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The world’s poor have rights, too

by Clive Crook

Bloomberg

Bill Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University, is one of the most consistently interesting and provocative thinkers on development.

His previous books, “White Man’s Burden” (on the failures of aid) and “The Elusive Quest for Growth” (on fashions in development economics), asked big questions and reached wide readerships, owing partly to his direct and gently irreverent style. His newest, “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” is even more ambitious.

Easterly takes a theme implicit in the earlier books and advances it forthrightly. He argues that the West’s efforts to help the poor, or even to understand what holds them back, have been defeated by the failure to recognize them as individuals with rights.

On the face of it, that point seems both simple and wrong. By the end of the book, if you’re like me, you’ll think it’s both subtle and correct.

How can it possibly be argued that Western development agencies care nothing for the rights of the poor? They claim to care about little else — and they’re staffed by good people, aren’t they? Certainly, to a greater or lesser degree, these bodies want to help the poor. The problem is that they aren’t often interested in what the poor might want for themselves. The prevailing mind-set is that what’s good for the poor should be done to them whether they like it or not.

The book starts with a description of farmers dispossessed of their land at gunpoint to allow a forestry project supported by the World Bank to go ahead in Uganda. Easterly asks you to imagine such a thing happening in Ohio.

Of course, it’s unthinkable. The project was undertaken with the best possible motives — to raise the incomes of the poor. But the plan, in effect, set the rights of the dispossessed at zero.

Easterly’s point is that the authoritarian mind-set is not confined to people or institutions that one would instantly recognize as autocratic. “The support for an authoritarian approach to development is sometimes not overt but implied. It is often altruistic rather than self-serving,” he writes. “There is no conspiracy against rights.”

No conspiracy — yet, as Easterly shows, in case after case the experts have failed to recognize the poor as having the rights that citizens of rich countries take for granted.

This double standard expresses itself in different ways. Sometimes, technocratic solutions are imposed with little or no regard for the views of the supposed beneficiaries. Sometimes, in contrast, aid that doesn’t directly involve coercion serves to shore up homegrown autocratic governments that repress people in other ways.

Defenders of these policies might ask, “What’s the alternative?”

Aid has to deal with the world as it is, they could argue, and sometimes it might be better to do something than nothing, even if it indirectly helps autocrats or compromises individuals’ rights. Maybe. Sometimes. Still, Easterly’s call for much greater sensitivity to the rights of the poor is compelling. At least, he says, be aware of the issue.

Especially because, as the book also shows, failing to recognize the poor as individuals with rights also tends to produce bad economic results. This too goes against the grain of much development thinking.

Benevolent autocrats get good reviews in much of the development literature. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping in China, Park Chung-hee in South Korea and Mahathir Bin Mohamad in Malaysia are recognized as having presided over economic miracles. These cases seem to say: Growth and modernity come first; the rights of the individual can wait. Of course, that’s exactly what the autocrats said too.

The economic record of autocracies in general is pitiful. That needs to be stressed. But Easterly also argues that the supposed exceptions — the benevolent autocracies — are often misread.

Take China, the most spectacular instance. Is it really a case of growth despite limited individual freedom? Political and economic rights have expanded hugely since the death of Mao Zedong. China is still an unfree country, but political and economic liberalization preceded its economic rise. Does China show that authoritarian government is good for growth? What it really shows is that less authoritarian government is good for growth.

Many will see “The Tyranny of Experts” as a conservative book — especially if they haven’t read it. Easterly sees economic, civil and political liberties as essentially indivisible, and he espouses a Hayekian view of development that emphasizes the advantages of spontaneous discovery over planning.

Those are seemingly conservative ideas (I’d rather say liberal, in the old-fashioned sense), but as he repeatedly states, those positions don’t commit you to the view that a “thin state” is best, much less to laissez faire.

Arguments about taxes, public spending and the size of the state have nothing to do with Easterly’s position on rights. His book sheds no light on whether the Scandinavian welfare-state model is better than the U.S. approach.

His point is that, despite their differences, Sweden, the United States and all other advanced economies have in common a view about the importance of individual rights — and that mainstream thinking on development would be very different if those ideas were applied to the world’s poor.

Clive Crook is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Email: ccrook5@bloomberg.net.