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

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The Tyranny of Experts

By William Easterly

Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

Published by – Basic Books, New York

Year : March 2014

Former World Bank Economist, William Easterly has revisited the crucial elements of economic development by prioritizing individual rights and thereby free markets in the process. Although published seven years ago, this book is a constant reminder for policymakers and economists especially in a developing country to reframe their development decisions. The principal idea of individual rights, as highlighted by the author, remains the crucially important factor in development discourse. Departing from inequality in income and opportunity discussed by Picketty or welfare theory by Sen, Easterly presents a refreshing view with a historical genesis. The book begins with the “debate” that two Nobel Laureates, Hayek and Myrdal, never had ─ with weaving pragmatic ideas on blank slate versus learning from history. This is a rather interesting concept as policy-making in the developing country suffers from limited clarity on the structure. The implication of such a thought is quite justifiable with anecdotes. For instance, a cash transfer scheme for marginal farmers in southern parts of India might be more successful than north Indian states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. One could confidently warrant the success linking the history and politics of the state and its culture. A Dravidian wave and a well-entrenched communist movement in the south has significantly contributed to positive social engineering and changed the face of social policy while the northern states, however, were victimized as powerhouses for vote-bank politics mostly from central government. One could not simply ignore the political status quo or the history behind the community development. The blank slate approach would treat every state as a sample to be tested with a scientific solution. Dismissive of this idea, the author reaffirms the relevance of history to be accounted for comprehending developmental problems. Extrapolating this idea to governance implies the decentralization of power and strengthening of constitutional federalism to prevent authoritarian rule. The next debate on the well-being of state versus individuals and conscious design versus spontaneous solution reiterates the significance of individual rights in achieving growth and development in a state. The world’s first development plan was created by Sun Yat-sen, former serving president of Republican China to counter European imperialism. An institution or nation offering a technocratic solution for the sake of development manifests into a benevolent autocrat. The distinction between autocrats and benevolent autocrats is important in the modern context. The story of British colonialism asserting power is similar in Africa’s development. Africa Survey, a report on economic development in Africa during the early 20th century offers a collective development at the cost of individual rights. It is known that colonials refined their philosophy by quoting the long term welfare of the country. In India, beginning with ‘Mercantilism’, the East India Company wielded power as a technocrat. Easterly cites the Europeans colonial interests in Africa, Western semi-colonial interest in China and American Cold War interest in Columbia as concrete examples that led to the suppression of individual rights of the people and encouraged domestic autocracy. In essence, benevolent autocracy in recent times follows the same recipe of dismissing individual rights and asserting a technical solution for a designed problem. The case in point is Ethiopia’s autocratic ruler Meles Zenawi, known for manipulating vote counts even though he had lost the election. Tony Blair and George W Bush were supporting Meles for promoting development in Ethiopia for political convenience as they viewed Meles to be a reliable ally during the war against terror. However, the investigation by Human Rights Watch found the donor aid was used for blackmailing peasants and punishing the opposition. The title of the report, ‘Development Without Freedom’ summarizes the plight of many other cases as cited by the author in his book. In a sequence of anecdotes, Easterly develops a lucid debate on nations versus individuals. Exploring this idea reveals the narrative built by Trump and Borris Johnson in the ambit of conservative politics. The discussion boils down to the choice of ensuring the welfare of individuals to achieve a nation’s objective or prioritizing nation by ignoring the rights of people. Obsession with economic growth of a nation has led to an erroneous perception that a nation-state’s growth is the real growth. That individual rights are usually the victim of the collective pursuit of a nation’s success is a central theme the author has addressed convincingly.
Proceeding with the nation versus individual debate, Easterly firmly believes freedom to be the key for development than rules. Although the idea of freedom is liberally used by the author, it must not be misunderstood to a lack of rule-based society.
“For every Lee Kuan Yew, there is a Robert Mugabe”
Development success of a handful of technocrats has placed an assumption that autocracy would automatically deliver rapid growth in general. Just like China or Singapore, most growth miracles happen under autocrats but this does not mean all autocrats guarantee a growth miracle. Even China’s miraculous growth was ensured only after rights to individuals were granted to some extent; single-party rule deserves less credit than the state-capitalist mode of operations. The assertion seems to hold good in most of the countries. However, there is little mention in the book about individual rights rescuing a country facing an economic debacle. For instance, Chile is experiencing huge violence post the economic mismanagement even after the sitting president Pinera adopted a neoliberal approach different from that of the former dictator Pinochet. Although the factors to measure economic crises might vary, from a development perspective─ individual rights granted must materialize into socio-economic welfare across the population. Interpreting Adam Smith in the right context, the free market is considered the panacea to fix government and market failures. That free market does not qualify as pro-capitalism is an explicit disclaimer given by the author. Relying on markets, reducing asymmetric information, promoting knowledge economy, individual rights-based planning, learning from history and coming up with spontaneous solutions are the key to resist the tyranny of experts in developing societies. Dambisa Moyo, the author of Dead Aid, believes financial support to an underdeveloped country is counterproductive, compared to market-based solutions. Unlike Moyo, Easterly does not accuse technocrats, he rather emphasizes individual rights must take precedence over collective components such as a country. He believes growth and development are possible if the state dilutes the role of being a technocrat to promote the rights of the poor by providing economic and political freedom. Overall, the book provides an interesting perspective for constructing a 21st-century development strategy that serves as an existing argument for the work in ‘alleviating poverty’, which recently was recognized for a Nobel prize in economics.

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