Friday, July 04, 2014

The tyranny of experts

In an effort to serve the people I work with and minister with, I am always looking for good analyses and suggestions for how to help the people assume their roles as protagonist in their lives.

I recently finished William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. I had hoped this would help me understand what is happening. It did – but not in the way the author might have hoped.

Here is a preliminary review of his book which I will revise.


I do believe that there is a tyranny of experts who seek to control the processes of community development in the world of the poor. There are groups that come into a community without knowing the situation and impose their solutions. The desires of the people are not considered and their consent is a mere formality.

I read William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts in the hope of a scholarly analysis of a phenomenon that is all too real.

Easterly does a masterful job of laying bare the problems of experts, although he may exaggerate at times and chooses the worst-case examples to make his point.

I appreciate his critique of technological autocrats, centralized planning solvers, who see “one size fits all” solutions because we need to see the details of each situation and the knowledge of each part.

In chapters 3 – 5, he lays out a strong case against the autocratic/technocratic top-down theory and practice of development – I largely agree with him, especially his analysis of its relation to racism and imperialism.

I also concur with his judgment that oppression holds back development.

But I believe that his analysis is narrow and biased.


At base, his work is faulty because of what I see as a philosophical error. He sets up a series of dichotomies, which I believe are false:
  • Free development versus autocratic development
  • Conscious direction versus spontaneous evolution
  • Blank Slate versus learning from history
  • Nations versus individuals
  • Individualistic versus collectivist values 

He asks: “Is the object of development efforts to be the nation or the individual?”

Underlying all this is what I see as an inadequate philosophical anthropology. For Easterly, it is either the nation or the individual, the collective or the individual. This dualism does not, I believe, reflect the reality of human life which is both personal and communal.

In Catholic Social Thought, as well as in much of pre-modern philosophy, the person is social.

Aristotle gives two definitions of the human person – the living person with reason, or the living person living in a polis, a city.

In their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the US bishops note that: “Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. In our teaching, the human person is not only sacred but also social.”

Reading this book, I sometimes felt as if I was in the middle of the “design versus evolution” creation debate. In fact, Easterly acknowledges this:
The debate in development between conscious design and spontaneous solutions is similar to the evolution debate between religious believers in “intelligent design” as opposed to those who celebrate the “spontaneous order” of evolution. (pp. 32-33).
I believe the debate between intelligent design and the spontaneous order of creation fails to consider alternatives – most notably, the paradox of a divine providence that needs the free participation of persons. So does Easterly’s analysis fail to consider that it is not an either-or situation.

What I see as the real issue, the person and the common good, is reduced to the individual and the nation.


Easterly states that trade is necessary for development.
What does he mean by development? By development he seems to presume “growth,” mostly economic growth – and the liberty of the market, free enterprise, which is primary in his understanding of liberty is the liberty of the market.

In contrast Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio, ¶ 14:
Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man. As an eminent specialist [French Dominican Jean Lebret] has very rightly and emphatically declared: " We do not believe in separating the economic from the human, nor development from the civilizations in which it exists. What we hold important is man, each man and each group of men, and we even include the whole of humanity".


 Easterly has a great faith in the free market, which I believe is misplaced. He even states that, “Monopoly is usually self-corrective.”

His argument seems to be decontextualized, not looking at the reality of the free market.  

Easterly writes:
 In any given area, the individual who has the knowledge to produce what customers want most is the one chosen through market competition to be the producer.  (pp. 38-39)
But what about the manipulation of wants by propaganda and advertising?

Easterly, citing his intellectual inspiration, states:
In Hayek’s words, “we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many” to produce what we want. Hayek’s poetic touch was that even when we don’t know what we want, spontaneous market competition produces “what we shall want when we see it.” (p. 34).
But is this trust misplaced?


This trust is problematic partly because there is no analysis of desires, wants, and needs in Easterly’s work, probably because of a faulty anthropology where needs and wants are mere related to one’s choices.

For him, economics and politics involve “the choice between conflicting or competing ends— different needs of different people.” (p. 31). 

The competition of the free market will provide for meeting needs:
A spontaneous order of competition among individuals with different kinds and degrees of knowledge to supply our needs will decide who knows best for each particular need. (p. 39).
His use of the word “needs” often seems more like a reference to “desires” or "wants."
There are genuine concerns about income distribution, in which the rich get their needs met so much more than the poor. There are still so many things wrong with the private suppliers of our needs that we could also describe the Invisible Hand in reverse: it is the process of driving out of business the incompetent in favor of the mediocre, the mediocre in favor of the good, and the good in favor of the excellent. (p. 252).
Easterly states, “Each of us has some problems we need solved…” Why does he speak of problems to be solved, instead of a fulfillment of needs?

For him food is such a problem. Instead he could have written that “Each of us has some needs we need fulfilled,” but this would need an understanding of the  nature of the human person.

Knowledge and incentive are, for him, problems of a successful problem solving system.
Each of us has some problems we need solved and we look around for who is best at solving each of our problems. Each of us also decides which of the problems of others we are best at solving. Individual freedom of choice is what decides who is best at solving problems. The chosen problem-solver is often the one who can solve their problem the best at the lowest cost— a lot of customers will choose that one to solve their problems. (p. 248)
Basically, there is no sense that desires can be formed or reformed. They are problems to be solved.


I also found his argumentation problematic in various ways.

Correlation or causation

At various places in the work Easterly notes that correlation is not necessarily causation. But his argumentation often relies on perceived correlations.

Overstatement and generalization

In making comparisons (e.g., between the Maghribhis and Genoans) he isolates certain aspects without considering others.

He also lists several success stories one of which he characterizes as “insanely great”.
To understand the South Korean specialization success, you need to know it was not just great, it was insanely great. (p. 271)
His example of Apartmenistan is, I believe, an example of reductio ad absurdum.


Easterly presents his work as being concerned with the rights of the poor. But I believe that he limits his understanding of rights to some civil rights and the right of the free market. He does not seem to take into account the power of large corporations to influence public opinion as well as to influence laws in opposition to the good of the poor.

The rights of the poor to participate in their development, as well as in political and economic decisions, are important. But I believe that Easterly’s ideas of development will not really respect these rights. I fear they may reinforce a style of development that reinforces the power of the elites – political and economic.

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