Economic Theory

Review: William Easterly’s ‘The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor’

Poor people in developing countries are the modern day equivalents of serfs in early modern Europe, but instead of the ‘divine rights of kings’ they contend with the ‘development rights of dictators’. In The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterly provides an excellent historical and contemporary account of the causes of poverty in the developing world, and proposes some fundamental principles that should guide any solutions to alleviate the problems faced by the poorest on this planet. At a time when developed countries are increasing funding for aid projects, or in Britain’s case, aiming to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid, Easterly’s book is a welcome addition to a small but growing literature that is critical of international aid organisations and intergovernmental aid projects.

Easterly, the author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Harm and So Little Good (2006), who has previously worked for the World Bank and is currently the head of New York University’s Development Research Institute, has rapidly become the most outspoken critic of foreign aid projects. He likes to refer to himself as a “recovering expert”, in reference to his time at the World Bank, and his intellectual transition from supporter of the conventional wisdom on foreign aid to dissenter.

What is the real cause of poverty, according to Easterly? In a nutshell, it is ‘the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights’. To many, this might seem self-evident, but as Easterly demonstrates, it is a point that is fundamentally ignored by every international development agency. Despite the West’s rich heritage of freedom, democracy and rule of law, aid agencies fail to appreciate the significance of ‘inalienable rights’ as a catalyst for economic and social development. Easterly looks back upon various points in history, including the well-known examples of Industrial Britain and colonial America, but also less well-known cases, such as the Northern Italian ‘free cities’ in the 12th century that repelled the attacks of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Using these historical accounts, Easterly establishes that respect for political and economic rights has had long-lasting effects that are still felt today in countries, regions and even cities. Easterly demonstrates clearly how areas that have a history of protecting rights disproportionately make up the wealthier parts of the planet today. Free individuals in these rich countries have benefitted a great deal from both political and economic rights, and The Tyranny of Experts forces us to question the morality and rationale behind denying the poorest in developing countries these same basic rights.

Easterly develops a convincing argument that traces the key historical moments of various organisations and countries that fundamentally shaped the debates surrounding foreign aid projects. He studies the racist and imperialist past of these initiatives beginning with a combination of the Versailles treaty at the end of World War 1, the Rockefeller Foundation and development initiatives in China. During this period, according to Easterly, a ‘technocratic approach’ to development emerged. Poverty was seen as a purely technical problem which could only be solved by technical solutions. Easterly describes this as a ‘technocratic illusion’, something that draws heavily on Friedrich von Hayek’s ideas about knowledge and the impossibility of sustaining a system based on the direction of a few “experts”, rather than a decentralised system based on self-directed individual. The ‘technocratic illusion’ that Easterly describes forms a major pillar in his argument that the rights of the poor are a second thought of these “experts of development”.

Organisations such as the World Bank, or the Gates Foundation, naively confer on dictators and autocratic regimes a sense of legitimacy that they would otherwise never have attained. Easterly uses Ethiopia and its autocratic ruler Meles Zenawi as a clear example of this in practice. The World Bank, and the UK and US departments for International Development under Blair and Bush, pumped aid into Ethiopia in the early 2000’s. Ethiopia’s ruler Zenawi, in the wake of losing an election in 2005, shot and jailed opposition, and then manipulated aid funds to starve his opposition, seize lands from villagers, relocate them and perpetrate violence against them. An Ethiopian farmer even brought a legal case against British aid for its support of the Ethiopian government’s program to relocate villagers. Despite all of this, the Gates Foundation and Blair continue to commend the positive achievements of Ethiopia’s regime. This is just one case in many that Easterly points to where “benevolent” autocrats using the support and legitimacy that aid organisations provide, have acted counter to the wishes of their citizens.

Easterly references Adam Smith in a number of sections of the book, in a way that will resonate nicely with Smith supporters. I was very pleased that he invoked “The Invisible Hand” in his discussion of ‘spontaneous solutions versus conscious design’, which helped him make a convincing argument that spontaneous solutions are always more efficient and effective in allocating resources. Despite his suitable and regular use of both Smith and Hayek, my major criticism of this book was Easterly’s consistent apologising whenever he referred to either of them. It was clear that he did not want to appear as a radical ideologue in the eyes of critics, but the ideas of both Smith and Hayek are incredibly well-respected within academic circles. It felt unnecessary to justify his use of their works, when the onus should be on critics.

Easterly’s main argument is that poor people in developing countries deserve the same rights that those in developed countries have enjoyed, and that we have a moral obligation to ensure this happens. Critics of The Tyranny of Experts suggest that this solution to end poverty is not specific and is full of generalisations. While Easterly would argue that any aid project that respects the rights of the poor will have dramatically better outcomes, this book is not about providing a silver bullet solution. It is about trying to open eyes and persuade those who believe that abstract development goals are more important than the rights of poor people. Easterly has attempted to open “development experts” to new ideas by establishing the importance of rights and decentralised solutions.

In The Tyranny of Experts, Easterly is able to provide a very clear argument that shatters the conventional wisdom of international development. It has deservedly been nominated for the 2015 F. A. Hayek Award by the Manhattan Institute. He offers an original and insightful perspective on a topic that is in desperate need of an alternative opinion. His clear focus on the primacy and protection of individual rights in radically dealing with poverty in the “developing world” makes this an interesting but also essential book for anyone that subscribes to the ideas of Hayek or Smith.