Thinking Aloud: “The Tyranny of Experts”

Sept. 26,  2014 by Darius 

I just read The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly.  The book is a serious critique of the standard approach to development of poor nations.

The crux of Easterly’s argument centers around three interlocking debates on development that never happened.  The first debate is whether economic development requires political freedom or whether a “benevolent autocrat” is the best vehicle to achieve development.  Easterly’s second debate is whether poor countries are capable of finding spontaneous solutions that lead to economic development or whether they require experts from rich countries to offer technocratic “solutions” to their problems.  The final debate is whether countries should look to their history, and the history of more successful countries, to learn lessons or whether each developing country should be treated as a “blank slate.”  The standard development paradigm since World War II takes the second side of each debate.  Easterly argues that the first side results in a wealthier, freer, and fairer world.

The most interesting parts of The Tyranny of Experts are Easterly’s trips into history.  For instance, he details the racism inherent in the idea that natives of poor countries are incapable of solving their own development problems back to the days of the British Empire.  Around World War II, the British reached an informal accord with the US that the US wouldn’t shine a light on racist practices in the British Empire, while the British wouldn’t make noise about the treatment of blacks in America itself.  This attitude carried over into development, where it persists to this day.

Easterly also explores the infamous non-political clause in the charter of the World Bank, the world’s leading development institution.  The clause, which stipulates that the World Bank cannot take a country’s political situation into consideration when contemplating economic aid programs, goes back to the founding of the Bank itself in 1944.  Originally, it was inserted by economists working for US interests to ensure that the Bank could be used to finance the rebuilding of the Soviet Union, which was at the time a wartime ally.  Soon after, though, as the Cold War began, the World Bank was used to funnel “development funds” to pro-US dictators, especially in Latin America. (Easterly chooses Colombia as a case study.)  The Cold War may be over, but the Bank’s role is largely the same – it’s just that the US is now fighting the War on Terror.

If I had to sum up The Tyranny of Experts in one sentence, it would be something along the lines of, “Policies that result in greater political freedom inevitably lead to greater economic freedom  and greater economic output.”  It’s a simple enough thought, but one that has been roundly ignored by just about the entire development community for decades.

The Tyranny of Experts has its flaws, but it is a very well-thought out, well-researched, and well-written book.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in economics, international development, and the history of the world.

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