Bill Easterly and the Denial of Inconvenient Truths

Easterly tyrannyIn his 2014 book,  The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly  uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for  ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new  level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i],  is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

[An edited version of this review appeared in the May, 2015 edition of the Chatham House journal, International Affairs. The journal is ‘protected’ by a paywall, so the full published version cannot be accessed without a subscription. The link HERE connects to the abstract as it appeared in the journal. This post includes the initial full review, as submitted to the journal.]

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient  political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of  self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of  imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both   predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With  eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

“we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)

Yes, but we also must not fall into a trap which parallels that of the technocratic fallacy – and let our high-minded advocacy of the rights of the poor blind us to the challenges of how to translate our rhetoric into reality. And it is here that Easterly’s Tyranny falls way, way short.

In 1997, reflecting on lessons learned in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union,  Alan Greenspan, former  Governor of the United States Federal Reserve Bank (and a proud acolyte of Ayn Rand)  noted that:

The biggest surprise is what the the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall… (have taught us)… about how and why our own Western economies and societies function….Many of the states of the former Soviet bloc did get something akin to a market system in the form of a rapid growth of black markets. [But] black markets, by definition, are not supported by the rule of law. There are no rights to own and dispose of property protected by the enforcement power of the state. There are no laws of contract or bankruptcy, or judicial review and determination again enforced by the state. The essential infrastructure of a market economy is missing.”[ii]

Easterly and Greenspan surely would agree (as do I), that  sustainable democracies rest on the foundation of  both a well-functioning rule of law and a government capable of providing a core set of public goods.  How these institutions take root and strengthen is perhaps the central challenge confronting contemporary advocates of democratic, rights-based development.

Recent years have witnessed the publication of a rich body of scholarship on how institutions evolve in the course of development.[iii] As this literature underscores, countries diverge from one another in the patterns of leads and lags through which  public sector capability and the rule of law strengthen. In some settings statebuilding leads, and the rule of law lags; in others the sequence is reversed. But either way, once one  leaves behind  the fairy tale notion that all good things come together and takes seriously the question of sequencing,  Tyranny’s  central claims fall apart.

Consider first the sequence  where a strong public sector emerges ahead of the rule of law.  Good economist that he is, Bill Easterly of course recognizes the central role of the public sector in the provision of the public goods that are central to the development process. From public health, to transport infrastructure, to intellectual property — examples of public goods are scattered throughout Tyranny. But beyond offering a few bromides on how democracy can improve public sector performance, Tyranny  leaves entirely unaddressed the question of where public sector capacity comes from.

Here is how Francis Fukuyama describes the statebuilding-led development sequence:

 “To be effective, [state-building] needs to be accompanied by a parallel process of nation building — the creation of a sense of identity which supersedes loyalty to tribes, villages, regions or ethnic groups……Successful democracies have benefited from historical nation-building projects that were achieved by violent and nondemocratic means….. [These projects often involve]….intolerance and aggression, and so often must be accomplished using authoritarian methods.”[iv]

This pattern is, of course, directly contrary to the rights-based approach to development laid out in Tyranny.

In a world where things needn’t be only black or white, a  straightforward response (even for a committed democrat) to the historical record  might be to recognize that that there can be multiple pathways of development. (I follow such a  line of argumentation in my recent book, Working with the Grain.[v])  But rather than explore inconvenient truths in a way  that opens the possibility of eclecticism, Tyranny  uses reductionist empirical methodologies to try and make them disappear.

Take the case of Korea (to which Tyranny devotes a strikingly large number of pages). Contemporary Korea is one of the most successful democratizers of the past half century.  But contra Tyranny’s  insistence on rights-based development as the one-and-only way forward,  Korea’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s was preceded by a quarter-century of hyper-rapid, authoritarian-led growth  which transformed the country from a low-income, seeming basket-case to a thriving upper-middle-income economy and society.  Voluminous, detailed studies have documented the remarkable  institutional transformation wrought by General Park in the years subsequent to his taking power in 1960; the studies also have shown how this transformation provided a robust platform for development in subsequent decades. [vi]

Tyranny ignores all of this. Instead it draws on a data-set of 6-800 autocratic leaders, identifies “around thirty-five would-be benevolent autocrats” and asks “whether growth changes when the leaders change”.  It then goes on to argue that:

“…if all of the leaders in a given country achieve high growth, that is really evidence that the country itself matters more than do  the leaders in influencing growth. The list of high-performing leaders includes three different leaders from South Korea: the dictators Park Chung Hee and Chun Do Wan, and Roh Tae Woo who oversaw a transition to democracy. Together these three leaders account for most of South Korea’s growth [over the relevant period],  so it is more likely that conditions and events in South Korea mattered more than did the policies of any of the individual leaders. (Or, possibly, it was the region of East Asia that mattered rather than South Korean leaders…..).” (pp. 324-5) 

Tyranny’s  narrative of how Korea’s success played out at micro-levels is even more divorced from reality. Numerous studies have documented how General Park leveraged his political authority to direct the role of the private sector in Korean development. As Leroy Jones and Sakong Il described it in a classic study, “the dominant partner is unequivocally the government….. [which]…can ensure the failure of any businessman, should it care to do so….the government’s wishes are tantamount to commands, and business dare not take them lightly.”[vii]

In stark contrast, Tyranny extols the virtues of Korea’s private sector as a powerful example of what a free economy can achieve. The book uses the example of one Chung Ju Yung to open its chapter 11,  entitled “Markets: the Association of Problem-Solvers”. Again, to give a flavor of the argumentation of Tyranny, it is useful to quote at length:

“Chung Ju Yung understood something that…most development thinkers never have… A better way to solve your own problems is to join an ‘association of problem-solvers’ in which you….[use]  your problem-solving talents on behalf of others in ‘some other area’ …. […than your immediate needs…..and they reciprocate..]. …… (pp. 239-240) …The ‘some other area’ for Chung was initially modest: he turned out to be good at fixing cars… When Ford arrived in the 1960s looking for a Korean manufacturer to make cheap cars, Chung impressed them with the grease-monkey savvy left over from his days in auto repair. ‘There was nothing I did not know about a car’, said Chung, ‘that was why my company got the contract’….. Ford did not take it too seriously when Chung refused to allow Ford any ‘management participation’….. Likewise they indulged Chung when he wanted to move from assembling kits to actually doing Korean models collaboratively with Ford engineers….” (pp. 240; 269-270)

Chung Ju Yung (as Tyranny notes) was  the founder of the chaebol, Hyundai – today one of the world’s leading automobile manufacturers.  But the inconvenient truth that Tyranny fails to explore (and the literature cited above documents in voluminous detail) is the centrality of ‘Korea Inc’s’ partnership between business and government to Hyundai’s success. Government provided financing; directed the company into some ‘strategic-priority’ sectors (shipbuilding, where Hyundai subsequently became one of the world’s leading companies, is one of many notable examples);  limited competition in these sectors; tightly managed the relationships with foreign partners; and forced the pace of penetration into export markets. Hardly an exemplar of the power of free markets in action!!!

Now let us to turn to the sequence where development is led by the  strengthening, not of public sector capability, but of the rule of law. (This is the sequence advocated in Tyranny – and  indeed is the normatively preferred sequence of advocates of democratic development, myself included.)  The scholars cited earlier  trace the origins of the rule of law to a combination of religious strictures on secular power, and centuries long contestation among privileged elites in late medieval and early modern Europe. This historical literature offers arresting insights, but  its very-long-term perspective renders these of limited practical relevance from the 5-10 year time horizon of practitioners and politicians.

Tyranny  draws on this literature – but, for all of its intent to contribute to the practical policy discourse, avoids  the question of how to get from here to there, and instead  revels in breathtakingly oversimplified ‘sound-bites’. Take, for example,  its treatment of the role of cities in the emergence of the rule of law:

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had been trying hard to assert his divine right of kingship in northern Italy….Arrayed against him was something new in European history—independent cities that recognized freedom for their citizens….The May 29, 1176 battle that would help determine the future of individual rights turned on a random event – a lance hit Frederick…The German troops thought he was dead and retreated in panic…. Neither Frederick nor his successors would ever again attack the free cities…Over the succeeding centuries, individual freedom would take shape in these free cities and spread to other parts of Europe”. (pp. 129-130)

A lovely story (properly footnoted with citations to its scholarly sources), articulately told — and complete with a fairy-tale-like call to the ramparts of freedom, and a happy ending.  Consistent with the argument in Tyranny, serious scholars indeed generally agree  that free cities were important  in the emergence of the rule of law. But these scholars also underscore that the  process played out over many centuries, with European cities caught in the middle — sometimes the victims, and sometimes the beneficiaries of  ongoing contestation between emerging monarchs and local notables. The process  was long, messy and circuitous, fraught with violence, and variable in its outcome;  the result was contingent on country-specific power dynamics.

But the real-world challenges of pursuing a rights-based development pathway go beyond the slow pace at which the rule of law generally consolidates. In addition, countries developing along this pathway find it especially difficult to build capable public sectors. Fukuyama highlights the problem. Building on his detailed review of the historical record, he concludes that early rights-based, democratic development almost certainly will be accompanied by public sectors  organized along clientelist lines. Clientelism should be seen, he argues:

 “as the natural outgrowth of political mobilization in early-stage democracies… with large numbers of voters mobilized [by] mass party organizations distributing widespread favors through complex hierarchical party machines…… Clientelistic structures emerge…when democracy arrives before a modern state has had time to consolidate into an autonomous institution with its own supporting political coalition.”

The pattern described by Fukuyama is a  familiar  one. In many  of the 60 or so countries that were part of the so-called ‘third wave’ of democracy in the latter 1980s and early-1990s, efforts to  improve public service provision all too often have played second fiddle to the need to reward political allies with patronage jobs and sole-source procurement contracts. But perhaps less familiar than the contemporary pattern  is the historical experience of efforts in the United States to build a capable public sector on top of a pre-existing foundation of individual rights and democracy.  This experience is powerfully revealing.

For much of the nineteenth century, all federal positions in the United States government were patronage appointments – either made directly by the President, or allocated by him among members of congress to distribute as ‘spoils’. Employees were required to be politically active on behalf of their sponsors, and to contribute  up to 10 percent of their salaries to party coffers – else risk losing their job. Federal employees had no job tenure. In 1885, when Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency, he fired all 40,000 (Republican-appointee) postmasters, and appointed his own loyalists. In turn, when Republican Benjamin Harrison won the presidency in 1890, he replaced all (now) 50,000 democratic appointees with Republican supporters. It took almost a half-century for America’s public sector to evolve from this classically clientelist pattern towards one that was more systematically merit-based. The process was driven by a combination of incremental top-down reform and bottom-up pressure – all underpinned by the social activism of the American Progressive Era of the 1880s-1920s.[viii]

In making the case for right-based development Tyranny draws extensively on the American experience. Easterly uses a series of time-lapse vignettes of the economic evolution of his Manhattan Greene Street neighborhood from the 1650s to the contemporary period to illustrate evocatively the transformational power of market-led, rights-based development. Tyranny, however, consistent with its general approach that rights-based development can do no wrong – and that any other pathway can do no right — ignores almost entirely the inconvenient truth of just how dysfunctional was the American public sector in the first century plus of the life of the republic.

I could go on – Tyranny’s self-certain, ‘take no prisoners’ approach offers plentiful pickings for any reviewer not predisposed to treat every word in the book as gospel truth. But perhaps enough has already been said to demonstrate quite how disconnected Tyranny is from the realities of this time of evident challenge and complexity.

There is, though, something much more important at stake than a style of argumentation. Contrary to what surely is Bill Easterly’s intention, in my view Tyranny’s systematic denial of inconvenient truths does a  disservice to those of us seeking to pursue democratic pathways of development. Part of the disservice is the risk that grandiloquent, maximalist rhetoric might be believed — and fuel certainty, hubris and over-reach among policymakers. (One might hope, though, that this risk is lower today than it was in an  earlier, more innocent era – an era which could be dated as being from the end of the Cold War to just before the invasion of Iraq.). But a more fundamental, and more insidious problem with over-the-top argumentation is that that it misdirects attention – away from both the challenges that matter, and the truths that have the potential to inspire.

Maximalist rhetoric – and its implication that the overthrow of tyrants is sufficient to conjure rights-based development into being – short circuits learning. Both the historical record and contemporary experience underscore that strengthening the platform for rights-based development is a long, challenging, painstaking process. As I detail in Working with the Grain, rule of law institutions, capable public sectors and democratic processes consolidate slowly over time. Transformation occurs not in one fell swoop, but as the cumulative consequence of many small initiatives, large and small, each involving ongoing experimentation, learning and adaptation. In consequence, and contra Tyranny, rather than being pre-occupied with grand visions and across-the-board overhauls, development and democracy practitioners might more usefully focus on achieving concrete results incrementally and cumulatively via “islands of effectiveness”.

In Working with the Grain,  I explore a variety of possible entry points through which active engagement by citizens, firms, and public officials can gradually and cumulatively transform clientelistic countries into better-performing liberal democracies:

  • Public entrepreneurs at multiple layers of government can foster ‘islands of effectiveness’ even within a broadly dysfunctional public service —  focusing on achievement of a very specific public purpose (better schools, better infrastructure, less stifling regulation), and endeavoring to build within their domain both a team with the skills and commitment to achieve that purpose, and the network of external alliances needed to fend off opposition.
  • Champions of private sector development can shift focus from efforts to effect far-reaching reforms of the business environment (efforts which all-too-often run aground in the face of political incentives and powerful vested interests – and focus instead on more narrowly targeted initiatives to establish special economic zones where both the rules of the game and infrastructural support can be more private sector friendly.
  • Civil society group can forge a middle path of engagement —   neither locking-in to confrontational action, nor surrendering principle in search of the next donor- or government-funded contract, but rather focusing on the quality of service provision, both partnering with providers and holding them accountable for how public resources are used.
  • Northern activists can seek eyes-wide-open partnerships with globalized firms – anchored in collectively designed and transparent, mutually monitored commitments to, say, rein in bribe-giving, or to target exploitative practices vis-à-vis environmental protection, labor standards, and the extraction of natural resources.
  • Scholars and practitioners can monitor governance in ways that encourage a long view – foreswearing overheated rhetoric in the face of year-to-year changes in indicators of corruption, the rule of law, or government effectiveness, and using monitoring to provide a platform for nurturing constructive dialogue on trends, identifying lagging areas, and exploring how they might be addressed.

As each of these examples suggest, the process through which rights-based development takes root is more akin to a painstaking marathon than to a triumphant sprint.

Finally,  even worse than the misdirection of attention  away from practical challenges, a style of salesmanship which aims to sell rights-based development through grandiloquent claims ends up selling democracy short. In part, this is the classic problem of overpromising:  Inevitably, the claims  collide with the difficult realities of what is feasible — with the gap bringing disillusion in its wake. But the problem is an even deeper one:  Overheated salesmanship does not do justice to the promise of rights-based, democratic development.

At its essence, what democracy offers — and what authoritarian alternatives do not — is an invitation to citizens to work to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  This journey is a challenging one – with much democratic ‘messiness’, and corresponding disappointment along the way. But no matter how challenging the journey, once the invitation to engage has been embraced, the personal dignity it offers cannot be taken away. Rhetorical flourishes that undermine their own credibility by overpromising outcomes obscure this essential truth, the true heart of  the democratic idea — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.


[i][i] Larry Dianond, “Democracy’s Deepening Recession”, The Atlantic, May 2, 2014.

[ii] Remarks by the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System, Mr. Alan Greenspan, at the Woodrow Wilson Award Dinner of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in New York on 10/6/97. Published in Bank for International Settlements, BIS Review, Vol 64, 1997.

[iii] Major contributions include Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) and Political Order and Political Decay (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); Douglass C. North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast, Violence and Social Orders (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990 (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990); and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail (New York: Crown Books, 2012).

[iv] Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, pp. 185; 320-1

[v] Brian Levy, Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[vi] See, for example, Byung Kook Kim and Ezra Vogel (eds), The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Jong-Sung You, “Transition from a Limited to an Open Access Order: The Case of Korea” in Douglass North, John Wallis, Barry Weingast, and Stephen Webb (eds.), In the Shadow of Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Atul Kohli, State-directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[vii] For two classic studies, see Alice Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization (New York: Oxford University Press, 198); and  Leroy Jones and Sakong Il, Business, Government and Entrepreneurship: The Korean Case (Cambridge: Harvard University Press for Harvard Institute for International Development,, 1980); the quote in the text is from pp.66-68.

[viii] For details of the American experience, see Daniel P. Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)


3 responses

  1. Thank you for sharing this excellent review, which articulates my ambivalence toward Easterly with such nuance, recognizing the value of his intent and goals without glossing over his very problematic treatment of the “messiness” of the development process. I so value your “real world” perspective, most especially your pragmatic “entry points” that provide hope within an often grim landscape. This is work that real practitioners can actually USE!

  2. Brian, this an excellent contribution whose value and interest go well beyond its immediate purpose. I am going to tweet to that effect.

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