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

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Over the last century, global poverty has largely been viewed as a technical problem that merely requires the right "expert” solutions. Yet all too often, experts recommend solutions that fix immediate problems without addressing the systemic political factors that created them in the first place. Further, they produce an accidental collusion with "benevolent autocrats,” leaving dictators with yet more power to violate the rights of the poor.

In The Tyranny of Experts, economist William Easterly, bestselling author of The White Man’s Burden, traces the history of the fight against global poverty, showing not only how these tactics have trampled the individual freedom of the world’s poor, but how in doing so have suppressed a vital debate about an alternative approach to solving poverty: freedom. Presenting a wealth of cutting-edge economic research, Easterly argues that only a new model of development—one predicated on respect for the individual rights of people in developing countries, that understands that unchecked state power is the problem and not the solution —will be capable of ending global poverty once and for all.

416 pages, Hardcover

First published March 4, 2014

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About the author

William Easterly

19 books194 followers
William Easterly is Professor of
Economics at New York University, joint with Africa House, and Co-Director of NYU's Development Research Institute. He is editor of Aid Watch blog, Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Co-Editor of the Journal of Development Economics. He is the author of The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2006), The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (MIT, 2001), 3 other co-edited books, and 59 articles in refereed economics journals. William Easterly received his Ph.D. in Economics at MIT. He was born in West Virginia and is the 8th most famous native of Bowling Green, Ohio, where he grew up. He spent sixteen years as a Research Economist at the World Bank. He is on the board of the anti-malaria philanthropy, Nets for Life. His work has been discussed in media outlets like the Lehrer Newshour, National Public Radio, the BBC, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, the Economist, the New Yorker, Forbes, Business Week, the Financial Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, and the Christian Science Monitor. Foreign Policy magazine inexplicably named him one of the world’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals in 2008. His areas of expertise are the determinants of long-run economic growth, the political economy of development, and the effectiveness of foreign aid. He has worked in most areas of the developing world, most heavily in Africa, Latin America, and Russia. William Easterly is an associate editor of the American Economic Journals: Macroeconomics, the Journal of Comparative Economics and the Journal of Economic Growth.

Taken from his website.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 144 reviews
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 11 books459 followers
June 29, 2017
I'm not without bias, but I'd like to think I came at this book with an open mind. I have a deep respect for hard-won expertise. But, like most academics, I also have a deep respect for modesty and the careful application of knowledge. This book doesn't argue against that kind of expertise, it argues against the use of technocracy to overlook issues of rights and politics in development.

And in this respect, the book is actually a little late to the party, since these issues have been discussed and examined for more than two decades outside of the economics discipline in the field of human geography, sociology, and more particularly the subfield of political ecology. (You can also read a fantastic book in the area of humanitarian assistance called "Condemned to Repeat" by Fiona Terry.)

Largely, Easterly makes a great argument for "rights-based" development and bottom-up forms of development based on the economic theory of Friedrich Hayek. Some reviewers have argued against the structure of the book. But I actually found its approach refreshing. I found the early use of the "debate that never happened" to be excellent. I like when authors interrogate the historical genesis of ideas. It highlights that ideas are never innocent -- they are always for something (and usually for someone).

As for the case study and long history approach -- fantastic! (Even though it summarizes the scholarship of mostly other authors).

It's bizarre that in a book about the "tyranny of experts" there would be little mention of James Ferguson's "The Anti-Politics Machine" or Arturo Escobar's "Encountering Development". Michel Foucault's concept of power/knowledge would have also been a helpful addition (though it would have turned off some potential mainstream readers). Ferguson gets one paragraph. Escobar is nowhere to be found.

The book is well-written, largely divorced from partisan ideology, and well-researched. It is grounded in the academic ethos of the honest search for truth. One of my concerns is the way this book might be used. Just as the book demonstrates how the knowledge products of experts are utilized for very narrow political interests, I have a feeling this book will (and probably already has) been utilized for various political interests it was never intended to serve.

I could, for example, see the author's ideas being used to argue for drastically cutting development aid. (I haven't looked into this, but such is the problem with mainstream economists).

Additional Notes:

Page 96 has the best quote of the book: "The findings on autocracy having a lasting effect suggest one simple lesson: get out of the vicious circle of autocracy and bad values as soon as you can! The sooner you begin the virtuous circle of democracy and good values, and the sooner you get through the rocky transition, the better".

Mirroring an idea from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Easterly writes that technocratic actors are worse than market or government actors because unlike these two actors, they aren't held responsible for their actions by either market or the democratic public. (In other words, no skin in the game.)

An idea I found useful "the new growth model" - the number of new ideas increases with the number of people on earth (as well as the number of existing inventions plus the proliferation of rights). Thus innovations can be seen as the simple formula: population + rights + already existing innovation = new innovation.

This then explains the extraordinary factor growth in innovation. This was an idea that was new to me.

Thank you very much, Mr. Easterly, for a fantastic read.
Profile Image for Kevin Brushett.
5 reviews2 followers
May 20, 2014
A disappointing book. Easterly's previous work The White Man's Burden was not my favourite book either, but it at least had enough thought provoking arguments and material. This time around his arguments are facile and repetitive. So yes we get that freedom is good and autocracy is bad; I'm not sure anyone really argues otherwise. He doesn't really investigate why Western governments, aid agencies and NGOs have been willing to overlook poor governance and human rights abuses to deliver aid. Secondly, he doesn't investigate how many NGOs and other international development actors have been promoting democracy, human rights and small scale development as a means of overcoming the diversion of aid money to dictatorships. Instead we get a lot of vague and contradictory evidence about how the West and certain Asian "tigers" developed since the 1500s. In addition, many of the examples are contradictory. For example, the rise of Hyundai. Here Easterly forgets that South Korea until the late 1970s was not a particularly free country. Similarly Singapore, Taiwan and the others were not either. Now he tells us that these cases of authoritarian development may well be exceptions to the rule, but he never tells us why or what factors led them to spectacular economic growth even with authoritarian governments. Finally, he seems to suggest that European and North American economic growth was based only on the promotion of freedom and democracy when quite clearly there were whole rafts of people who were unfree when those economies "took off." He points to examples from the developing world where peoples were divested of their land and property and has the gaul to say that "it would not happen here." Is he simply forgetting that aboriginal peoples have and continue to be divested of their land and property in the name of development. Does he not see that the same is happening in communities beset by fracking companies?

Overall, the book is a horrible wasted opportunity and could have been written at best as a lengthy journal article. Unfortunately 300 pages later I found myself skipping huge swaths of text either because it had nothing to say or I had read the same argument, phrased the same way for the upteenth time!
Profile Image for briz.
Author 7 books66 followers
July 6, 2014
I'm generally sympathetic to Easterly's ideas about development, but I found this book uneven, even unfocused, and had trouble getting through it.

The main message is that the Development Industry (embodied by the World Bank, consultants, and big donors) is flawed - even guaranteed ineffective - by design. Certain characteristics have been embedded in development since its beginnings (and Easterly has some things to say about when "development" began - mainly, 1920s China, rather than the more popular birthday of 1945). These characteristics are, broadly, a willful ignorance towards the political/institutional aspect of development; and a naive reliance on technocratic solutions, when technocrats have neither the political nor economic incentives to "get it right". Put bluntly, no one elects World Bank economists, and the World Bank doesn't have to worry about being financially sustainable - so, basically, nothing changes for the Bank even if the Bank seriously screws up. And Easterly cites some pretty damning examples of epic Bank fails, full of perpetuating repression and authoritarian violence. Damn.

Easterly's solution is to readjust the focus of development onto increasing the rights for the poor: this means everything from promoting democracy to loosening migration restrictions to laying off all that technocratic paternalism stuff and just letting people do what they do. And, obviously, not indirectly funding dictators or white-washing repressive regimes.

That's all fine and well, and I'm down with that. I think the more we critically examine the structural incentives of development, both on the part of the "helpers" (World Bank, etc.) and the "helpees" (developing country governments), and the more we think critically - even cynically! - about the (inevitable?) politicization of development and aid, the better off we'll all be.

However! I often felt that this book's better points had already been made (and with more skill) in Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail, a book Easterly cites often. Similarly, the works cited made me hungry to read more from the excellent CGD people - Nancy Birdsall, Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett. These researchers offer great "bird's eye view" perspectives on development.

Also, Easterly started to lose me with the increasingly long and increasingly tangential digressions: his explanation of basic economic principles, like the market's "invisible hand" or comparative advantage, felt too long and - sorry for this - having some seriously diminishing marginal returns. Similarly, his use of the Greene Street block example to chart the history of America's development since 1830 was, sure, a pretty neat research project in and of itself, but often felt very beside the point. Especially when we get down into the weeds about that one 19th century family with the many kids and the many buildings, and did you know that So-and-so, son of So-and-so, actually died in a carriage accident? Yeah, he was the nephew of This-and-that. And that sort of child mortality is something you don't see nowadays - except in poor countries in Africa! Also Friedrich Hayek gets a bad rap!

See what I mean?

The Greene Street example's only small redemption was its nice payoff - for this reader at least - via its vindication of Jane Jacobs. YEAH. Of course Jane Jacobs is wonderful and knows a thing or two about the Dangers of Planning.

Anyhoo. tl;dr: Easterly is great, this book isn't his best. It does have some likable crankiness (some LOLs were had), and the ultimate message is, I think, very important and true. And, okay, it did get me thinking BIG THINGS about development and arguing back at the book - always a good sign. But would I recommend it to others? For dev professionals, yes. For interested general readers who are not actively in the biz, I'd point you to The White Man's Burden or The Elusive Quest for Growth.

Aaaand I'd recommend watching his debate with the Center for Global Development's Owen Barder from earlier this year.
Profile Image for Ryan Young.
708 reviews9 followers
January 2, 2016
The world is fairly well divided between the haves and have-nots, a pair of opposing regions that the author dubs "the west" and "the rest." Easterly argues that the rise in material wealth and means and roughly coincided with the gradual rise in individual liberty throughout the western world.

in 1949, with the advent of the United Nations, the west decided to drag the rest into prosperity. the problem, the author proposes, is that we aren't letting the individuals of the impoverished areas achieve prosperity in the same way it was achieved in the west. instead, we are endorsing the rule of autocrats (despots) in countries that will drive conscious development prescribed by a cadre of experts. the problem here is that the dictators in question have to oppress citizens and suppress dissent in order to implement the programs prescribed by the experts.

the development community has universally adopted the conscious design attitude, which curtails individual rights and expression (tolerates or even requires atrocities), ignores specific histories of peoples and countries (invoking a blank slate), and respects national borders to the detriment of regions or ethnic groups. The World Bank and the Gates Foundation are two organization that are called to account in this book, as having directly or indirectly supported tyrannical dictatorships.

the evidence, overall, is that these development organizations and the dictators they support do not foster actual economic growth in a reliable way. the praise given to individual dictators (for instance in Singapore) is undeserved, as his country's growth actually closely paralleled the region. in addition, any growth that comes at the expense of people's personal liberty needs to be highly scrutinized. it is not. controversies are covered up, atrocities, misappropriations, human rights violations are ignored in the name of progress.

this book is a great perspective on how the west has interfered for hundreds of years with the development of the rest. in the beginning, at least we had no pretense of assisting the people of the colonies, but now that we do claim to be helping, it is little more than a pretense. the data do not back up the claims of the development community, and any gains in material wealth that we can point to is not justified by the oppression of the people we are supposed to support.

the poor of the world might need help, but they do not need someone telling them what is best for them. there is no recipe for success better than a tradition of individual economic liberty in a society with an accountable government. we in the west have never and would never allow our rights to be taken away in the manner in which we routinely take them in the '3rd world.'

it reminds me of the picture of a B-52 bomber dropping ordnance on some desert country with the caption "we will free the shit out of you." and we will also "modernize the shit out of you."

a great companion book here is naomi klein's 'shock doctrine,' which goes in to great detail on the exact measures the US, IMF, and World Bank employ to modernize and economy, and the often disastrous results.

read this and speak up when you can.
Profile Image for Willow.
12 reviews
December 2, 2020
Confusingly presented arguments, he is clearly passionate, but rambling and blinded by the view from his own soapbox. Baffling neglect of any alternative approaches to development despite attempting to put forth his own. He seems to be speaking to the World Bank exclusively, which is fine as this does represent the mainstream, but he should acknowledge this in order to situate his careening yet largely valid critique.

The most useful section was where he dispels the seductive myth of the benevolent autocrat for growth and development (for ex: the case of Singapore). In this chapter he synthesizes the aspects of his argument to explain away this commonly propagated myth (need to look at the longer view of history, the necessary complexity of spontaneous solutions, and the importance of regional (rather than purely national) conditions and interconnections for explaining development trends)

- save yourself a lot of time and disappointment by skipping to that one (ch 13)
Profile Image for Pam.
116 reviews9 followers
February 18, 2015
This is a tedious book to read, and I disagree with some of what Easterly argues. Despite his protestations otherwise, Easterly is a bit too much of a free-market advocate for me. However, he makes some very important points that make it worth reading. This quote near the end sort of sums it up: "We must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor. It doesn't mean that we care less about the material suffering; it means that we understand that the autocrats have offered a false bargain to meet material needs while we overlook their suppression of rights." This "aid at the cost of rights" equation is certainly being acted out in Gaza, without asking the opinion of the people. This is a debate that can and should be given priority.
Profile Image for Otto Lehto.
437 reviews161 followers
April 6, 2017
(Edit: modified score from 3 to 4 upon further reflection. I've been thinking about this book a lot in the past couple of weeks.)

This one was a hard one to review, because I am in fully sympathy with the author's intentions and I thoroughly enjoyed some parts of the book. But I cannot forgive the author's lack of solid theoretical basis for some of his assumptions, nor his reliance on emotionally appealing rhetoric.

My views could be summarized: "Scientifically disappointing, full of interesting stories."

The disappointment is palpable. I went in looking for a theoretical framework that explains why the "forgotten rights of the poor" in economic and political domains are conducive to economic development. Instead, we get some platitudes about the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. Especially the political side of the equation is left underdeveloped. Easterly seems to take the promise of democratic decision-making at face value, without much critique.

The economic side fares much better, which is not surprising, since the book is centered on economic development. He contrasts - a bit glibly - the Hayekian paradigm of bottom-up development with the Gunnar Myrdal paradigm of top-down development. Easterly does go quite deep into his analysis of the Hayekian paradigm of "spontaneous order", which he rightfully equates with Adam Smith's "invisible hand" mechanism. As such, he manages to explain how the coordination of the unplanned activities of individuals through the markets manages to allocate resources efficiently and generate innovations absent any need for expert planning. But he seems to think democracy and markets are always a good thing. He tragically conflates economic and political liberty, as if they were the same thing, and he entirely leaves democratic institutions at the mercy of platitudes that you can read on the pages of the New York Times.

On the plus side, the book contains lots of interesting stories about the dark side of the international development community (the World Bank, national development agencies, etc.). The collusion between dictators and development agencies, and the folly of relying of the superior wisdom of educated experts against the individual rights of poor people the world over, are exposed for the fraudulent shams that they are. I challenge any reader not to be horrified by the intellectual failure of the development community and enticed by the promise of the bottom-up alternative.

The substance of the argument is there, and it is very important. This is, then, a very important book for the message that it contains. But the overblown and simplistic rhetoric does not do the book any favours. People are categorized into the "good guys" and the "bad guys", and the virtues of bottom-up processes are extolled while the virtues of top-down decision making are reduced to rubble with suspicious ease. The causality of statistical data are nullified with a shrug. The East Asian miracle is stripped of its uniqueness. Even if the author is correct in his interpretation of these events, he does not manage to convince the reader that powerful leaders cannot sometimes act as catalysts. I wish the book had contained a more nuanced perspective on all these issues.

Overall, I do recommend the book, but I hope the same message can be repackaged in the future.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
April 6, 2017
This book is full of surprises.

In The Tyranny of Experts, the author of the seminal book The White Man’s Burden drills down into the history of economic development around the world in search of its causes. What he finds has little to do with any of the factors bandied about among contemporary development professionals.

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” William Easterly writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Instead, Easterly maintains, the fundamental pre-condition for successful development is democracy paired with deep understanding of local history. He calls the establishment of the World Bank “the moment of original sin . . . in which the Bank disavowed the ideals of freedom . . .”

Academia has been good to William Easterly. Presumably, when he was forced out of the World Bank because of his outspoken criticism of the Bank’s support for corrupt regimes and pro-Western favoritism, he was looking for a platform on which he could continue his campaign to shift the consensus among development professionals from top-down “solutions” to support for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. He’s gotten that platform, but his position on the faculty of New York University has also moved him to dig more deeply into the intellectual roots of his thinking. The Tyranny of Experts is one result.

This book is intellectually very ambitious. Easterly finds the common denominator for successful development not in policies, procedures, or leaders but in an environment in which the rights of poor people are respected. On the most fundamental level, he insists, the biggest success stories in development are to be found in what we’ve grown used to calling “the West.” In these rich countries, democratic government accountable to voters left them essentially free to exercise their genius for innovation. Variations on the capitalist system provided the incentives for individual initiative and hard work, the result of which has been a meteoric increase in per capita income during the past two centuries in the West, compared with a slow increase for the Rest. Yet development professionals ignore the stunning, long-range success of the West and turn instead to models based on short-term (and usually temporary) growth spurts.

In recent decades, it has been fashionable to point to China as proof that development is best facilitated by “benevolent tyrants.” Easterly finds this argument unconvincing for at least three reasons:

(1) The major boost to Chinese productivity, and hence the biggest factor in increasing the country’s per capita income, was the grassroots movement among farmers freed from collective farms to till their own land. This development began taking hold in 1978, at the same time as Deng Xiao Peng’s accession to power, but had as much to do with the Chinese breakthrough as Deng’s actions as Secretary of the Communist Party. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the Party made official the dispersion of landholding that was already widespread throughout the country.

(2) Easterly proves that the only factor that correlates closely with sustained, high-octane development is regionalism. China, after all, lies in East Asia, home of what Easterly calls the “Gang of Four” breakthrough economies (otherwise known as the “Asian Tigers”): Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Statistical analysis proves that’s no accident.

(3) The anonymous spread of the potato “increased the calories, vitamins, and nutrients produced by a given amount of land, thus sustaining a larger population” and offers “more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower” than any conscious policy of the Party, much less of Premier Deng. I found this claim so puzzling that I checked out Easterly’s facts: lo and behold, the American Journal of Potato Research reported more than a decade ago that “China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India.” (Who knew? I can’t recall ever seeing potatoes in a Chinese meal!)

One of the most valuable aspects of this book is Easterly’s habit of finding revealing truths in areas others never consider. The importance of the potato to China is just one example. Another is his conclusion that “one of the regional factors that held back African development was that Africa had too many nations.” (It’s obvious — once you read the book.)

The Tyranny of Experts is a brilliant inquiry into economic history, with excursions into political science, sociology, and other disciplines. By making a solid case for individual initiative as the driving force in development rather than the policies of leaders, William Easterly has made a major contribution to the field. However, there in one major area in which I take issue with the author.

Economist that he is, Professor Easterly uses per capita income as the exclusive measure of development. This choice is problematic both because it’s a poor reflection of the well-being of poor people (who are, after all, the principal concern of the field) and because it presumes that economic growth — the output of more and more stuff — is necessarily good. If I earn $700 per year (about $2 per day) and Bill Gates earns $2 billion, it’s small comfort to me that our “per capital income” is $1,000,000,350. And if Mr. Gates consumes enough water and electricity to maintain his 66,000-square foot house that could otherwise meet the needs of . . . well, lots of people, that’s far from good for the planet — or for you or me. (Not so incidentally, Easterly calls out Bill Gates for special criticism for his exaggerated faith in quantifying change.)

Incidentally, I also note that in two references in his book to those who comprise “development professionals” Easterly includes only staff of the World Bank, the United Nations, and the overseas aid agencies of national governments. He excludes NGOs, many of which employ large numbers of professionals working in development programs throughout the Global South. I find this peculiar.

There is so much more that’s worthy of comment in this outstanding book that I can’t possibly do justice to it in this short review. All I can say is, if you’re involved in any way in economic development work, or simply concerned about ending poverty, The Tyranny of Experts is essential reading. Despite its flaws, it’s simply brilliant.
15 reviews1 follower
March 22, 2019
Thought-provoking and made some good points but also lots of holes left. Easterly in the introduction does acknowledge that this book isn't supposed to provide solutions but to identify problems. However many of the ideas in this book seem too rudimentary to me. Central to the argument is that the West in their quest to eliminate poverty overlook the rights of the poor by inadvertently supporting autocrats. As a result, we should stop interfering in the affairs of developing countries and instead let them resort to spontaneous development. How are we going to give the poor their rights especially when most of these countries have a history of dictatorships? What will happen once we "give" the poor these rights? Will enough have the education to acknowledge what these rights are or to know if they even have rights? If not, doesn't that confine these rights to a select group of educated individuals in these countries? What about gender inequality -- will cultural practices induce men to restrict the rights of women?
Other flaws of this book are the constant reaffirmation of basic economic principles: trade makes everyone better off, private property rights are good, etc.
While most of this book is lacking, Easterly does make some good points (not necessarily to support his argument) e.g. comparing legacies of slavery in different parts of Africa and the Americas, the role of kinship ties/trust issues in different ethnic groups and how those contribute to the ethnic groups' varying levels of success, the explanation of the disparity between North and South America.
Overall: thought-provoking, definitely has a point in saying that the World Bank's technocratic policies haven't been working for the past decades so we need new methods. However, solutions to the problems Easterly identifies are not as easily accessible as he hopes they would be.
Profile Image for Cyrus Carter.
137 reviews22 followers
December 24, 2016
An excellent analysis of why we put up with autocratic regimes in the name of 'development'. The author shows, convincingly, that in fact countries that uphold individual rights develop more effectively (and with long term effects) than countries that have had any form of dictatorial rule.

He also shows that Bill Gates and the World Bank support dictatorships based on a false reading of facts and figures.

A good read for anyone interested in development, human rights and the current nasty trend in world politics.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
973 reviews124 followers
June 19, 2017
Easterly's new book is a little disorganized and scattershot, but it is also rich with thoughtful asides and genuine compassion. His main argument deserves the elaboration he gives it: the best, and in fact only, way to improve the lives of the poor is to give them the freedom to pursue their own dreams. All the aid policies and technical fixes that rely on giving more power to unaccountable autocrats only exacerbate both poverty and repression.

Easterly makes good use of the development technocrats' ignorance of history to mock their claims to new and innovative solutions to Third World poverty. Harry Truman's famous State of the Union speech on January 20 1949 asked for a "Bold new program" to aid in improving "underdeveloped areas" since "For the first time in history, humanity possess the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people." As Easterly notes "it was not the first time in history that it was the first time in history." Woodrow Wilson almost exactly 30 years earlier had said "For the first time in history the counsels of mankind" could succeed "improving the conditions of the working people...all over the world." Easterly in fact traces much of the "economic development" literature to colonialist attempts to maintain power in the interwar period. Lord William Malcolm Hailey, a long time British Colonial Service officer, crafted the "African Survey" in 1938 to justify British rule in using "a more scientific approach to the problems of health and material well-being" in Africa. (Among other things, it urged Africans to plant mucuna, a nitrogen fixing legume. In 2010 the UN would mention the hopes for development through the use of nitrogen fixing legume called mucuna.) Hailey made the Africa Survey part of his "New Philosophy of Colonial Rule" which would be based on the "improvement of the standards of living" of colonies through "systematic planning... on the part of the central government." Hailey's and others efforts promised the Third World better development if they only gave up hopes for freedom, and this idea carried on right through the postwar period of aid and "benevolent autocrats."

Time and again the aid organizations, such as the World Bank and Western donors (including Western governments and groups like the Gates Foundation and Tony Blair's Africa Governance Initiative) have praised harsh autocratic rulers for their "public-sector led growth" and their "centralized planning." For instance, all these groups sang the success of Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi for his questionable gains in child mortality statistics, even as other freer countries moved further ahead. The UN and its development arms likewise appointed Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame the chairman of its Broadband Commission for Digital Development which called for "Governments [to] play a critical role in convening the private sector" and directing growth. Easterly shows that these development growth plans usually go wrong (a recent study of government broadband connections to villages shows its most common use is playing games and watching porn). For instance, in Ghana in 1879 the British were unsuccessfully trying to organize large plantations to plant cotton and coffee, when a single Ghanese trader brought back cocoa from an offshore island, and before long the country's farmers became the world leaders in cocoa production (at least until the dictator Kwame Nkrumah, encouraged by development experts like W. Arthur Lewis, taxed cocoa until the production practically ceased).

While it's easy to quibble with individual statements in this book, it's harder to disagree with Easterly's broad premise. We should stop trying to see how we can help the poor, and start looking more closely at how we can stop hindering them. It's a modest but worthy goal.
Profile Image for Pietro.
32 reviews
March 27, 2016
Ho scelto questo libro per il titolo accattivante e le buone recensioni: una delusione. L’autore, PHD della NY University , ex economista della Word Bank, è un neoliberista anzi ordoliberista, fanatico di Hayek e seguace di Friedmann: la definizione migliore è quella di Amartya Sen: “ l’uomo per cui il piano migliore è non avere nessun piano”. In accordo con ciò, la tesi fondamentale del libro è:” I paesi liberi individualistici hanno una migliore performance economica di quelli autarchici”. A parte il pensiero che” le scelte imposte sono perdenti” è talmente banale da essere condiviso da tutti, affronto i dubbi che ho sulle affermazioni dell’autore. 1° asserzione. “ le autarchie perpetuano valori collettivistici, le città e i paesi liberi i valori individualistici” (pag.197). Se è vera l’affermazione, siccome l’autore fa partire la sua cronistoria da Federico Barbarossa, posso affermare che il più grande ideologo del collettivismo è stato Vlad Tepes (boh!?). 2°asserzione: immigrazione. L’autore, in accordo con le teorie neoliberiste, dà grande valore all’immigrazione. A ben vedere, però, per immigrazione intende l’immigrazione di persone con buona cultura, i cosiddetti cervelli, la cui migrazione si risolve in beneficio per l’intero pianeta ( pag292); per quanto riguarda la fuga di poveri disgraziati questa ha aspetti complessi che esulano dallo scopo del libro (pag.286). Di queste affermazioni rifletta chi legge. 3° affermazione: i piani delle organizzazioni internazionali, pubbliche o private, non riescono a diminuire la povertà (ma va!?). Ma quando era economista della Word Bank il nostro come si comportava? E che dire di Friedmann che era l’ideologo della politica economica di Pinochet? 4°affermazione. Una parte della colpa è delle elités locali ( che in Sudamerica sono di origine europea) che vogliono limitare la libertà politica (pag.237): In Cina è Chiang Kai Shek che voleva emulare l’esperimento sovietico (?) e quello della Germania nazista (pag.109). Ora, non sottacendo l’enorme responsabilità degli stati europei (Italia compresa) nel colonialismo e nel post colonialismo, dobbiamo dire che, fin dall’inizio del XIX secolo, gli Stati Uniti hanno( avuto) la loro parte di colpa. Definizioni come “la politica della porta aperta” o “la diplomazia del dollaro”non sono state inventate ieri e oggi sono ormai accettate. Poi, se vogliamo sovrapporre gli stati che ricevono aiuti finanziari, in cambio di riforme neoliberiste, con gli stati in cui gli Stati Uniti hanno interessi rilevanti, vedremo che la sovrapposizione è quasi perfetta. E vero che altri stati perseguono, con mezzi simili e/o diversi, gli stessi obiettivi, ma l’autore (politicamente corretto) non li menziona… Quello che dà però fastidio del libro è il tono angelico. Per questo ho coniato il termine “Beggar Books”. Niente a che vedere con il concetto di “narratore inattendibile”(Booth, Chatman, Richardson, ecc…) uno stile con il quale lo scrittore disorienta il lettore; qui il lettore viene manipolato. Tanto più che le parole possono essere comprese da una persona con istruzione elementare. Il consiglio è di non comprarlo e di non leggerlo senza una adeguata cultura economica.
Profile Image for Vance.
156 reviews654 followers
November 15, 2015
The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly highlights the failure of "experts" to improve economic development such that poverty is reduced and prosperity takes hold. It is a nice complement to the book Why Nation's Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson that discusses the importance of economic and political institutions for economic development, especially inclusive versus extractive institutions. The underlying theme of Easterly's book, and Acemoglu and Robinson, in my opinion, is Hayek's "knowledge problem" whereby a select group of people do not have all available information nor efficient price signals no matter how many experts. Too often, these experts call for more government intervention (extractive institutions) that further distorts market activity and leads to distorted prices that lead to worse outcomes, or at least no better outcomes. Instead, economic development should be driven by market-related factors that starts with private property rights and the rule of law (inclusive institutions) that provide the necessary conditions for economic prosperity and freedom to thrive. Easterly does a great job of explaining this with multiple historical examples. Ultimately, ending the practices of technocrats and autocracies, and the like, will go a long way towards improving the lives of everyone, especially the poor.
Profile Image for Ietrio.
6,617 reviews25 followers
December 26, 2021
Sweet! The rights of the poor. That starts with Easterly having a generous wage. Actually let's number it:

1. Easterly gets a generous wage
2. Easterly finds some equally nice employments for some relatives
3. Easterly gets to travel the world at somebody else's expense
4. Probably Easterly has some children who need good college education to perpetuate the new found family tradition of helping the poor
5. Easterly and more like him find a nice four star hotel in the Swiss Alps to gather and talk all expenses paid about how the poor are so so so poor
6. and so on

In short: the rights of the poor can be such a good business for old white men in need of competent room service.
14 reviews2 followers
March 8, 2014
Classic Easterly, although not as robust as some of his previous work. Well-thought, well-argued case for the need for the international development community to respect the rights of the poor. Raises a MUCH needed discussion about disparities between the international community's respect of rights for denizens of the West and those of the Rest.

Heavily based on liberal ideology of how individual political rights and free markets are primary. Glosses over how free markets and free trade can also further exacerbate poverty and provides few insights on how to move forward.
Author 1 book4 followers
March 24, 2014
Disappointing. A little too anecdotal and shrill, even for this cynic. And it never addresses the question of whether children in despotic regimes should be vaccinated. The author is right about problems with a central planning approach to development, but the solutions are not as obvious and straightforward as he suggests.
March 23, 2014
I reviewed this book on my blog (davidroodman.com). Here's a pretty substantial excerpt. I'll see if this works.

The title of Bill Easterly's new book pretty much conveys the message: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Out of arrogance and political convenience, Western donors are designing and financing destructive top-down development "solutions" to be imposed on the poor. The donors are playing into the hands of dictators, even becoming mini-dictators themselves. The just and surer path to economic development lies in respecting the rights of poor people and empowering them to solve their own problems in ways no expert could plan.


My point is that the way the book makes the charge is sloppy and thus hypocritical and counterproductive. It is unbefitting of its empiricist author. The text implies an easy equation between autocrat and technocrat, between praising a despotic government for having done something right and endorsing oppression as the best way forward. The book's title condemns today's experts on poverty for disregarding the expertise of those in poverty. Search the book's pages for substantiation and you'll not find much more than the Easterly-selected quotes above. Most of the book is about other stuff, which I rather like, and will get to. On little evidence, the book condemns a class of people for dismissing a class of people on little evidence.

One consequence of the superficiality of this attack is that the book avoids grappling with a quandary facing development experts. They must sometimes choose whether to, say, work with the Ethiopian government in order to save lives or walk away in order not to buttress oppression. Easterly calls the first option a "false bargain" because there is no econometric evidence that autocracy is good for economic growth. But it is a real choice. Consider this excerpt from Peter Adamson's eulogy for Jim Grant, who as head of UNICEF in the 1980s spearheaded a global vaccination campaign that saved millions of children:

For heads of state, he said, you have to pitch in with a simple, doable proposition. You appeal to their idealism, but you also tell them how they can drastically reduce child deaths at a cost they can afford and on a time scale that can bring them political dividends.

He cajoled and persuaded and flattered and shamed and praised. He offered aid money that he didn't have, and he offered help that the UNICEF country office often wasn't in a position to give. And he back-slapped and shook hands with them all, whether democratic leaders or dire dictators. He shook hands that were stained with blood, hands that had turned the keys on political prisoners, hands that had signed away human rights, hands that were deep in the country's till.

Some of this I was occasionally unhappy about, as were others. We worried about the lending of UNICEF's good name to corrupt and inhuman regimes. But Jim's answer was always the same. "We don't like the President so the kids don't get immunized?" "You want to wait to launch the campaign until all governments are respectable?" [italics in original]

Not only did General Grant forge alliances with ruthless bullies who had killed for power; equally ruthless, he praised them in public if that would save lives. The Tyranny of Experts never acknowledges the strategic role of public rhetoric, taking all quotes from today's development institutions, such as World Bank praise for Ethiopia, as proof that they are entranced by autocracy. The book hardly addresses the question of when development experts at aid agencies truly wield (autocratic) power and when they are merely choosing to align with existing power structures in order to grasp a crumb of influence. To play off a dichotomy in Easterly's previous book, searchers and planners are often the same people. The employees of aid agencies, who would seem to be planners, are working in what are for them the trenches, searching for solutions within tight constraints to the problems they face, solving them as best as they can. It's a bit unseemly to insinuate that the lot of them are tyrants while perching in an ivory tower and dodging the tough choices they face. The book might at least engage with the HRW recommendations for human rights safeguards at the World Bank; but it does not take even that step toward practicality.

Another symmetry between critic and object: the book disapproves of the use of passive voice as "a hallmark of the technocratic approach" because it allows technocrats to say what should be done while glossing over the inconvenient questions of who should do it and with what legitimacy. Yet the book regularly does the equivalent. A leitmotif in its pages is the "debate" between abstract concepts. "[T]his book carries out the debates on the Blank Slate versus learning from history, nations versus individuals, and conscious direction versus spontaneous solutions, and, above all, authoritarian versus free development." These phrases feel like the start of a joke ("Authoritarian and free development walked into a bar…"). Seriously, concepts don't debate; people do. For intellectual discipline, it is important to be explicit about 1) who is doing the debating and 2) what sway they hold. Debating authoritarian versus free development is one thing if you are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at a constitutional convention, another if you are Kermit Roosevelt plotting to overthrow the democratic government of Iran, still another if you are an academic interested in the historical links between economic freedom and growth, and yet another still if you are a tyrannical mid-career health expert at the World Bank with two kids in elementary school…although I'm not quite sure what the debate amounts to in this last case. Does Easterly see the tyrannical development experts as deciding whether to package civil rights with their loans? Presumably not. Who, then, is to debate and to what practical end?

In sum, I think this book, like its predecessor, gets tripped up in places by ill-defined abstractions. Just as searchers and planners are usually the same (when Steve Jobs told his people to create the iPad, was that top-down planning or "spontaneous" problem solving by a market actor?), the phraseology in Tyranny of Experts tends to blur distinct groups. There are the autocrats who adopt with various degrees of sincerity the rhetoric of centrally planned development and then use it to rationalize human rights violations. There are the foreign institutions that collaborate with them, sometimes for the best humanitarian reasons, sometimes out of geo-realpolitik. There are the less-powerful human beings within those institutions, who are seemingly the "experts" and "economists" in this book's title. I think it is a mistake to simply tar one group with the sins of another.

All that is about the 20% of the book I don't like. The other 80% I mostly like.

The heart of the book is Bill Easterly sharing an intellectual journey that took him through rich history and intriguing econometrics. Through clear writing, plentiful storytelling, and touches of humor, he brings the reader along too. I'm sure he makes it look easier than it is.

Many accounts of development aid begin with Harry Truman's inaugural speech in 1949, which included foreign aid in a four-point plan to counter the international spread of communism. "For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people." Easterly opened my eyes to the historical sources of the ideas in that speech. "In fact," Easterly writes, "it was not the first time in history that it was the first time in history." Woodrow Wilson uttered a similar phrase in 1919, at a comparably freighted historical moment.

Easterly recounts how the idea of centrally planned ("technocratic") economic development arose repeatedly in the early 20th century as a helpful handmaiden to authoritarianism, colonialism, and racism. The Versailles treaty of 1919 handed German colonies such as Tanzania and Togo over to Britain and France to "exercise authority over them during the period of their development." In China, Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek cottoned onto authoritarian development ideals, with a little help from the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. government, which sought to help China while changing the subject from America's racist ban on Asian immigrants. In the 1930s, the continuing rise of Japan, modernity's first non-white global power, heightened fears among British colonial administrators of mass uprisings by non-whites, perhaps in cooperation with Japanese invaders. The administrators determined to sublimate their longtime disdain for colored peoples into a new rationale for dominion: to develop the colonies through central planning, for the good of the natives.

I am unaware of any other account of this swatch of the history of ideas. As with any venture into history, there is always more that can be written. I suspect, for example, that the book puts too much blame for the Republic of China's turn to authoritarian development planning on a small American group called the Institute of Pacific Relations, and too little on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and millennia of strong-state tradition in China. Indeed, the economic policies of the Meiji era bid fair for the title of "World's First Development Plan," which Easterly awards to Sun Yat-sen. Still, Easterly has done a great service in pulling together these historical strands. Others can add more.

Easterly weaves the next part of the book from recent scholarship on really long-term determinants of economic development. An academic paper with 14 tables of statistics documenting the persistence of North-South economic differences within Italy over 1,000 years comes to life in a non-quantitative account of the free city of Genoa in the 13th and 14th centuries. Other studies are worked in similarly, subtly forming the weft for an accessible yet evidence-based narrative. The thrust is that freedom is essential to prosperity in the long run. Perhaps inevitably the text sometimes has a just-so quality as it sequentially presents the grand, history-explaining ideas in each academic paper. (Same goes for Why Nations Fail.) The Genoese economic system, you see, treated all parties as equal under the law, making it dynamic and resilient. (That son of Genoa Cristoforo Colombo manifest this spirit of equal treatment by enslaving and slaughtering the natives who welcomed him on the other side of the Atlantic.)

More important, I missed systematic discussion of where enforced rights come from. If we don't know how to make enforced rights, what good does it do to debate whether people should have them? Why were northern Italian cities freer? More precisely, why did their elites settle into equilibria that favored the rule of law over the rule of one? What does an understanding of the sources of enforced rights imply for aid policies, migration policies, and other policies affecting development? Work like that of North, Wallis, and Weingast seems important here but goes unmentioned. I think their kind of scholarship leads to the recognition that the market, which Easterly explicates at length, is not the only complex adaptive system through which humans have produced freedom. Political interactions among elite powers has sometimes done that too.

Also braided in is an enjoyable history of what is now a single block in SoHo, in Manhattan. Reading it is like watching 400 years of economic history in time lapse (with commercial breaks for exegesis of Adam Smith). The dramatic peak in that narrative, and in the entire book, comes in the late-1950s showdown between the iconic technocrat Robert Moses, and his unexpected nemesis, Jane Jacobs. Moses wanted to raze blocks of old buildings in SoHo, erect uniform public housing in their place, and run a four-lane highway down Fifth Avenue and through Washington Square Park. (Very "Star Wars," if you think about it.) Jacobs and other community activists opposed, won the day—and won a historic victory against the idea of top-down planning, then ascendant in America. Today, apartments in buildings Moses deemed unredeemable fetch prices surpassing $2 million. Jacobs's great book helped many appreciate how mature city neighborhoods, like markets, thrive on local knowledge and diversity.

The Tyranny of Experts is in large part the fruit of one man's journey across fascinating intellectual terrain. It is not the last word on the deep sources of economic and political development. Probably no one could fully map the subject. But the story is particularly well told, and contains much worth listening to. To enjoy it, I had to look beyond the thin attempt to turn the book into a critique of development experts. Whether freedom fostered development over the last 1,000 years is rather different from whether a donor should work with Ethiopia's planners today. Yes, there is a link, and I assume it fires Easterly's passion for the material at the heart of the book. But that passion does not suffice to condemn a large, vaguely specified group of people, the "experts," for trampling the rights of the poor.
Profile Image for Francis Fish.
Author 6 books18 followers
August 8, 2014
Easterly is well known economist, who used to be one of the people he characterises as a "Development Economist" in the book. His central thesis is that experts think that the world's poor don't worry about their rights; they're far more worried about their poverty and must be "helped" by the experts' expertise to get out of poverty. Only then do their rights matter.

Easterly demonstrates with masterful strokes how, in fact, respecting rights is the cornerstone of sustainable growth. You won't put effort into something if the government can arbitrarily turn up with a truck full of soldiers and take it away from you. If a king can just confiscate what you make you won't make much, or trade with other people, because what's the point?

Once the individual's rights are respected, only then, can growth happen.

He goes right back to Adam Smith's invisible hand from the wealth of nations and gives a far more nuanced reading of Smith than the current dogma about markets would lead you to believe is the case. For example, Smith would have been appalled by the monopolists cartels that run much of our economy. The invisible hand is, instead, people working in a self-interested way with the limited knowledge at their disposal, with each other, to create an economy that works for them. There is no expert saying how it should work in an abstract sense. There is no way an "expert" can possibly have all of the knowledge needed to create an economy, or have a deep understanding of people's individual needs. It's simply too big a problem. The knowledge needed is in no single head, and creates a different structure with a different history depending on what the individuals knew or discovered when they collaborated with each other. Of course, there can't be any miracles caused by some anointed leader either.

His other target is what he calls the "blank slate" approach. Experts and the dictators that appoint them start from the assumption that whatever poor country they are about to blight is a blank slate, with no history, no already operating, particular, invisible hand that gets things done. So they proceed to impose a way of doing things on people instead of letting them find it out for themselves, and also trample on the rights of those people in the process "for their own good".

He also discusses at length the works of Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal. Hayek has been somewhat hijacked by later thinkers such as Milton Friedman but in The Road to Serfdom he outlines why the old state-socialist vision of experts telling us how to live our lives is deeply flawed, if not fascistic, and he also defended the right of the individual to not have their lives decided for them by the state. In contrast Myrdal's vision of removing children from their families and having them brought up by more "efficient" state-controlled organisations is frankly terrifying. Myrdal's vision for what we now call the third world suffered from the benevolent expert illusion. He wrote a huge treatise Asian Drama An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations without once mentioning anything to do with the history and culture of the place or the needs of the people there, but instead talking of them like they are children. Myrdal's work invented the so-called science of development economics that Easterly's book is a polemic with.

Easterly makes the point that local custom and democratic tradition meant that Myrdal's vision in his native Sweden made his ideas about reorganising the family not start. People wouldn't let this happen because democracy and basic rights mean such harebrained ideas can't take root. However, in the non-democratic, less developed world they can, due to the lack of individual rights and the dominance of dictators. Of course, the custom and tradition is the product of many generations of trial and error, it won't be perfect, but the best people have come up with so far. It will almost definitely be better than something just made up in the mind of a Myrdal, because it has been tested by the people living with it.

There is a detailed discussion debunking the myth of dictators promoting growth, and what is a mountain of evidence pointing the other way. Also, evidence of growth is called into question. In the long run you will get periods of apparently high growth for purely statistical reasons followed by low or average, but our human propensity for seeing patterns will credit it to an individual or government because it makes a better story, even when the dates don't overlap. A far better measure is to look at the growth on average for a region and see if it matches that of neighbouring countries, then see if there is a significant difference that might be caused by the dictator. This explains the miracle of Singapore far better than any story about Lee Kuan Yew being responsible for it.

One of the most striking examples Easterly covers is that of Korea. People living in an area where the land was awful for growing food, and where "experts" may have spent a lot of time and energy getting the crop yield from terrible to bad instead gained skills servicing motor cars, they swapped these skills with the people who had land that could grow food. This became the motor for the massive technology companies in Korea, but if the experts had arrived they all would still be subsistence farmers growing slightly more food than they might have done otherwise on marginal land.

One of the most telling arguments about the abuse of statistics comes when the Gates foundation are taken to task for claiming they reduced infant mortality in Ethiopia. In essence the figures are made up from guesses looking at what might have happened and have no rigour. The Ethiopian government are also rights abusers on a grand scale, and use British aid to drive people of their land and pay for their political prisons, as well as hold people to ransom (vote for us or starve) over political reform. The book opens with the story of some farmers in the USA being forced off their land and moved to model villages so a British company can grow wood there. Of course, this could not happen in a democratic country like the USA, but it did happen in Ethiopia and Easterly uses this to make the point that individual rights against the government are paramount if you want economic progress. They are not a nice to have, at some undefined point in the future. I am personally very angered that my government's much lauded ethical foreign policy was a smokescreen for this. Of course the government has changed since then, but I am sure the same ignorant, condescending, rights ignoring view holds.

I have used some quite emotional language writing this review, but in fact Easterly is scrupulous in making sure the evidence speaks for itself and does not make any polemical points the way I have here for brevity's sake. He also goes into some depth looking at an area in New York that is now one of the most desirable places to live that was left alone by the zealous bureaucrats by a process of accident and prevention by protest, and how it was transformed because it was left alone while the invisible hand found a better use for it, this is fascinating and also calls into question the current zeal for tearing everything down and evicting people from perfectly good houses because of some grand plan.

To sum up, this is a well written, engaging book. It recasts some writers who have been unjustly hijacked by some of the more extreme political views of the last half century and lets their ideas breathe. The central thesis, that people find excellent solutions themselves when not interfered with or stolen from by the state, is valid. It also calls into question the grip the monopolists have on our economy, to create a metaphor of my own, the invisible hand has become a strangler's and Adam Smith would have had no truck with it.
Profile Image for Drtaxsacto.
557 reviews45 followers
January 13, 2019
Development Economics was one of those parts of the field that I almost intentionally avoided. Easterly is not in the mainstream of the field - with good reason. He is skeptical that the models used in development economics (either by multilateral groups like the World Bank) or by individual charities (for example the Gates Foundation) have any possibility of success.

He begins the book with a contrast - the first Nobel in Economics (actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences) which went to Gunnar Myrdal and Frederich Hayek evidence a debate which never happened, but should have. He argues that what should have happened either at the end of WWI or WWII would have been to discuss alternative models of development. He contends that the debates should have centered on whether in working on development one should take into account history or assume a blank state; whether the appropriate focus of development should be the individual or the state and whether it is possible to do development from spontaneous invention or whether from conscious design. On all three of those questions Myrdahl chose the former and Hayek the latter. And the consequences of the predominant players in the field ignoring the more market based alternatives has wasted a ton of money on projects which seem to favor autocrats and ignore human rights.

He starts the book with a story about a plot of land in the US Midwest were a group of farmers were ordered off their lands and their crops burned and their livestock killed in order the create a development program in the area. The only problem in the story is that it actually took place in Africa. Oh,the project, like most of the trillions of dollars piddled away in development was a total failure.

Easterly goes through a lot of the failures of development, the misleading claims and he bizarre attraction that development experts have for autocratic regimes. He also deals with many of the false logic that development people start with.

One interesting issue, which was quite unexpected, was the issue of whether Thomas Malthus was right. In the Second Treatise Malthus argued that population expansions would out pace the ability to produce food. He thought that because in economic terms land is a rival good - my use diminishes yours. But Easterly recognizes that in the end as productivity became more apparent that land use was much less rival. Thus as we could produce more and more food on less and less land - land became less and less rival. That is an interesting side issue but one which I think more clearly explains why Malthusian thinking is so wrong.

Easterly argues that the majority of the development community - in part because a lot of it was organized through international agencies was able to avoid a discussion about alternative models and simultaneously because there was never any challenge were able to spend trillions dollars on projects with little chance of success. That may be the real tyranny that the development experts brought to their jobs.
Profile Image for Andrew.
15 reviews
August 12, 2022
A couple thoughts and reactions:
For most of the book I was planning on giving it 3 stars, but the end reminded me of an important point it brought home: development economics, but plenty areas of gov and politics has a real obsession with benevolent autocrats. He solidly sets that story straight. He takes aim at International development which in many ways was an extension of colonialism.

That said, for 350 pages, I feel like a 10 page Atlantic article could have accomplished the same thing. He repeats the same points, and they aren’t really approached in a different way.

The book was published 10 years ago, it’s interesting to see its commentary on Int’l development and what’s changed.
He has a discussion about analyzing at the country-level vs. individual level. From what I’ve seen, there were other thinkers saying similar things, but it’s encouraging, that shift has happened.
Profile Image for Brurce Mecca.
18 reviews23 followers
December 13, 2017
Not as impactful as The Elusive Quest for Growth (for me) in adding the skeptical view in 'development industry', although I must argue that this book has given profound and clear foundation for skepticism in technocracy.
Profile Image for Miguel.
28 reviews15 followers
January 12, 2021
An interesting analysis of the study of economic development. Although it is repetitive on some points, the author's point of view is surely convincing.

His central point is that individual rights lead to economic growth, while technocratic approaches to solve poverty can be counterproductive (for the economy as for civil rights).

To prove his point, the author states and explains the dualism in development on three levels:

-Conscious Design versus Spontaneous solutions.
-Nations versus individuals.
-Blank Slate versus Learning from history.

With historical examples and analogies, the reading of the book is stimulating and enjoyable:

-A whole chapter to understand Colombia's problem to achieve economic development.
-Throughout the book we see the author prove his ideas with the tracking of "the Greene Street" (New York City) during 200 years.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
348 reviews13 followers
May 20, 2014
The best thing about this book is its title!

The purported concept of the book is essentially that naive do-gooding international aid agencies as well as cynical governments keep the Third World poor poor by promoting technical development over and above the individual rights of the powerless citizens of said be knighted country. Whereas if they concentrated on demanding democratic and legal rights etc for the poor these people would find the solutions to the problems that need solving. This is a pretty powerful idea - rights for the poor to control their destiny. And if this is what the book had been about I would have been much more interested than I was in the actual content of the book which offers a lot of lofty criticism but suggests few answers. The majority of the book is history of the world told through economics and a hymn to libertarian economics.

I have a lot of sympathy with the concept of getting out of people's way and trusting the market to get it right. I'll never forget going to Kenya and being struck by how incredibly fertile the country was, how decent and hard working people were - but were so poor generally. But the devil, as always is in the details and is there any more devilish detail than trying to get third world countries economies humming, elections, independent judiciary etc etc? Easterly's relentless criticism of the modern aid industry and institutions like the world bank are no doubt justified in many instances but I found his breezy descriptions of capitalist successes - Hyundai for example - as examples as to what could have happened anywhere (he sites an African country as stuck sewing trousers for export as a contrast) I found to be rather ridiculous. He lauds Hyundai as an example of buccaneering, individualistic free enterprise succeeding through innovation etc etc. but hang on - Korea? A dictatorship when Hyundai got set up and running, and then succeeding - this goes against the entire thrust of the second half of the book which attacks dictatorship and the collective. I believe Korea was aggressively protectionist to help companies like Hyundai, but this doesn't fit the authors narrative.

The best parts of the book are in the first half which detail the history of the aid and intervention movement itself which was initially outgrowths of war, colonialism and of course the Cold War. This is genuinely thought provoking and a good reminder that with all the best motives (leaving aside the many examples of cynical self interest by the West in its relations with poor countries) a lot of bastard dictators ended up doing a lot of damage to a lot of people. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I think the author has overreached himself in this book and that he simply was not up to the task of executing the central -excellent - concept of rights and self determination for the poor. When he veers from the history of development to try to synthesise a grandiose libertarian history of everything he falls flat.
9 reviews1 follower
December 15, 2018
Easterly’s book is fantastic! His arguments were well-supported, well-articulated, and understandable.

His argument is clear: “The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights.” He, then, develops his claim in three sub-arguments which each compose sections of the book. (1) Learning from history is better for poverty than assuming a country is a blank slate. (2) The rights of the individuals should take precedent over the rights of the nations. (3) Spontaneous solutions often result in more favorable outcomes than conscious decisions.

Anybody who enjoys economics must read this book. Easterly is a development economist who loathes the majority opinion in the development economics discipline. Thus, it is quite fun to see him eviscerate ideas that are not only common in that sub-discipline but are common among the general populace. Besides, many of the positions he attacks, such as the tendency to view a country as a blank slate or the tendency to adore benevolent autocrats, can be attractive even for people who lean heavily towards free markets (see Augusto Pinochet’s modern fanbase).

At the same time, this is an excellent book for anybody who is unfamiliar with economics. In addition to advancing profound arguments that will add to the knowledge of the economically literate, he gives really good overviews of such well-established economic arguments as the importance of institutions, the efficiency of markets, the economics of immigration, etc. In other words, he teaches economics as he goes, and there is no need to have previous economics knowledge to read the book. At the same time, people, like me, who love economics will (for the most part) not feel talked down to.

It is obvious that Easterly is well-read. From the so-called Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich Hayek debate, to modern academics like Douglass North and Daniel Kahneman, to older economists like Adam Smith, to working knowledge of the histories of China, Africa, and South America, to biographies on Frederick Barbarossa, Easterly definitely establishes himself as an authority. He is an authority that liberally imparts knowledge on his readers.

Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of this book is how friendly it is to liberals (of the American variety). I am not a liberal. I am a libertarian, but I feel like I could give this book to a liberal friend and have their eyes opened to the superiority of markets, rights, and liberty when the goal is alleviating poverty. I know this (1) because Easterly frames his argument in liberal ways (e.g., a focus on the impoverished, a focus on foreigners, etc.) and (2) because I know people whose opinions actually were changed by this book. The reason why is simple. This book has a strong argument, a plethora of sources and evidence, clear writing, and no condescending tone which makes it a powerful piece of literature.
Profile Image for Tadas Talaikis.
Author 7 books65 followers
October 20, 2017
This has some extension of my old thought model that a bit resembles with anarchism (not well related anyway, as any "-ism"), which in few words can be described as "f*ck anyone pretending to save", i.e. "saviors".

Through my extensive research on people, "saviors" are a bit not "normal". Here "normal" I define as "believing in the ideology, or even having the concept of the somewhat absolute world model that allows to say (or, some with increased level of "belief" in "saviority", force) everyone else what to do or how they should live". It's not normal as "saviors" due to their psychological problems can't discern between their own boundaries and freedoms of personality and boundaries and freedoms of others. I've been there too, so I know what I'm saying. To be more simple, it means, "don't f*cking say others what they should do", even if they want to submit.

Hm.... Not as few words happened, that's not idiotic 2-D either, but if said in 2-D - "power for the people", which assumes people "should" educate themselves every day to the concept that 1)
no one has the right to tell how they should look, act or live (with the boundary you don't make *economic* damage to others); 2) you don't need to submit to anyone in order to live well - it's all in your head*. Etc.

* Meaning, 95% of talks and shouts are useless and without any value, because those who know what to say are saying nothing, they have no reason. All is well with them, why they should "save" something.

So, out from that 95% nonsense in our animal farm, various liars, manipulators, holy and dictators, i.e. "saviors" arise. People can't see alpha (those 5%) and want to submit, believe fantastic nonsense without trying to look and analyze for data, and then they, those lost souls, start to believe they would be "saved" if they do X, Y, Z, e.g. elect that X, Y, Z, well, further nonsense.

So, this book extends this viewpoint further - not only dictators, but all the experts are sh*t. Wouldn't try to prove why, just would say, think about why they became "experts" and want to be loved as ones? Simple, because some are "saviors" who know some "secrets" you don't, and then you buy from their "holiness". OK, everything in this world is governed by pure economic reasons, but shouldn't, we ca do better. Maybe technology would distribute all powers between everyone enough to diminish returns of becoming the "savior". Or maybe not, people just like to believe they can't do or don't understand something.
Profile Image for Karen Ashmore.
497 reviews7 followers
July 23, 2014
I am a big fan of Bill Easterly’s writing and he delivers once again in The Tyranny of Experts. In this book, he contrasts the technocratic solution that often supports autocratic regimes with a free development approach that generates solutions from individuals with political and economic rights.

The technocrats (he cites World Bank, United Nations, USAID, Gates Foundation and DFID as the most egregious) believe that poverty is purely a technical problem amenable to “expert” technical solutions like fertilizers and antibiotics. Easterly shows the technical problems of the poor are a symptom of poverty and not a cause of poverty. He argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights and a free market approach that encompasses the rights of the poor is far more effective in eradicating poverty.

He cites cases where individualism, questioning of authority, and differing experiments result in true innovation led by the people, rather than a mandated set of rules established by experts. This reminded me very much of Dambisa Moyo’s claim in Dead Aid that the Global South does not need more foreign aid but instead investment in entrepreneurial innovations of the people. Easterly takes it one step further saying that human rights and a democratic society are essential components as well.

He describes the global double standard of rights for the rich and not for the poor as a major tenet of the top-down technocratic world view of development. The disrespect for poor people by agencies such as World Bank and Gates Foundation with their stereotypes of wise technocrats from the West aiding helpless victims from the Global South is doomed. Development will have to give up its authoritarian mindset to survive.
Profile Image for Maria.
3,963 reviews100 followers
August 23, 2015
Easterly argues that the West's goal of saving the poor, they have prompted policies and dictators that did more damage than benefit. A better solution would be to enforce/encourage individual rights and let the market guide development.

Why I started this book: My brother recommended it to me and I was interested.

Why I finished it: Very compelling arguments if a little repetitive. (Actually the habit of repeating was beneficial in an audio format, I know that if I had read this, I would have been pulling my hair out.) The argument that I felt the most compelling was our assumptions about statistics. While most economic miracles in the past 5 decades happened under autocratic governments; not all autocratic governments produce economic miracles. Just like most mass shootings are done by individuals with a mental illness; most people with mental illness are not mass shooters. We shouldn't assume that autocratic government is the fastest or the best way to rapid economic growth.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
778 reviews39 followers
September 8, 2014
While The Tyranny of Experts occasionally drifts into the realm of the abstruse (particularly in the beginning, where Easterly discusses the clashing philosophies of Hayek and Myrdal at length, which I think might better have been left to the end), he has vital things to say. His most important point--that we cannot make the world better by allowing dictators and technocrats to trample the rights of the poor and vulnerable--is one that I think everyone who cares about the future of the world needs to understand. Underlying the many facts and examples he presents is the insight that much of what's been done in the name of progress has at its roots a deep-seated racism and contempt for those who are poor. Easterly doesn't offer any easy answers, but his points--especially given that he at one time worked in the development community, and therefore has inside knowledge of what's happening--are ones that should be considered.
Profile Image for Max.
384 reviews26 followers
July 11, 2014
I liked the argument posited by this book, but the execution was poor.

This book's Introduction was terrific. In it, Easterly argues that an acceptance of authoritarianism and a neglect of rights is at the heart of the development failures of the past century. This is an intelligent and interesting argument, but Easterly did not develop it well. The book tries to demonstrate this theory by relating a bunch of development "history," none of which feels very authoritative or balanced. This shouldn't be a surprise, since Easterly is an economist, not a historian or even an economic historian. I would have been more interested in reading Easterly developing his argument by deconstructing how authoritarianism undermines development of institutions, with some examples from his own fieldwork.
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews504 followers
January 5, 2016
I think economists in general could do a better job of making their books more interesting to the general population. If I had only read the first half of this book, I would have given it 2 stars. Luckily I was willing to power through because the last 1/4 of the book was fantastic. So many important points. Easterly did a great job of exposing the harm done by the very powers that were put in place to help the world's most vulnerable citizens (ie The World Bank), as well as recommending more effective actions . His arguments on the biases that shape our view of the efficacy of the world's leader was spot on. He should have led with some of that or at least given a better teaser in the beginning.

Bottom line: Extremely glad I read it but wish it hadn't been a chore.
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