The Tyranny of Experts

Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor


By William Easterly

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In this "bracingly iconoclastic” book (New York Times Book Review), a renowned economics scholar breaks down the fight to end global poverty and the rights that poor individuals have had taken away for generations.

In The Tyranny of Experts, renowned economist William Easterly examines our failing efforts to fight global poverty, and argues that the "expert approved" top-down approach to development has not only made little lasting progress, but has proven a convenient rationale for decades of human rights violations perpetrated by colonialists, postcolonial dictators, and US and UK foreign policymakers seeking autocratic allies. Demonstrating how our traditional antipoverty tactics have both trampled the freedom of the world's poor and suppressed a vital debate about alternative approaches to solving poverty, Easterly presents a devastating critique of the blighted record of authoritarian development. In this masterful work, Easterly reveals the fundamental errors inherent in our traditional approach and offers new principles for Western agencies and developing countries alike: principles that, because they are predicated on respect for the rights of poor people, have the power to end global poverty once and for all.




The Debate That Never Happened



The farmers in Wood County in rural northwest Ohio never saw it coming. The soldiers had arrived on the morning of Sunday, February 28, 2010, while the farmers were in church. Hearing gunshots, the farmers had rushed to their houses, which by then were already immersed in flames. While some soldiers kept the farmers at gunpoint from rescuing their homes, others poured gasoline over the recent grain harvest in the barns and burned that as well. One eight-year-old child was trapped and died in the fire. The dairy cows were dispatched more quickly and humanely with a burst of machine-gun fire. Then the soldiers marched the more than 20,000 farmers away at riflepoint. Never come back, they were told; the land is no longer yours.

The farmers, many of whose homesteads had been in their families for generations, were unhappy to learn that a British company was taking their land with the help of the soldiers. The company was going to grow forests and then sell the timber. The farmers were even more distressed to learn that the World Bank, an official international organization combating global poverty, had financed and promoted the project by the British company. The World Bank is not subject to Ohio or United States law or courts.

The farmers might have hoped that publicity would help them. And indeed, a year later a British human-rights organization, Oxfam, published a report on what had happened in Wood County in February 2010. The New York Times ran a story on the report on September 21, 2011. The World Bank the next day promised an investigation. That investigation has never happened.

As of this writing, now past the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, the whole event has been forgotten by almost everyone except the victims. The farmers could only wonder why nobody seemed to care.


Is this story really true? It is true except for one geographic detail—the events did not occur in Wood County, Ohio; they occurred in Mubende District, Uganda. The World Bank had promoted the forestry project there to raise incomes, but those whose rights the Bank had overlooked would not be among the beneficiaries.1 It is inconceivable that the story above could have occurred in Ohio. If it had, there would have been an outcry that produced justice for the victims and punishment for the perpetrators.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the world’s most famous statement of political ideals in 1776, he listed outrages of the king of England against his American subjects: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” The following words were meant to prevent such outrages:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Similar ideals would be repeated in other Western nations. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved by the revolutionary French National Assembly on August 26, 1789, aimed

to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man. . . . Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. . . . Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.

These aspirations for freedom were those of poor people. The French in 1789 and Americans in 1776 were at an average income per person roughly similar to that of Africans today. The World Bank is based in the West and has many managers and staff who personally share in this dream. But the World Bank does not articulate such a dream for the world they cover, the world that at various times has been called “the Third World” or the “less-developed countries.”

The World Bank can hardly avoid some discussion of the nature of government in development, and they have been preparing reports on this topic—what they have vaguely called governance for years now. One recent version is a 2007 World Bank report on governance that says:

Implementing the strengthened approach to governance . . . will require . . . careful development of a . . . detailed results framework, consideration of budget and staffing implications . . . and further consultations with stakeholders. . . . The specific initiatives needed to fully operationalize this strategy will be outlined in an Implementation Plan.2

The following concepts play little or no role in the “strengthened approach to governance”: liberty, freedom, equality, rights, or democracy. These omissions are not accidents; they are part of a long pattern in World Bank reports. Questioned about the remarkably consistent omission of the word democracy from World Bank official reports and speeches, for example, the World Bank Press Office explained to this author that the World Bank is legally not allowed by its own charter to use the word democracy. We will retrace the revealing history behind this strange and important claim back to the 1940s.

The lack of commitment to such ideals is exemplified by the World Bank’s successful evasion of any responsibility for burning down the homes of poor farmers. It is further exemplified by its linguistic evasion, such as a “strengthened approach to governance” complete with its “consideration of budget and staffing implications.” The farmers in Mubende, Uganda, have reason to doubt whether they are included among the “men [who] are born and remain free and equal in rights.”


The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich, is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements. We see this in the Bank’s actions in Mubende; we will see the same belief prevalent amongst others who combat global poverty, such as the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, and US and UK aid agencies.

The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty—the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights. In Mubende, Uganda, for example, the techniques of improved forestry offered a solution to poverty. But it was not a solution for the Mubende farmers. The illusion that the problem was technical only distracted attention from the soldiers’ and World Bank’s violations of the rights of the farmers.

By this technocratic illusion, the technical experts unintentionally confer new powers and legitimacy on the state as the entity that will implement the technical solutions. The economists who advocate the technocratic approach have a terrible naïveté about power—that as restraints on power are loosened or even removed, that same power will remain benevolent of its own accord.

What used to be the divine right of kings has in our time become the development right of dictators. The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts, what this book will call authoritarian development. The word technocracy (a synonym for authoritarian development) itself is an early twentieth-century coinage that means “rule by experts.”

The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people is the moral tragedy of development today. The rights of the poor—such as the right of Ugandan farmers not to have their homes burnt down—are moral ends in themselves. Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist. Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them. One cannot avoid this moral choice by appealing to “nonideological evidence-based policies” (a popular phrase in development today).

Authoritarian development is also a pragmatic tragedy. History and modern experience suggest that free individuals with political and economic rights—call it free development—make up a remarkably successful problem-solving system. Free development gives us the right to choose amongst a myriad of spontaneous problem-solvers, rewarding those that solve our problems. These public and private problem-solvers accomplish far more than dictators who implement solutions provided by experts. We will see how free development allows the squeaky wheel to get the grease, while authoritarian development silences the squeaky wheel—perhaps with a police raid and a prison term.

The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights. The emphasis on the problem of expertise makes the problem of rights worse. The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.


I have made clear the position this book argues. But this position could be completely wrong—that’s why it will take a whole book to consider whether morality, theory, and evidence does or does not show a Tyranny of Experts.

Those who support autocrats in development do not see autocracy as an end in itself. They genuinely believe autocrats would deliver the escape from poverty faster than free systems will. They believe the experts advising the autocrats know better than poor individuals how to solve their problems. They could be right—after all, there are some development success stories that happen in the absence of individual rights, and many individual efforts do fail (among both rich and poor). The pragmatic case for free rather than autocratic development often goes against our intuitions.

A common concept among development observers over many decades is that of the “benevolent autocrat.” According to this concept, the leader may have unconstrained power, but his intentions concerning what to do with that power are presumed to be good. He (and most autocrats are indeed male) just needs expert advice to accomplish good things. When good things do in fact happen to a country governed by an autocrat—such as high economic growth or rapid health improvements—the credit for these good things goes to the autocrat. The good outcomes are thereby taken as de facto evidence of the benevolence of the autocrat. These propositions could be correct—maybe it really does take autocrats to get things done, to avoid democratic stalemates—but they should at least be debated. This book will have that debate.

The support for an authoritarian approach to development is sometimes not overt but implied. It is often altruistic rather than self-serving. Support for autocrats is unintentional more often than it is intentional. There is no conspiracy against rights. I can sympathize with economists who, in their zeal to help the world’s poor, unwittingly favor autocracy, because for a long time I was one of them myself.


This book tells the story of authoritarian development. We will see that there was a debate between authoritarian and free development. But for the development experts who took over the field by the 1950s, the debate was already over—the authoritarian side had won. While eloquent advocates continued to make the case for free development, as we will see, the development community was no longer listening. It is still not listening today.

To see how this happened, we need to start before the official beginning of development in 1949, when Harry S. Truman first announced a US foreign-aid program, and look at a largely unknown history of development earlier in the twentieth century in places like prerevolutionary China and British colonial Africa. We will see debates between some of the first examples of what later would be called development economists.

When development was first conceived, open racism prevented Western actors from seeing a free alternative—that is, an alternative based on individual rights and initiative—as possible in the rest of the world. Colonial and semicolonial actions by the West were directly violating the rights of the poor in the Rest. We will see how technocratic development gave these actions cover as technical measures to improve the well-being of colonial subjects.

Yet as overt racism and colonialism faded, the appeal of technocratic ideas remained. History also allows us to explore the political motivations that sometimes determine which side of each debate wins. Technocratic development turned out to be popular with a remarkable diversity of interest groups, including even racists and colonialists in the West, on one side, and the nationalist leaders in the Rest who were victims of racism and of colonialism, on the other. It had great appeal to philanthropists and humanitarians in rich countries who wanted to end global poverty, yet also to those who cared nothing about poverty and only about the foreign policy and national security needs of rich countries.

Technocratic development also held an understandable appeal for the group on which it conferred great importance: development experts. We will see how economists before and during the official start of development in the 1950s got seduced by missionary zeal to become anointed as development experts, while a brave and now-forgotten few economists resisted it.

Most observers agree that the political interests of the United States during the Cold War helped determine which countries got foreign aid—that is, donations from governments of rich countries to support development in less-developed nations—and how much. It is not a stretch to examine whether the ideas that justified that aid might also have been politically convenient for the Great Powers during the Cold War—and it turns out even long before the Cold War. These political interests continue to be on display today in the War on Terror.

This book will not automatically reject ideas that had political motivations. None of us are entirely free from political agendas, and political agendas do not automatically exclude altruistic agendas. I want to debate all ideas on their merits. But political motivations help explain why the debate on the merits of ideas has often failed to happen.


The debate between authoritarian and free alternatives in development has been missing for six decades. But there is a new source of hope and inspiration, where this time some economists are the good guys. A new wave of research on economic history, politics, institutions, culture, and technology has provided plenty of material to finally have the debate. Alongside the story of how authoritarian development became the default consensus on global poverty reduction, the new research allows the reconstruction of the story of free development in reducing global poverty.

Three dimensions of the new research challenge the authoritarian consensus—three dimensions that already appeared in the protodebate that got squelched. One is an emphasis on history. Technocratic solutions view history as not really mattering, a view that we can call the Blank Slate. The new research revisits even old history, such as a battle in northern Italy in 1176, to show how a twelfth-century turning point for individual freedom still affects outcomes in Italy today. The opposite of the Blank Slate is recognizing that history matters, and learning from that history. This also opens the door to history itself being evidence for or against authoritarian development.

Another dimension of the new research is an emphasis on nonnational factors—for example, the technology, values, and network contacts that migrants take with them from one nation to another. We will visit with such surprising players as a Senegalese religious brotherhood that has migrated to major Western cities. This and many other stories and research findings shed light on the big development debate on the prerogatives of nations versus the rights of individuals.

Finally, the new research shows the importance of spontaneous solutions in politics, markets, and technology. It turns out that when the rights of local people are respected, new trades happen, new technologies happen, new public services happen. This challenges conventional wisdom about the “benevolent autocrats” behind many success stories. There is, for example, more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower to the anonymous spread of the potato to China than to Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies. Appreciation of this phenomenon allows us, finally, to have the biggest development debate of all, on conscious design of development by experts versus spontaneous solutions by individuals.

Ironically, most of the economists involved in this recent research were not trying to solve the global poverty problem; they were just trying to better understand and explain the world. Nor were these researchers aware of the big debate that had failed to happen for six decades on authoritarian versus free development. So the development community of official agencies and philanthropic foundations has not changed its adherence to the authoritarian development consensus. But now we finally have the material to reopen the debate on the rights of the poor.


The intellectual journey in this book toward a debate on autocracy versus freedom will be treacherous because the development consensus has a long history (as we will see) of disqualifying and dismissing its critics. There are many misunderstandings that tend to suppress dissenting views. Let’s review them:

You are just repeating the tired argument about free markets versus state intervention. This is the main debate in development that seems related to the debate about authoritarian versus free development. But it is not the same debate, because the market-versus-state debate says nothing about the power of the state versus the individual. The market side of the debate wants the state to expand the scope of the market. For example, it could remove tariffs on trade that protect some industries, so that free trade determines which industries survive. The state could lift controls on prices and instead let markets determine prices. The state side wants the state to protect the poor with price controls on basic goods, and to use trade policy to pick the most promising sectors that will lead the economy into development. However, neither side of this debate is addressing restraints on state power. Regardless of which side wins the market-versus-state debate, the state is still able to violate the rights of private individuals with impunity. In the “market” side of the debate, it is still the leader of the state that gets to decide what is a “market” policy. The state leader is able to pick and choose whose rights and which types of rights individuals may temporarily enjoy, such as the economic freedom to trade with whom one wishes. These rights are never secure when restraints on state power are absent, or when the principle of equal rights for all individuals in all spheres of activity is not recognized.

The distinction between economic freedom and political freedom thrives on both sides of the market-versus-state debate, because some on each side insist on the primacy of the one kind of freedom over the other, while nonetheless disagreeing over which it is that is primary. However, while the distinction is helpful for analysis, only a unified vision of freedom is coherent as an ideal. Did the World Bank and Ugandan government violate the economic freedom of the farmers in the Mubende District of Uganda, or was it their political freedom? It is hard to separate the two: violating property rights violates economic freedom, while the soldiers’ violent suppression of farmer protests violates political freedom. Whenever this book says individual rights, it includes both political and economic rights, the long list of those traditionally respected in today’s mature capitalist democracies. It includes the political freedom from seizure of your person and the economic freedom from seizure of your property. It includes the political freedom to assemble with whom you wish and the economic freedom to trade with whom you wish. It includes the political freedom to replace bad public-service providers with good ones, and the economic freedom to replace bad private-service providers with good ones.

You are an ideologue. There is a slippery slope in perceptions of development writers. If you deviate from what the political Center deems to be centrist, you slide down a perceptional slippery slope toward “ideologue.” Audiences sometimes look for code words that imply the writer is too extreme. Mention markets and you are presumed to favor a world with zero government. Mention liberty too often and you are presumed to be in favor of some extreme right-wing ideology. Mention Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom and you are presumed to be to the right of ranting talk-show hosts.

Less commonly recognized is a perceptional slippery slope on the left. If you mention colonialism, racism, or imperialism too often, as concepts still relevant to understanding development past and present, you risk being seen as a leftist ideologue.

I hope to frustrate the search for code words, because I do not believe in them. Of course, there really are white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and other extremists who should be disqualified from debate. If our exclusion of extremists is too broad, however, we will just wind up endlessly repeating a consensus whose origin is unclear. One of the most interesting features of the story you are about to read is that the rebels against the technocratic consensus come from both the left and the right, and they often hold incompatible views on almost everything else.

You are attacking a straw man. Another set of debate-sabotaging formulas are “the truth lies somewhere in between,” or “there is no real difference between us,” or “you are attacking a straw man.”

Sometimes it is easier to see the debate in terms of the extreme each side is most desperate to avoid. Let’s consider two opposing extremes: (1) conscious design of development by state leaders and First World experts, and (2) development emerging from the spontaneous solutions of individuals. Perhaps nobody is at the pure extreme of (1), yet most in development flee from (2) in a way they do not flee from (1), fearing (wrongly) that (2) leaves nothing for the development expert to do. The desperation with which the one extreme is avoided makes the other extreme seem closer to a reasonable, middle-ground position and therefore less of a straw man.

This book sometimes refers to a “consensus” of the self-described development community. The development community includes policy experts, public intellectuals, economists, and other social scientists. Its limits are defined as those who work for the aid agencies of rich-country governments, international aid agencies like the World Bank, think tanks like the Brookings Institution, and philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, or as consultants or advisers to any of the above. It does not include economics professors conducting purely academic research on development, unless those professors cross over into work for the kinds of agencies listed here.

The idea of a consensus that remains stable over time and across groups is an oversimplification, just as the extremes in the debate were an oversimplification. There are of course differing viewpoints within such a consensus as well as changes over time in the consensus. Yet simplification is necessary to clarify the issues that matter most.

The content of the consensus is likewise disputable. In describing the development-community consensus in this book, I am drawing on my own thirty years of experience in development, on reading decades of writings about development, and on direct quotations from official sources that I present in the remainder of the book.

This book just wants to have the debate. Let’s not get obsessed with who and how many are located at each point between two opposing extremes, or who and how many belong to the consensus.


Another device to suppress dissenting views is to attribute an agenda to the dissenter. It will help, therefore, to clarify what this book is not doing.

Not about ideological debates in rich countries. There are lots of books about the debates between the Left and the Right in the United States or in other rich countries. They mainly tend to break down into arguments about state versus market (as described above). They also tend to focus on particular debates about particular rights such as gun control, abortion, or a right to privacy. This book is not about such debates in rich countries. Neither conservatives nor liberals in the rich societies would disavow the axiomatic existence of “unalienable rights” for rich people, although they might, of course, disagree about the definition and implementation of particular rights. Yet this book argues that development does not embrace unalienable rights for the poor, even as a starting point—and that is the missing debate that this book wants to have.

Not implying guilt by association.


On Sale
Mar 16, 2021
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

William Easterly

About the Author

William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute. He is the author of several books on global politics and economics, including The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (winner of the FA Hayek Award). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Review of Books, and Washington Post. Foreign Policy magazine named him among the Top 100 Global Public Intellectuals. He lives in New York.

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