The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The Tyranny of Experts and other development myths

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In his new book, William Easterly argues that development "experts" should stop focusing on technical inputs for farmers like Odette Camara (above), and instead focus on individuals' economic and political rights. Here, Camara draws water from a well in Bandafassie village in southeastern Senegal. Farmers in her area had a bad harvest in 2011. Looking ahead to the next growing season in 2012, she said, “If things go badly we will always find a way to get by.” Photo: Brett Eloff / Oxfam America

“Economic and political rights are a huge part of the story of how we developed in rich countries. For the rest of the world, we have a very different model of how development happens.”

“Economic and political rights are a huge part of the story of how we developed in rich countries. For the rest of the world, we have a very different model of how development happens.”

Written by Oscar Abello, a freelance journalist and social media consultant based in New York City.*

Governments will fail. Markets will fail. Those aren’t myths.

The question William Easterly wants you to ask is: Why have some markets and some governments—but not others—gotten better over time at delivering the goods, services, and policies that consumers and citizens want?

The answer that the NYU professor and development economist puts forth in his new book, The Tyranny of Experts, is both simpler and more complex than you might expect: individual rights.

I shared a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation with Easterly about the book first resulting in this article for Fast Co.Exist – on a late February afternoon, in which we delved into how his new book relates to some of the most contentious debates in development today: markets versus government; does inequality matter or not; and what is the appropriate role of concerned, but distant neighbors who feel compelled to support development somehow.

Following suit with Bill and Melinda Gates, I’ll present the conversation here in three myths about development from the perspective of The Tyranny of Experts.

Myth 1: We have to choose between free markets and the state.

For Easterly, imposing “market-oriented” policies a la Augusto Pinochet in 1980s Chile is just as atrocious as the IMF’s structural adjustment policies during the approximate same time period and shortly after.

“It’s not free markets versus the state,” Easterly told me. “It’s that individual rights will make both the markets and the state work better. Individual rights force the state to get better and to give us what we want; individual rights and markets do the same thing, forcing the entrepreneurs and the innovators to give us what we want.”

Myth 2: If you use Adam Smith to argue your theory of development, you don’t care about inequality.

“Smith actually had a really negative view of rich people,” Easterly said. “In his preaching of an invisible hand and what today would be viewed as a very right-wing slogan of free markets, was in his view undermining the economic elite that was being protected by government tariffs and government monopolies.”

“We should not take this mistaken idea that the interests of the rich are identifiable with the free market cause. That’s just not true,” Easterly continued. “It’s really the consumers that are sovereign.”

Easterly noted with humility that really his book avoids the question of how much inequality is inevitable or unavoidable. But is there persistent inequality today that is unacceptable? Of that, he is more certain.

“It’s certainly true market economies generate unequal outcomes but…the inequality debate really needs to distinguish between different types of inequality,” Easterly said. “The kind of inequality you can generate widespread agreement on attacking directly is the inequality itself created by discrimination or oppression.”

“When inequality is the result of the denial of rights, that’s the inequality that I would get passionate about correcting,” he asserted.

Myth 3: Focusing on technical solutions that deliver material progress for the poor, such as more education or better health outcomes, is what ensures development.

As told in The Tyranny of Experts, Easterly says that this debate has been suppressed for some deep, dark, even disturbing reasons.

“We pretty much accept on both the left and the right that the whole package of individual rights—economic and political rights—are a huge part of the story of how we developed in rich countries,” Easterly said.

“[But] for the rest of the world, we have a very different model of how development happens. It’s something that autocrats perpetrate, advised by wise experts from the West. And that’s just so condescending in its attitude towards poor people. It gives poor people no credit for how much they can accomplish on their own, demanding for their same rights as we did.”

Just how forward-thinking are these so-called development experts anyway? A slide from Easterly’s book launch event in New York City. Photo: Oscar Abello

“It’s a grand technical illusion that you can just specify a solution and technology will just solve all the problems,” Easterly continued. “The long-run trend is that as people [gain] rights or as people demand their own rights, good things will happen.”

The Tyranny of Experts argues that if you want to bet on what will make good things happen, then bet on rights.

“[Focusing on rights] may pay off right away. It may not. It’s a gradual and messy process. But it’s a lot more likely to get results.”

William Easterly will be in Washington DC on Wednesday, March 19th at 7pm at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book.

*Oscar Abello’s writing has appeared on FastCoExist.com, Nextbillion.net, Dowser.org, and the Huffington Post. Follow Oscar on Twitter or Tumblr, or reach him at oscar[dot]abello[at]gmail[dot]com.

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