The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

William Easterly

377 pages, Basic Books, 2014

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I wanted to love Tyranny Of Experts, the new book by William Easterly. I’ve admired his work for years. I love the provocative title, and how could you not fall for the subtitle, “Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”?

And the fundamental thesis of the book is such an important one: Authoritarian, technocratic, one-size-fits-all development is bad, and the individual rights of the ostensible beneficiaries of development should be paramount. People know what’s best for them, and even proven and effective development interventions will fail to have lasting effects in the context of oppressive governments. The best stuff bubbles up from below, when markets and technology are allowed to amplify the ideas of people who are given voices and choices.

The problem is that however pressing and true this message may be, there have been many cogent critiques of witless top-down policy, and there isn’t a lot that’s particularly fresh or contemporary in The Tyranny Of Experts.

The book opens strongly enough, with the story of Ohio farmers thrown off their land at gunpoint as the result of a project financed and promoted by the World Bank. The details are awful: kids trapped in fires set by soldiers, cows felled by machine guns, harvests doused with gasoline. It’s upsetting, but it’s also implausible, and when Easterly reveals that it’s really an account of an incident that took place in Uganda in 2010, the effect is jolting. I thought to myself: Man, we are in for a ride.

Next thing I know, we’re in the middle of an imaginary debate between two Nobel economists: Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal. In Easterly’s telling, Hayek and Myrdal represent the advocates of bottom-up and top-down development, respectively, and an exploration of their diametrically opposed approaches is a central part of the book. Hayek’s view, as Easterly paraphrases it, is that “individual rights were both an end in themselves and a means by which free individuals in a free society solved many of their own problems.” Myrdal, by contrast, comes across as a pointy-headed jerk who believes in the wisdom of centralized authorities. Sometimes it may be necessary to impose, say, better agricultural policies from on high—even if (and here Easterly is quoting Myrdal directly) “it require[s] the killing of many half-starved cows.”

Whether Easterly’s rendition of these guys’ views is accurate, I’ll leave for others to decide. I’m more concerned with what’s happening in international development in 2014. I’d hoped that Easterly would proceed to deliver a full-on critique of the current state of affairs, replete with juicy material about nitwit technocrats and some great gossip about the stupidity of Big Aid organizations.

Instead, I found myself mired in discussions of Sun Yat-sen, Adam Smith, and the technology of 15th-century Italy. Eventually, I got so desperate to read about something immediately relevant that I started fishing around in the index to see if I’d missed something. I hadn’t. Here’s an example: The blurb copy on the book jacket singles out the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a bad actor. The book’s concluding chapter refers to that foundation’s “disrespect for poor people.” In between, there’s very little to support that position. I looked up every single reference to the Gates Foundation: The first mention is on page 123, where Easterly tells us that the foundation had the temerity to praise the (admittedly nasty) Mengistu government in Ethiopia for its efforts to reduce child mortality. That’s it! Pages 153, 156, 158, 165, and 197 simply offer brief variations on that same theme.

We could all gain from a thoughtful critique of Big Philanthropy and Big Aid. But there’s little in the way of specific criticism of current development efforts here: There’s the unfortunate complicity of aid donors in the depredations of the Ethiopian government, there’s a single unconscionable World Bank project in Uganda, and that’s all—two examples in the whole book. Where are these experts who are tyrannizing the poor now?

It strikes me that a relentless focus on real impact in the lives of the poor would cut through the whole Gordian knot of development: Real change requires that we address both the bottom-up and the top-down, that we design our efforts with beneficiaries front and center, and that we use evidence of real impact in the lives of the poor as the indicator of whether we’re doing it right. Easterly makes clear that his book is “not about what we can do to end poverty,” but that seems like a big missed opportunity. If you’re serious about international development, you’ve got to read Easterly—his earlier books (including The Elusive Quest for Growth, which is excellent), his blog posts, his ongoing debate with the advocates of Big Aid. But you can leave this book off your must-read list.