Arrested Development

Economists who set out to help the world's poor may actually be part of the problem.

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly, Basic Books, 394 pages, $29.99

"I can sympathize with economists who, in their zeal to help the world's poor, unwittingly favor autocracy," writes William Easterly in his new book The Tyranny of Experts, "because for a long time I was one of them myself."

Easterly, the head of New York University's Development Research Institute, has become one of the loudest dissenters against the popular view that government-to-government foreign aid is the best way to improve the lot of the globe's worst off. Development economics, he argues, overprivileges autocratic central planning and neglects the benefits of the spontaneous free play of markets and their proven powers to increase wealth. This leads development experts to disrespect the rights of the poor.

Easterly aims neither to blame nor to shame development economists for their discipline's original sin. But he doesn't pull punches when it comes to telling their intellectual history. Between 1919 and 1949, he explains, "development ideas took shape while racism and colonialism still reigned supreme." Easterly offers up mini-histories of how development economists acted in China between the world wars, Colombia after World War II, and Africa during and after World War II (where, Easterly writes, "African leaders inherit[ed] the role of benevolent autocrat from the defunct [British] empire").

A United Nations Primer for Development from 1951 sums up the mandarins' perspective on development, government, and citizens: "We wish to emphasize that the masses take their cue from those who are in authority over them. [I]f the leaders win the confidence of the country they can inspired the masses with an enthusiasm for progress which carries all before it all problems of economic development are soluble."

The bad ideas Easterly chronicles are unsavory in both moral and scientific terms. They tend to treat migration of peoples away from the Third World as some unthinkable betrayal, a notion captured in the oft-repeated phrase brain drain. Instead of lamenting the loss, he says, economists should focus on the individuals who have chosen to better their circumstances through a process that helps protect rights while alleviating poverty.

To illustrate the absurdity of the argument, Easterly presents the amusing reductio of the "Lost Republic of West Virginia," from which his own family "migrated" to elsewhere in the United States. Because migration out from the state caused a local labor supply to shrink to match falling demand, he explains, "per capita income in West Virginia actually rose at the same rate as the U.S. average" during that period. "West Virginia did not get poor because of out-migration; it was already poor and the out-migration kept it from getting poorer."

Migrants from poor nations improve the world as they move. Easterly profiles the Mourides of Senegal (originally based in a religious brotherhood formed in the 1880s), who formed highly valuable international systems of trade and finance through their diaspora. He provides examples of how that network allows small merchants from poor nations to buy and sell abroad via decentralized "banking" services, to make valuable business connections across the globe, and move goods and processes across the planet in ways that make both themselves and their clients and customers richer.

Development economists too often treat nation-states as blank slates, devoid of history or culture worth understanding or respecting. Easterly dedicates a smart chapter to how historical patterns of politics and culture going back to at least the 12th century continue to have measurable effects today. Northern Italy, for example, is noticeably richer than southern Italy, thanks in part to the Lombard League, a medieval alliance that successfully fought off an invasion from German conqueror Frederick Barbarossa and preserved a tradition of relative market and citizen freedom in a collation of "free cities" in 1176.

Patterns of trust, successful histories of commerce, and mercantile values from centuries ago still contribute to economic success in peoples long after they've left their homelands. On the other side of the coin, areas whose economies depended on slaves-either providing them or using them-still suffer from poor development effects centuries later. One big causal factor in that dynamic is decidedly lower levels of trust in groups, for example the Aja tribes of what is now Benin, who were most victimized by the slave trade. Lack of trust, as Easterly shows, leads to measurably lower levels of both prosperity and liberty among peoples suffering it.

Easterly is particularly sharp on the looseness of much of the "data" that development experts rely on. He mocks Bill Gates, the Uncle Pennybags of modern development econ, for crowing about a five-year improvement in Ethiopian child mortality rates. Easterly convincingly describes a confusing data landscape, marred by lack of well-kept vital records in shoddy states, and wildly varying estimates from different independent sources doing the best they can with the bad source material they have to deal with. In fact, we have no way to get an accurate picture about infant and child death in the Third World. Our macro data on the economies of the poorer parts of the world are too unreliable and inconsistent to use as much of a measure of anything.

The myopic focus on nation-states and the data they provide is the root of some of development economists' most spectacular errors. Variations in national growth patterns tend to be pretty random over time. When it comes to explaining growth, regional patterns are the more relevant measures, Easterly argues. The kind of short bursts of national growth that are often lauded as successes in the autocratic model nearly always revert to the mean. "The dominance of the temporary growth fluctuations over permanent differences between nations," writes Easterly, "explains why there are so few…lasting miracles"-and "why almost everyone has had temporary miracles."

Tyranny of Experts takes various tacks-historical, theoretical, technological, statistical-to explain, in theory and in practice, why international development economics should fundamentally rethink its premises and practices.

But for a book trying to make the case that poor, autocratic governments harm their citizens' rights with the connivance of western development experts, Tyranny of Experts lacks sufficient specifics of how and why that is so, or enough vivid stories demonstrating the specific human costs of development hubris. It's almost as if Easterly thinks his claims are so obviously true that he doesn't have to get bogged down in the details of proving them.

One exception is the doozy of a story that opens the book. Soldiers set fire to the homes and grain stores of a town of farmers in Ohio, machine-gun their cows, and force-march 20,000 farmers and their families away from the wreckage. The World Bank, we learn, has essentially seized their town and handed it over to a British company.

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  • Game of Thrones fan||

    "Okay, Lindsay, are you forgetting that I was a professional twice over— an analyst and a therapist. The world’s first analrapist."

  • PaulW||

    "We wish to emphasize that the masses take their cue from those who are in authority over them. [I]f the leaders win the confidence of the country they can inspired the masses with an enthusiasm for progress which carries all before it all problems of economic development are soluble."

    1951, and the right are the conservatives?

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Development economists too often treat nation-states as blank slates, devoid of history or culture worth understanding or respecting.

    Which is incredibly ironic since most nation-states are neither and were created out of whole cloth by European colonialists.

  • Aresen||

    The nation states were created by European Colonialists without regard to the boundaries between groups that were previously in place, but the people of those did have their own history and culture.

  • bassjoe||

    Well, the problem with the European-created nation-state is that they mixed together a bunch of different peoples with different histories/cultures and called them part of a single "state"...

  • Aresen||

    Soldiers set fire to the homes and grain stores of a town of farmers in Ohio, machine-gun their cows, and force-march 20,000 farmers and their families away from the wreckage.

    We've discussed Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears before.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I am routinely subjected to the blanket assertion that all rethuglitards are racists. None of the people who fervently believe are in any way capable of comprehending the damage wrought by their "enlightened" racially motivated policies.

  • Loki||

    A United Nations Primer for Development from 1951 sums up the mandarins' perspective on development, government, and citizens: "We wish to emphasize that the masses...

    I typically stop paying attention to anything anyone who uses the phrase "the masses" in a non-ironic way has to say the moment I see/ hear it. It's a pretty handy indicator that whatever follows is guaranteed to be a bunch of collectivist bullshit.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The cold facts are that horrible old Colonialism worked a damnsight better than most of what has been tried since, which is pretty frightening considering how much of what Colonialism was accused of was accurate. The modern internatioal busybodies meddle freely, without the anchor to reality that a profit motive represents OR the tried and tested code of moralityand ethics that Protestant Christianity provided (however intermittantly). My hope for the 21st Century is that Juan and Chang and M'boto boot the Western Intellectual White-butts the hell out of the way and get on with persuing their own interests. We may have to make bloody war on the ressult, but at least we won't PITY them to death.

  • Dweebston||

    without the anchor to reality that a profit motive represents

    Nobody should profit off of poverty! Especially not the poor.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The Progressive Wester Intellectuals -like most sef selected elites throughout history - tell themselves that what they do to people is for the General Good. They lie. It is long past time we stopped lettingWestern Intellectual Buttinskis wrap themselves in smug moral superiority for behaving just like every other passel of Guillotine Bait in history.

  • Dweebston||

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

    You have the right to remain impoverished: anything you say or do will be used to drum up support for our next well-intentioned catastrophe. You have the right to consult outside opinions on the likely efficacy and subsidiary consequences of our meddling, but let's be honest, you're mostly a bunch of ignorant tribespeople and subsistence farmers to be used as show props for our publicity campaigns. If you choose to fuss about it, you will almost certainly be visited by neighbors who are eligible for our payola and who will change your mind.

    Now that you have been informed of your "rights," will you comply while we take up semi-permanent residence while we count heads of cattle and do our level best to disrupt the only livelihood your people have maintained since time immemorial while cutting off access to transformative technologies because carbon?

  • Christophe||

    In that line of thought: http://givedirectly.org/ is a charity that just gives money to some of the world's poorest people, and doesn't tell them how they can or can't use it.

    Turns out it's pretty damn effective: They upgrade their roofs, buy cattle, start businesses. Who would have thought?

  • Muzzle of Bees||

    "Markets are simply what result when we respect the individual's right not to be molested by authoritarians when choosing what to do with property."

    Good one for the quote board.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    A different perspective is that markets always exist, like gravity, and price control can distort markets much as dams and canals distort water flowing downhill.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Markets always exist. Governments seek to control markets by threat of violence.

  • ||

    all problems of economic development are soluble solvable

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    No, I think he means that they dissolve in water......

  • REMant||

    Afghanistan and Iraq I'd think equally good examples, as well, of course, as Vietnam.

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