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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)
 

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.


If Everyone Gets Electricity, Can the Planet Survive?
The Atlantic
Last week, the vast majority of the world’s prime ministers and presidents, along with the odd pontiff and monarch, gathered in New York to sign up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Across 169 targets, the SDGs declare the global aspiration to end poverty and malnutrition, slash child mortality, and guarantee universal secondary education by 2030. And they also call for universal access to modern energy alongside taking “urgent action to combat climate change.” These last two targets are surely important, but they conflict, too: More electricity production is likely to mean more greenhouse-gas emissions.

Special Report: Connected Citizens - Managing Crisis
Developing Telecomms
As connectivity extends to the remotest parts of the world an unprecedented and transformational development of ICT knowledge and skills is taking place. This is resulting in an urgent reappraisal of the ways in which crisis situations are managed and to the concept of 'disaster relief'.  Connected citizens become proactive partners in crisis management and recovery, finding ICT based solutions to problems, guiding and channelling emergency relief efforts and leading rebuilding activities.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

 
Exporting corruption: Progress report 2015: Assessing enforcement of OECD Anti-bribery Convention
Transparency International
Transparency International’s 2015 Progress Report is an independent assessment of the enforcement of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Anti-Bribery Convention. The Convention is a key instrument for curbing global corruption because the 41 signatory countries are responsible for approximately two-thirds of world exports and almost 90 per cent of total foreign direct investment outflows. This is the 11th annual report. It has been prepared by Transparency International’s International Secretariat working with our national chapters and experts in the 41 OECD Convention countries. This report shows that there is Active Enforcement in four countries, Moderate Enforcement in six countries, Limited Enforcement in nine countries, and Little or No Enforcement in 20 countries. (Two countries were not classified.)

The Science of Inequality- What the numbers tell us
Special issue of Science Magazine
This special issue uses these fresh waves of data to explore the origins, impact, and future of inequality around the world. Archaeological and ethnographic data are revealing how inequality got its start in our ancestors. New surveys of emerging economies offer more reliable estimates of people's incomes and how they change as countries develop. And in the past decade in developed capitalist nations, intensive effort and interdisciplinary collaborations have produced large data sets, including the compilation of a century of income data and two centuries of wealth data into the World Top Incomes Database.  It is only a slight exaggeration to liken the potential usefulness of this and other big data sets to the enormous benefits of the Human Genome Project. Researchers now have larger sample sizes and more parameters to work with, and they are also better able to detect patterns in the flood of data.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

Income inequality: poverty falling faster than ever but the 1% are racing ahead
The Guardian
How are the benefits of economic growth shared across society? Much of the current discussion assumes that income inequality is rising, painting a gloomy picture of the rich getting richer while the rest of the world lags further and further behind. But is it really all bad news?  The reality is complex, yet by looking at recent empirical data we can get a comprehensive picture of what is happening to the rich and the poor.  Let us start with the share of total income going to that much-maligned 1%. Reconstructed from income tax records, this measure gives us the advantage of more than a century of data from which to observe changes.

Global Journalism Education: A Missed Opportunity for Media Development?
Center for International Media Assistance
Media development organizations have worked for many years directly with media industries to train journalists. Little of their effort has been focused on shaping the training these journalists receive before they are immersed in the media industries, which in many countries are weak and are not fertile ground for building journalism skills nor for upholding journalism standards. But top journalism schools have now reached a quality that suggests media development organizations should begin to work more directly with the best schools. Such partnerships could substantially contribute to better professional training that many of these schools want to offer.
 

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Why democracy can’t be democratic all the way down – and why it matters
Washington Post
Recent debates over the meaning of “one person, one vote” and the lessons of ancient Greek democracy for the modern world highlight an important truth about democracy: it can’t be democratic all the way down. Lincoln famously said that democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But before “the people” can govern anything, someone has to decide who counts as a member of the people, what powers they have, and what rules they will vote under. And that someone usually turns out to be a small group of elites. Just as the world can’t be held up by “turtles all the way down,” so a political system can’t be democratic all the way down.
 
U.N. Marks Humanitarian Day Battling Its Worst Refugee Crisis
Inter Press Service
The United Nations is commemorating World Humanitarian Day with “inspiring” human interest stories of survival – even as the world body describes the current refugee crisis as the worst for almost a quarter of a century.  The campaign, mostly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is expected to flood social media feeds with stories of both resilience and hope from around the world, along with a musical concert in New York.  “It’s true we live in a moment in history where there’s never been a greater need for humanitarian aid since the United Nations was founded,” says U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.  “And every day, I talk about people and I use numbers, and the numbers are numbing, right — 10,000, 50,000,” he laments.  But as U.N. statistics go, the numbers are even more alarming than meets the eye: more than 4.0 million Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon (not including the hundreds who are dying in mid-ocean every week as they try to reach Europe and escape the horrors of war at home).
 

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

 

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Democracy, voting and public opinion in the Arab world: New research evidence
Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University
In 2002 the United Nations issued a much-discussed report highlighting the lack of progress in Arab countries relative to other developing regions, and there has continued to be scrutiny of various social, political and economic indicators there. But a combination of closed regimes, highly nuanced cultural norms and burgeoning areas of conflict often make it difficult to interpret complex political trends and events. The available data relating to perceived changes in public attitudes must be read carefully, with the conflicting results of the 2011 Arab Spring standing as a stark reminder of this complexity. Still, a variety of studies published in 2015 help shed light on emerging trends relating to elections and public opinion in the Arab world, which continues to go through a state of upheaval and transition. Interpreting voter intentions, attitudes and outcomes is particularly difficult in regimes that are neither fully democratic nor totalitarian: Where citizens are not necessarily forced to participate, and yet many turn out to vote despite the fact that the process is highly unlikely to influence the ultimate outcome of the election. A 2015 study published in the journal Comparative Political Studies, “Elections in the Arab World: Why Do Citizens Turn Out?” seeks to explain voter turnout in such situations under authoritarian regimes in Arab countries.
 
Open data ‘not enough to improve lives’
SciDevNet
Governments in developing countries must ensure the statistics they publish can be used to improve citizens’ lives, practitioners told SciDev.Net following an open data meeting. Liz Carolan, the international development manager at host organisation the Open Data Institute (ODI), said countries should instead start with real-world problems and then work out how data can be part of the solution. “A government might say: ‘We put the data on the web, that’s enough’ — but it’s not,” she said. “You could not get away with that”, especially in countries where internet connectivity and literacy are low and it is difficult for people to access the data in the first place.  Ivy Ong, outreach lead at government data provider Open Data Philippines, added: “Do not be blinded by the bright and shiny milestone of developing and launching an open data portal.”
 

‘Authoritarianism Goes Global’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Policeman patrols 99% protestNorms, especially global norms, are exceedingly fragile things…like morning dew confronting the sun. As more players conform to a norm, it gets stronger. In the same way, as more players flout it, disregard it or loudly attack it, it begins to lose that ever so subtle effect on the mind that is the basis of its power.  When a norm is flouted and consequences do not follow the norm begins to die.

Looking back now, we clearly had a magical moment in global affairs a while back. Post 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, communism ended in most places, apartheid South Africa magically turned into democratic South Africa, and so on; it seemed like an especially blessed moment. The bells of freedom tolled so vigorously mountains echoed the joyous sound. It seemed as though anything was possible, that the form of governance known as liberal constitutional democracy would sweep imperiously into every cranny of the globe.

Just as important, there were precious few defenders of autocracy in those days. Almost every regime on earth claimed to be democratic, even if the evidence was discrepant. They could at least claim to be ‘democratic’ in some utterly singular if implausible way. Now, all that has changed. Despots and sundry autocrats strut the earth. They are not ashamed. They are not afraid. They are brazen. They are in your face. They say to anyone who asks: “Hey, I am a despot. I have my own League of Despots. Deal with it”.  And what is confronting the brazenness? The apparently exhausted ideals of liberal constitutionalism suddenly bereft of defenders.

The specific occasion for these reflections is the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy (Volume 26, Number 3). It is a special issue focused on these matters, and I took my title from the lead essay: “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms”, written by Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His basic claim is as follows:

"Over the past decade, authoritarians have experimented with and refined a number of tools, practices, and institutions that are meant to shield their regimes from external criticism and to erode the norms that inform and underlie the liberal international political order." (Page 49)

Quote of the Week: Niall Ferguson

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Niall Ferguson at a Chatham House event on 9 May 2011"Politically, most of the world has never been more boring. Instead of the alarms and excursions of the past, we now have technocrats versus populists. Any violence is verbal and the technocrats nearly always win."

Niall Ferguson, a British historian from Scotland, who specializes in international history; economic history, particularly hyperinflation and the bond markets; and British and American imperialism. Ferguson's books include Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and Civilization: The West and the Rest. He is also the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University; Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford; a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University; and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities.


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