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#4 from 2015: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on October 22, 2015. It was also the blog post of the month for October 2015.
 

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn 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?

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.

Blog Post of the Month: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In October 2015, the featured blog post is "Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths" by Brian Levy.

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn 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?

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.

Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn 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?

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)
 

Napoleon’s last interview

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The extraordinary historical document transcribed below was recently found at the California State Library in Sacramento. It records an interview of Napoleon Bonaparte made by a reporter of the San Jose Weekly Visitor (today the San Jose Mercury) dated July 14th, 1865, which for unknown reasons (sic) was never published.

Napoléon Bonaparte abdicated in Fontainebleau by Paul DelarocheQuestion: Thank you for allowing us the time. Why breaking your silence with an interview now?
Answer: I am turning 96 next month and I know that my last days are fast approaching. It is important to set the record straight.

Q: Didn’t you die in Santa Helena in 1821?
A: During my trip to what was supposed to be my final exile, Talleyrand had secretly arranged for me to be transferred to the Schooner Casuarina, which after several weeks at sea finally took me to the port of Yerba Buena, today’s San Francisco. We arranged for one of my doubles who usually played the role of a decoy during battles, Chef d'Escadron Deschamps, to be imprisoned which is why he was seldom seen at Longwood. He died there and is now buried at Les Invalides in Paris. He is a real hero.

Q: Why the West coast of America?
A: The weather is great. I purchased an old olive grove near San Jose and have farmed it ever seen, just like my family did for generations in Corsica. I have developed two new varieties of olives and invented a more efficient press for making olive oil.

Q: History sees you as a war-monger…
A: Nothing farther from the truth. I was always attacked by coalitions defending the old monarchies, but I know that I was on the right side of history. My main objective was always to consolidate the Revolution, and its principles of fraternity, liberty, and equality.

Q: By equality do you mean the abolition of classes recently postulated by German philosopher Karl Marx?
A: What I mean is equality of opportunities, under the principle that we are all born free and equal under the law. Trying to equalize people within a society leads to dictatorship and abuse of power. Civil and economic freedom is the essence of a true democratic society and lasting peace.

Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity

How Africa Can Transform Land Tenure, Revolutionize Agriculture, and End Poverty


The greatest development challenge facing Sub-Saharan Africa today is lifting 400 million of its people out of extreme poverty. The continent has abundant land and mineral resources to meet the challenge, but only if land governance can be improved.  A new study, Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity, offers a ten-point program to improve land governance by accelerating policy reforms and boosting investments at a cost of US $4.5 billion over 10 years.