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Tyranny of experts against spontaneous solutions: A review of William Easterly’s ‘Tyranny of Experts’

Friday 3 April 2015

Ndongo Samba Sylla

2015-04-02, Issue 720

Although it starts with a bang, bringing to light some shocking and unfortunately typical facts about capitalistic accumulation, ‘Tyranny of experts’ is a frustrating book because of the author’s black and white approach, his libertarian dogmatism, his apparent lack of awareness of the history of certain political ideas, and his method of reasoning which favours numerous anecdotes over systematic analysis. A former researcher at the World Bank, William Easterly is a development economist, known for his “rebellious” and iconoclastic stances towards the practices, ideology and politics defended by the actors of the international development community[1] . In his latest work, “The Tyranny of Experts”[2] , he continues to explore some of his favourite themes. This time round, the “philanthropy” of development, as encapsulated in, amongst others, the Bill Gates Foundation and the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, is the object of his frustration, as are the heads of state of the poor countries who gain their favour.

Why are the actors of the international development community so fond of “dictators”? Why are their experts so ready to demand that one sacrifices the rights of the poor in the countries of the global South? These questions form the backdrop of “Tyranny of experts”, which is more of a critical piece than an essay on economic theory.


The anti-democratic basis of development communities, as well as development economies, comes, according to Easterly, from the same place that the concept of development itself appeared, within a context characterised by colonialism and racism. Traditional historiography yields the genesis of the paradigm of development to Truman’s inaugural speech in 1949. Easterly maintains that we must look back thirty years earlier.

To put it briefly, the paradigm, according to Easterly, was developed in the 1920s in order to replace the “civilising mission”. Faced with growing hostility and resistance by the colonised people, as well as increasing disrepute surrounding openly racist discourse, the European colonial powers and the United States agreed on the need for a new legitimising discourse that was more politically correct: that of development. From then onwards, one speaks about “developing” the regions which were deemed “underdeveloped”. Initially, this group excluded Latin America but included the countries of Eastern Europe. Assisted by the Cold War, Latin America would finally be placed in the “Third World”, while the latter saw themselves moved into the “second world” coming just after the “first world” of the industrialised countries; groupings whose relevance is challenged by Easterly.

Initially, the neo-racist concept of development implied, therefore, that it was the powers of the western world, in collaboration with their experts, who were to be charged with lifting the Third World countries out of poverty. They also spoke of “separate development”[3] , a part of the story which seems to have escaped Easterly’s attention. Since the decolonisation movement, notably in Africa and Asia, native leaders who succeeded the colonies have reproduced the same anti-democratic and pro-technocratic bias. Rather than bringing an end to the “tyranny of experts”, the international community and its favourite “dictators” have encouraged it.

To compliment its racist and colonial origins, the “tyranny of experts” draws its pseudo-legitimacy from two arguments. First, poverty, being a technical problem, requires technical solutions put forward by experts. Second, experts know best and their prescriptions will best help to create strong and sustainable economic growth.

Easterly challenges this technocratic vision of poverty, which treats every country like a “blank slate”. That is to say, as countries without their own histories, in which experts are free to deploy their undifferentiated technical “solutions”. He also undercuts the epistemological advantage that experts claim to have over others. In his point of view, the native people know their own conditions better than the experts do, as well as which tailored strategies would best allow them to provide for themselves. Easterly even goes so far as to label experts as a parasitic species. They are accountable to no one, regardless of the effectiveness of their “solutions”, because they evade both democratic and market sanctions. Despite disappointing results in the Third World, they continue undeservedly to have much power and prestige. In summary, according to Easterly, “the technocratic approach - the solution of experts - undoubtedly leads to the worst of all possible worlds” (p.254).

Although it starts with a bang, bringing to light some shocking and unfortunately typical facts about capitalistic accumulation (the expropriation of farmers in the Global South in the name of economic progress), ‘Tyranny of experts’ is a frustrating book. It is frustrating because of the author’s black and white approach, his libertarian dogmatism, his apparent lack of awareness of the history of certain political ideas, and his method of reasoning which favours numerous anecdotes, short stories and stylised facts over developed, systematic analysis.


Easterly maintains that standard economists worry more about liberty than other economists, notably “development economists”. He identifies with the liberalism (ultra-liberalism would perhaps be a more appropriate term) of Friedrich Hayek whom he adorns with the cloth of friend of the rights of the poor, defender of liberty for all and proponent of the restriction of the power of “dictators and experts”.

At the other end, Gunnar Mydral serves as a foil, or even the prototype, of the expert who does not hesitate for even a moment to sacrifice the rights of the poor in order to increase the rate of economic growth. He refers to the debate that never happened between Hayek and Myrdal, two economists who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, as a “tragedy”. But would this debate have served any purpose? It is important to note, in spite of Easterly, that Hayek was not entirely against the dictatorial-technocratic vision denounced by “Tyranny of experts”. This thurifer of the free market and the “invisible hand” had this to say about dictatorship during an interview published in 1981:

“At times, it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.”[4]

Hayek’s opinion is not surprising. The ambiguity of liberalism in relation to authoritarian political systems is well known. Adam Smith, another liberal figure to whom Easterly refers, recognised that, when putting an end to slavery, authoritarian regimes may be preferable to liberal ones; the very same regimes which, up to now, have shown their astonishing capacity to sustainably accommodate slavery.

Contrary to the genealogy offered by Easterly, it is important to highlight that the “tyranny of experts” has far older origins. Before the (development) economist was the philosopher. Over two thousand years ago, Platon would write in Laws that the tyrant is the most effective of all reformers, when he is backed by a skilful legislator, in this case philosophy. This belief in the virtues of “enlightened despotism” has remained a constant throughout the intellectual history of the West. It reached its height with the Enlightenment thinkers. And it is found under a renewed form in Leninism[5] .

Easterly is perhaps not well-versed with this chapter of the intellectual history of the West, just as he appears to not know the legacy of the word “democracy” in the United States. Otherwise, he certainly would not be scandalised by the efforts made by the World Bank, and its staff, to ensure that this phantom word did not appear in any of its official publications and declarations. Instead, they favoured the use of the political term “governance”. If Easterly had taken a look at the American Constitution, he would have noticed that the word “democracy” does not appear there either. Against ex-officio evidence, if he had made an attempt to examine the speeches of the American presidents, he would have found that it was not until Theodore Roosevelt, in 1905, that one heard an American president refer to the United States as a “democratic” republic for the first time[6] .

As for the explication of the economic development process (measured by GDP growth), Easterly preferred the use of clichés to serious, scientific analysis. His reasoning is based on two basic axioms. He begins by saying that “collectivist” values are bad whilst “individualist” values are good because they better serve prosperity and liberty, without taking care to precisely define these terms. Next, the prevailing idea that the West had developed through “individualist” values, the promotion of “liberty”, and an unshakeable faith in “the invisible hand”. This would also explain its economic progress over the “Rest” (one of his concepts) and the celebration of Christopher Columbus for having “made possible the spread of freedom” (p.137). These theoretical views that Easterly holds so close to his heart are characteristic of the liberal historiography. As Domenico Losurdo highlighted, “The discourse developed by liberalism is profoundly marked by repression of the lot inflicted on colonial populations.”[7]

It is not at all surprising, therefore, to see Easterly accuse the international development community - the World Bank, the Bill Gates Foundation and others - of endorsing “collectivist" values, rather than the “individualist” values which made the West a success, in its dealings with the countries of the global south. The question which would have been worth asking here is why the international community and its experts have so much power over the economies of the Global South. But the nature of contemporary imperialism is cleverly evaded by our author, who treats the “experts” like a monolithic block. Meanwhile, the experts of the Global South countries generally criticise their governments for favouring the use of “foreign” experts who have the double drawback of both providing costly services and not always being instilled with local realities. Strictly speaking, the fact is that the tyrant-experts that Easterly places in the firing line, have, at least during the past 35 years, rarely foreseen policies other than “spontaneous solutions” via the market, the very ones of which he is in favour.

Easterly put in a great deal of effort to avoid mentioning the fact that “authoritarianism” has had a significant effect on the the economic development of some countries - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China. According to him, there are no good or bad “dictators” when kick-starting economic development. A Mobutu or a Lee Kuan Yew would yield more or less the same results because the facts show that “Leaders matter very little” (p.326): the variations in economic growth result more often from exogenous variables beyond the reach of national decision makers. Another reason why it is difficult to attribute the specific outcomes to “dictators” is that economic development often has a regional dimension. Conclusion: those who think that “benevolent autocrats” can create development have been manipulated or are victims of illusions.

How, then, can we explain why certain countries are developing while others are still “straggling”? The “change in freedom” is Easterly’s reply. But which “freedom” are we talking about? Or, more precisely, whose freedom? How do we measure it? Taking the case of China, he attributes its “economic miracle” to the increase in “freedoms” from 1978 onwards, with the change of course initiated by Den Xiaoping. However, this explanation is ad hoc, based on his observation that economic policies (and leaders) do not have impact on growth in the long term. Following this logic, China would have obtained higher rates of growth than those recorded in the four decades if it had been a “liberal democracy” a lot sooner. This seems doubtful seeing as many political regimes within the global South that are more “free” than China have not done as well as China in the past fifteen years.

It is regrettable that Easterly did not discuss the abundance of literature which exists on the relationship between democracy and development. Consideration of this literature, despite the obvious limitations associated with its methodological nationalism, would have offered more prudence and subtlety to his reasoning. Milton Friedman, an author to whom he should feel a connection, had a more nuanced opinion on this issue. He wrote in ‘Capitalism and Freedom’ that “the relationship between economic freedom and political freedom is complex and by no means unilateral”[8] .

Finally, Easterly does not offer much in terms of alternatives to the “tyranny of experts”. Moreover, he does not tell us what the alternative “spontaneous solutions” consist of. Where one would have expected propositions concerning the reform of the “governance”, in a more democratic sense, of institutions like the IMF, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, Easterly contents himself with merely recommending that the citizens of rich countries protest against the encroachment of the rights of the poor in Third World countries.

Coming from a self-professed defender of the rights of the poor and a believer in the “invisible hand”, one might also be surprised by the absence of critical thinking on monopolies and oligopolies. Our author, whose intellectual posture is somewhat reminiscent of the bizarre liberalism of Herbert Spencer, says that in the long term “monopolies generally correct themselves” (pp.249 and 264).

While we need more than ever to put the international development community back on the right track, after decades of wrong turns, it is a shame that such an important issue has been so poorly treated by an author with proven expertise.

*Ndongo Samba Sylla is an economist at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, West Africa.

* This article was translated from French for Pambazuka News by Rosemary Amadi.


1) White man’s burden. Why the west efforts to aid the Rest have done so much ill and so little good, Penguin Books, 2006 ; The elusive quest for growth. Economists’ adventures and misadventures in the tropics, The MIT Press, 2001.

2) The Tyranny of Experts. Economists, dictators and the forgotten rights of the poor, New York, Basic Books, 2014.

3) Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy. Political Power in the Age of Oil Paris, (published in 2011 by Verso), p.103.

4) Renée Salas, “Friedrich Hayek, Leader and Master of Liberalism”, El Mercurio, 12 April 1981.

5) Christian Delacampagne, Le Philosophe et le Tyran, Librairie Générale Française, 2012.

6) Charles Austin Beard (1944), The Republic: conversations on fundamentals, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2008, p.32.

7) Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, translated from Italian by Gregory Elliot, Verso, 2011, p.193.

8) Milton Friedman (1962) Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press, 1962.

See online: Tyranny of experts against spontaneous solutions: A review of William Easterly’s ‘Tyranny of Experts’