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.
In 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)
Last week, I reviewed Volume 1 (from pre-history up to the French Revolution), but before reviewing Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s monumental history of the state, it’s probably worth asking, why bother?
Because whether providing/denying services, freedoms or functioning markets, the state is the most important institution underpinning development, and yet people in the foreign policy and development world operate with hazy and simplistic understandings of where states came from and how they evolve. Another example of historical amnesia, alas.
That blindness was epitomised by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the US government "seemed to think that democracy and a market economy were default conditions to which the country would automatically revert once Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was removed." Oops.
According to Fukuyama, that is a particular problem because "If there is a single theme that underlies many of the chapters of this book, it is that there is a political deficit around the world, not of states, but of modern states that are capable, impersonal, well organized and autonomous."
The second volume picks up from the late 18th Century (French and American Revolutions) and brings us up to the present day. It feels both dryer in style and more fragmented than Volume One, hopping between discussions of the spread of democracy, geographical determinism, political Islam, the role of the Middle Classes and the experiences of various continents and countries in the developing world, before returning to Fukuyama’s two overriding interests – will China’s rise continue, and will anything arrest the US’ ‘political decay’? So instead of trying to identify a single thread, here are some highlights/insights:
Ricardo Fuentes has been raving about this book for months, so I packed it in my holiday luggage. Actually it’s two books – The Origins of Political Order takes us from pre-history up to the French Revolution/American Revolution, and the subsequent Political Order and Political Decay brings us up to the present day. They each weigh in at around 500 pages, so hope you won’t mind me taking two posts to review them.
Fukuyama is notorious for his ‘End of History?’ post-Cold War triumphalism, but he’s older, wiser and considerably more nuanced these days. The ambition of the two books is astonishing – nothing less than a history of the birth, evolution and current condition of the state worldwide, with fascinating potted histories of the states both obvious (China, England, Germany, US) and less so (Hungary, Poland, Nigeria).
The starting point is that ‘Poor countries are poor not because they lack resources, but because they lack effective political institutions. It asks (and tries to answer) wonderfully big hairy questions like:
- why are some countries (eg Melanesia, parts of Middle East) still tribally organized?
- why is China historically centralized, while India isn’t?
- why is East Asia so special in its path of authoritarian modernization?
- what explains the contrasting fortunes of the US and Latin America?
Fukuyama’s big idea is that political order is based on three pillars: effective centralized states, the rule of law, and accountability mechanisms such as democracy and parliaments. ‘The miracle of modern politics’ is achieving a balance between them, which is difficult both to achieve and then to maintain, with many states having one disproportionately stronger than the others, while others achieve it, and then lose it. Its achievement is often accidental, rather than deliberate. Analysing each state’s unique combination of the three pillars helps us understand the strengths, weaknesses and historical trajectories of different countries and empires.
The history of political thought has been, in a sense, a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern: the idea that experts should rule and the idea that the people should rule themselves. It has been a never-ending tussle, and just when you think the idea that the people can and should rule has won, we see established democracies tossing out elected governments and installing rule by technocrats. The issue is important for this blog for a simple reason: in international development, the belief that experts know best and should shape public policy in developing countries is as difficult to kick as an addiction to cocaine.
So, let’s be clear: while the allurement of technocratic competence in a crisis is understandable it remains just a trifle absurd to suppose that technocratic competence can replace democratic politics rather than being its humble servant. Experts have a huge role in a crisis, financial or otherwise, but to believe that finding a path out of a crisis is the sole business of experts is not only wrong but naïve. For, the response to a crisis is inherently and inescapably political. And this is true on at least two levels.
When we think about 'fashion' we mostly think about clothes, like what the pace-setters in Milan and Paris tell the susceptible is currently fashionable, or what is, to use the lingo. 'so last season'. (I tend to think that , in the words of the old Hugo Boss slogan: True Style is Never Out of Fashion.) But what is increasingly clear is that political leaders, given one of the peculiar dynamics of public opinion, can be in and out of fashion too. So, as you read this, wherever you are in the world, think about your political leader. Is your leader still in fashion?
What is the basis of the claim that 'People, Spaces and Deliberation' are central to how you achieve good and accountable governance durably? One way of buttressing is to step back and reflect on two competing interpretations of governance, really, politics. The first interpretation of governance or politics is that it is purely and simply the business of the elite.