The real cause of poverty in the world

2014 Books Issue | An excerpt from WORLD’s Book of the Year for analysis
by William Easterly
Posted 6/21/14, 12:48 pm

This year, WORLD selected a Book of the Year in three categories: popular theology, history, and analysis. The winning book for analysis is The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly (Basic Books).

Unlike most economic “experts,” Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University and the co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute, doesn’t see poverty as a technical problem needing technical solutions. That approach to economic development in poor countries, he says, ignores “the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

His book “eviscerates top-down, government-centric approaches that treat people as blank slates,” writes Marvin Olasky in WORLD’s annual Books Issue. “Easterly regards local people without Ph.D.’s as more knowledgeable about how to use funds effectively.”

The following is an excerpt from WORLD’s Book of the Year for analysis. —Mickey McLean

Chapter One: Introduction

The Technocratic Illusion

The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich, 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. We see this in the [World] Bank’s actions in Mubende; we will see the same belief prevalent amongst others who combat global poverty, such as the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, and US and UK aid agencies.

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. In Mubende, Uganda, for example, the techniques of improved forestry offered a solution to poverty. But it was not a solution for the Mubende farmers. The illusion that the problem was technical only distracted attention from the soldiers’ and World Bank’s violations of the rights of the farmers.

By this technocratic illusion, the technical experts unintentionally confer new powers and legitimacy on the state as the entity that will implement the technical solutions. The economists who advocate the technocratic approach have a terrible naïveté about power—that as restraints on power are loosened or even removed, that same power will remain benevolent of its own accord.

What used to be the divine right of kings has in our time become the development right of dictators. The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts, what this book will call authoritarian development. The word technocracy (a synonym for authoritarian development) itself is an early twentieth-century coinage that means “rule by experts.”

The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people is the moral tragedy of development today. The rights of the poor—such as the right of Ugandan farmers not to have their homes burnt down—are moral ends in themselves. Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist. Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them. One cannot avoid this moral choice by appealing to “nonideological evidence-based policies” (a popular phrase in development today).

Authoritarian development is also a pragmatic tragedy. History and modern experience suggest that free individuals with political and economic rights—call it free development—make up a remarkably successful problem-solving system. Free development gives us the right to choose amongst a myriad of spontaneous problem-solvers, rewarding those that solve our problems. These public and private problem-solvers accomplish far more than dictators who implement solutions provided by experts. We will see how free development allows the squeaky wheel to get the grease, while authoritarian development silences the squeaky wheel—perhaps with a police raid and a prison term.

The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights. The emphasis on the problem of expertise makes the problem of rights worse. The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Authoritarians Anonymous

I have made clear the position this book argues. But this position could be completely wrong—that’s why it will take a whole book to consider whether morality, theory, and evidence does or does not show a Tyranny of Experts.

Those who support autocrats in development do not see autocracy as an end in itself. They genuinely believe autocrats would deliver the escape from poverty faster than free systems will. They believe the experts advising the autocrats know better than poor individuals how to solve their problems. They could be right—after all, there are some development success stories that happen in the absence of individual rights, and many individual efforts do fail (among both rich and poor). The pragmatic case for free rather than autocratic development often goes against our intuitions.

A common concept among development observers over many decades is that of the “benevolent autocrat.” According to this concept, the leader may have unconstrained power, but his intentions concerning what to do with that power are presumed to be good. He (and most autocrats are indeed male) just needs expert advice to accomplish good things. When good things do in fact happen to a country governed by an autocrat—such as high economic growth or rapid health improvements—the credit for these good things goes to the autocrat. The good outcomes are thereby taken as de facto evidence of the benevolence of the autocrat. These propositions could be correct—maybe it really does take autocrats to get things done, to avoid democratic stalemates—but they should at least be debated. This book will have that debate.

The support for an authoritarian approach to development is sometimes not overt but implied. It is often altruistic rather than self-serving. Support for autocrats is unintentional more often than it is intentional. There is no conspiracy against rights. I can sympathize with economists who, in their zeal to help the world’s poor, unwittingly favor autocracy, because for a long time I was one of them myself. 

From The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly. Copyright © 2013 by William Easterly. Used by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

William Easterly
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