The Tyranny of Experts
Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
William Easterly, 2014
In the words of Nobel laureate and fellow development scholar Amartya Sen, Bill Easterly is "The Man Without a Plan". If there's one thing you need to know about Easterly, it's that he considers this a great compliment.
Bill Easterly burst out of academia and onto the broader stage of the Western chattering classes in 2007, with his book The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Opening a debate that had been simmering in academic development economics for some time, The White Man's Burden made the bold suggestion that vicious competition for Western aid resources was tearing the developing world apart, and that true growth for the world's poorest needed to be built from the ground up, not imposed by a Western technocratic elite.
The White Man's Burden came hot on the heels of Jeffrey Sachs's diametrically opposed bestseller The End of Poverty, and turned many people on to a vitally important debate about not only how we spend our aid budgets, but about the question of having them at all. Seven years on, The Tyranny of Experts reads a lot like the lost chapters of The White Man's Burden, the academically interesting but less crucial extension of Easterly's original argument.
To be absolutely clear, Bill Easterly is a man with an intense empathy for the world's poorest, and someone whose entire career has been motivated by a burning desire to help them. You won't find a trace of selfishness between the covers of The Tyranny of Experts, no miserly arguments that we need to focus on our own citizens first, none of the false ethics that claim that we have no responsibility to our fellow humans because we didn't cause their problems, and certainly no subtly racist suggestions that the world's poor can't be helped due to some sort of 'backwards culture' that doesn't respect human brilliance and achievement.
The divine right of kings is now the development right of dictators
Instead, Easterly makes an impassioned case that the one thing that is holding back the developing world more than anything else today is extractive governments, a point which I'll return to shortly. Unfortunately, says Easterly, the myopic focus of technocratic solutions in development aid means that development agencies have become bound to support dictators, the only agents capable of effecting these policies on the ground. Nobody but the most hardened conspiracy theorist would believe that the World Bank schemed to burn down the houses of rural Ugandans, but it isn't the World Bank who execute these plans, and nobody would dispute that Yoweri Museveni is willing to use violence in service of his plans. Such are the devils with which our development agencies have dealt.
Unfortunately, The Tyranny of Experts suffers from two main problems, both the inevitable consequences of any project to discuss the problems facing two billion people in a four hundred page book.
Firstly, Easterly paints with far too broad a brush, which makes it dangerously easy for his discontents to caricature and dismiss him. Outside of The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly has acknowledged the successes of many international aid efforts, such as the provision of deworming drugs or the global effort to stop the spread of HIV. His position is probably best characterised as "urging caution in the face of unbridled optimism", but regrettably, this nuance is not captured in The Tyranny of Experts.
The second failing is an overly simplistic description of the role of governments and institutions in development. Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution fame) called The Tyranny of Experts "Easterly's most libertarian book", and he's right in the sense that Easterly's account of the centrality of institutions is unlikely to win over anyone who didn't agree to start with. It's an immensely interesting and vitally important topic, but I'd recommend Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (review forthcoming), and Development as Freedom (review also forthcoming) by Amartya Sen as two vastly more compelling books on the subject.
However, one part of the book really shines without caveat, and that's the last chapter. If you, or anyone you know, still believes the myth of the benevolent autocrat, you owe it to yourself to read it. Easterly delivers a compelling statistical argument against the lies of 'good' dictators, along with a comprehensive account of the psychological biases that cause many to believe the myth despite this data. When combined with the cultural and philosophical arguments (anyone who tries to justify East Asian autocracies by invoking "Confucian culture" is either a fool who knows nothing about Chinese philosophy, or a liar who is hoping that you don't) that Amartya Sen provides in Development as Freedom, the two provide a knockout combination that can hopefully rid people's minds from the lies of these moralistic dictators once and for all.
Overall, I think that The Tyranny of Experts would be a good read for someone with little exposure to the institutional debate in development economics. However, it ultimately doesn't add a whole lot for someone who has a decent grounding in the subject, and it isn't rigorous or persuasive enough to be the best book for a first encounter, leaving it in the awkward no-man's land of being a decent book, but not the best book for anyone in particular.
The cover image is Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, meeting Ronald Reagan in the White House. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States.