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The tyranny of ideas

9 May 2014 By Edward Hadas

As a commentator on the foolishness and cruelty of many of the programmes which are supposed to modernise poor countries, William Easterly is superb. He not only knows what went wrong, but why, as he demonstrates in his latest book, “The Tyranny of Experts.” As a proponent of individualism and markets, the book’s other theme, Easterly is far less adept.

There is undoubtedly something wrenching about modernisation. The development of states, economies and societies took centuries and spawned terrible wars in Europe and in its settlements around the world. The repetition of the process in a few generations in countries where virtually all the ideas and practices have to be imported has also not been easy.

From Latin America to China, the first regimes in newly created or re-imagined countries have more often than not been tyrannical and all too often have done more for the elite than for the masses. Overall, governments have gradually become less harsh, but changes are still often imposed and resistance is frequently punished severely.

Many proponents of rapid change ignore or tolerate the suffering. As Easterly explains, with history and pertinent anecdotes, they are under the influence of three well-intentioned but seriously flawed ideas.

The first is what he calls the blank slate approach to development. This is the idea that people can be treated as if they have no existing ideas of their own; they are “perfectly malleable” and, for the purposes of development, basically identical. In this reductive view of society, development is just a matter of importing global best practice, for example the optimal mix of education, health care and infrastructure investment. It is best done by autocratic regimes which ignore objections but follow expert advice.

Actually, economic development always takes place in an existing culture. When modernisers push alien practices into a society without any consideration of how they will be adopted, the results are usually poor. Some new things are just rejected and too often the new ways only aggravate old social or political divisions.

The second dangerous notion is that technocracy, where a society is dominated by an elite group of technical gurus, is politically neutral, so that the only concern for development experts is whether the government’s plans are optimal. In his younger days at the World Bank, Easterly accepted this tenet. Then he converted to a more nuanced and humane approach, and rejected it utterly.

His exploration of the political biases of development policies, almost always studiously ignored by the World Bank and other donors, is excellent. Because people are not blank slates, history and politics are everywhere. When experts ignore that fact, they actually allow political considerations to be become even more powerful and damaging.

Finally, Easterly explains well how development experts are hypnotised by nations, ignoring both individuals and regions. This fixation is a mistake, since nations are not natural economic units. The vision can be cruel, when the wellbeing of many individuals is dismissed if their suffering is expected to increase some national index of prosperity.

The book pairs these three bad ideas with such good principles as individual rights, the virtue of markets and democracy. Easterly scores additional points when arguing in favour of immigration and pointing out that rapid Chinese development since the 1980s had more to do with the retreat of the strong state than with its continued presence. All too often, however, he downplays the necessary role of governments and, yes, technocratic planning in development.

More philosophically, Easterly’s praise of individualism and democracy is really another variety of blank-slate thinking. These are all values of the modern West, much like technocracy. In most traditional cultures, people are not considered equal and the unconstrained individual who destroys the existing order is not considered virtuous. Easterly may be right to praise these particular Western ideas, but he should realise that he is not quite as distant from his opponents as he might think he is.


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