea of the state that is hampered by his heavy reliance on economics, a discipline not exactly known for its nuanced understanding of politics. Easterly’s reliance on economists goes to the point of calling Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist with a PhD in international relations who’s first claim to fame was a work of political philosophy, a “notable development economist” – hopefully an editorial mistake. Or when he claims that “political economy” was “invented by economists” in the 1980s – Schumpeter, Marx and a few others may take exception here.
In Easterly’s view, development planners aided and enabled autocrats, but he doesn’t speak about how governments might have turned out without the intervention of external development actors. Different forms of autocracy and abuse have been around for ages before development, or the Enlightenment, for that matter. Easterly notes the capacity of states to deprive people of their rights, but speaks not about the role states play in enabling them. He emphasizes Adam Smith and the importance of spontaneous solutions, mostly by individuals, but where is Max Weber in this account? A legitimate monopoly on violence can be abused to abuse people, but isn’t that still better than a Hobbesian free-for-all? There is a lot of political science and public administration scholarship that speaks to these issues and that could have nuanced Easterly’s discussion of states in developing countries. In fact, Fukuyama’s own work on political orders might have been a good place to start.
My two concerns are closely related. If development is understood as sustained growth, and we know that governments have preciously little to do with bringing high growth about, then it is natural to emphasize the negative role of governments as perpetrators of oppression. But if development is also an institutional transformation that crucially includes establishing a functional modern state able to protect its citizens and provide them with welfare, then it is much harder to dismiss the states that exist in the developing world today. Dealing with them sometimes poses profound political and moral dilemmas, but if they are the only game in town, what else can you do?
These are important questions to debate, and credit to Easterly for putting the spotlight on them.