Thursday, June 5, 2014

Easterly, Development, and Tyranny

"[S]hared hatreds make for strange bedfellows," said Albert Hirschman.  He had in mind the way in which Marxian and libertarian critics of economic development often make the same arguments against the very same things, usually under the false impression that they are attacking each other by doing so -- like two blindfolded duelists bayonetting the same scarecrow and both crying victory. Well, the pattern diagnosed by Hirschman has repeated itself many times in the years since.  Those of us on the Left, for instance, probably thought we had the decisive monopoly on venting spleen against the IMF, the World Bank, and other international development institutions.  How eery, then, to read David Rieff's review of William Easterly's The Tyranny of Experts in the New York Review of Books.  Here we find Easterly, an admirer of Hayek and of free enterprise, charging these very same institutions with committing "imperialism," with shamelessly supporting despots and autocrats in developing countries, and with harboring an arrogant white savior complex.  It is as if we heard the soft verses of "Silent Night" drifting to our ears from the other side of No-Man's Land. "Whatever hope is yours,/ Was my life also," Easterly's book seems to be saying.

I am of course exaggerating the affinities between Easterly's argument (as described by Rieff-- I have not read Easterly's book itself) and left-wing criticisms of development orthodoxy.  It is true that  both Easterly and the Left would broadly agree that the less the World Bank and the IMF try to do, the better for the developing world.  And if you have an anti-authoritarian bone in your body, you will be grateful for Easterly's diatribes against the marriage of convenience that has been celebrated between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and certain autocratic regimes in the developing world.  Easterly's depiction, as filtered through Rieff, of Bill and Melinda as two innocents abroad is masterful.  Returning home on private aircraft, they repeat the official bromides of the Ethiopian government like a modern-day Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
"In 2013, Melinda Gates [...] described [Ethiopia] as one of her favorite countries. 'I always enjoy visiting Ethiopia,' she declared, 'because I see inspirational stories and concrete leadership from the government and community health workers reaching the hardest to reach and making change.'"  
"I have seen the future and it works," in other words.  Rieff quotes a report from Human Rights Watch in response:
"[A]s partners in Ethiopia’s development, donor nations remain muted in their criticism of Ethiopia’s appalling human rights record and are taking little meaningful action to investigate allegations of abuses associated with development programs."
All of this needs saying, and the leftist reading Easterly will wish she had said it first.  

The substantive disagreement between Easterly and the leftist therefore has little to do with who is to blame and what they have done wrong.  It has a great deal to do, rather, with how we might best undo what they have done in the future.  The name of the poison in development orthodoxy is the "Tyranny of Experts," but the name of the antidote is less clear.

On Easterly's account, as told through Rieff, development orthodoxy up to this point has refused to allow itself to be guided by the demands, wishes, and expectations of the people who are most directly affected by its policies-- who are, in fact, its alleged beneficiaries, i.e. the world's poor.  Instead, the development Establishment has assumed that it knows best, and that the poor's own choices will be counterproductive.  Thus, this Establishment lines up with local autocrats and against indigenous democracy in order to impose development policies by coercive means-- policies which, in their immediate costs to the poor in the form of displacement and loss of livelihood, would be too onerous to tolerate under a minimally representative political system.  Again, in the eyes of the Left, I'd imagine, this is all so far so good.  There is little in the argument up to this point to distinguish an Easterly from a Polanyi, though it is supposed that never the twain shall meet.

But here at last comes the difference: Easterly, on Rieff's telling, thinks the solution to this problem lies in the free market, because this market automatically responds to the actual demands of a given set of economic actors, and not simply to what policy experts imagine to be what they "really need."   In Rieff's telling, Easterly's primary example of successful development along these lines is a single street in New York's SoHo neighborhood, Greene Street:
"Easterly extols Greene Street’s 'total freedom to keep reinventing itself,' calling attention, for example, to the rising prosperity of many of its residents, and to its resistance to 'technocratic officials' such as Robert Moses who would have demolished it."
As Rieff points out, it is a bit of a quantum leap to move from the case of one highly gentrified street in an American city to a policy prescription for international development.  Rieff also asks the question most obviously begged by this analysis.  As he puts it:
"[I]t is almost bizarre to find Easterly insisting that Greene Street is what it is because that is what its residents wanted it to be, while denying, as surely he would do without reservation, that the residents of Detroit or East St. Louis or Camden, New Jersey, want their poor and broken-down cities to be as they are."
Presumably, that is, the residents of America's most dilapidated and impoverished urban spaces have just as much intrinsic "demand" for clean air, proper waste removal and the elimination of lead and other toxins as the people of Greene Street.  So why are their neighborhoods such comparatively dangerous and unhealthy places to live?  Well, perhaps they are the victims of "planning," and their municipal governments have simply failed to adopt a sufficiently laissez faire policy.  Or maybe, the thought occurs to us, the trouble is that in order for demand to be effective in the marketplace, it needs money to back it up.  The market does not rush in to satisfy all human wants, after all-- it satisfies those that particular individuals can afford to have satisfied.

Meanwhile, if we know anything about the process of gentrification, we know that one can't judge a particular street an "economic success" until one finds out what happened to the people who used to live there, where they went, and in what condition they now live.

Most importantly of all, isn't Easterly's assumption that, roughly speaking, "it worked in SoHo so it'll work in Senegal" an example of exactly the sort of hyper-generalized "expert thinking" he decries?  He makes an excellent point that tremendous evils often stem from wonks rushing in too quickly to solve problems, brandishing their broadest brushes. It is not implausible, moreover, to interpret a whole host of bad ideas from the recent past-- Neoconservatism, say-- as so many cases of people obtaining a new hammer and treating everything they encounter with it as a nail.  But are we really disposed to think that Hayekian libertarianism does not follow precisely this same pattern?  Is not universal and uniform "free enterprise" something that could only be dreamed up and implemented under a regime of "expertise."  Isn't Neoliberalism, at last, an instance of exactly the sort of think-tank wisdom that attributes greater truth to the generalized abstraction than to the individual realities on which it is based?-- the truest mark of an irredeemable "pedantry," according to Schopenhauer.

It is unfortunate that Rieff in his review does not spend much time on this most important deficiency in Easterly's argument.  Instead, he devotes his attention to questioning Easterly's judgment that, in Rieff's words, "over the long term autocracy and successful economic growth and poverty reduction can never go hand in hand."

Rieff's point in questioning this, one presumes, is not to defend autocracy.  Rather, he seems to be trying to confront Easterly with a chicken-and-egg problem that he may have overlooked.  Easterly is suggesting, I take it, that the flourishing of autocracy in the developing world has a great deal to do with the aid and support that the West has provided to dictatorial regimes in post-colonial countries. In the absence of this aid, he implies, more genuinely popular and democratic governments could come to power. This assumes, however, that the aid came first and the dictators second, which is exactly what Rieff doubts-- he suggests that part of the reason the West can't make democratic elections and respect for individual rights a greater condition of its aid is that if it did so, the autocratic regimes in control of large parts of the developing world would simply look elsewhere for support.  Says Rieff, "as many Western diplomats and human rights campaigners will say privately, the emergence of China as a force both in Africa through trade, loans, and grants and in Central Asia—partly through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, partly bilaterally—has made it much more difficult for Western governments to successfully attach human rights conditions to the development aid they grant[.]" In Rieff's telling, then, the dictators came first, and Western aid from the beginning had to take them into account.

One doesn't have to entirely agree with Rieff to see his point. I suspect, for one, that the relationship between Western support for autocracy and the conditions in the developing world that allow autocracy to flourish is a sufficiently tangled one, at least, that we can't expect simply to pull on one thread of it and watch the whole thing unravel.  In other words, even if Western aid plays or has played a significant role in keeping particular dictators in power, it is hard to say that withdrawing such aid would rid the world of their influence.  I'm not sure Easterly would argue the latter, but he seems to lend himself to that reading.

Moreover, I want to emphasize that we don't have to buy Easterly's thesis that autocracy is inimical to development to find the former morally intolerable.  If the two are not inimical, and might even fit together rather snugly, then this might simply imply that there is a serious problem in the ideal of "development" itself, generally understood as industrialization and technological modernization.  The People's Republic of China is certainly "developing" apace, after all, by most people's standards-- that doesn't change the fact that it is one of the most abhorrent regimes in existence, which imprisons, executes, and tortures more of its citizens each year than any other place in the world. Let us remember that yesterday marked the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and the government in China has been scrambling over the past weeks to censor any mention of the event or its commemoration on the internet, trying thereby to blot even from memory the hundreds or perhaps thousands of people it killed on June 4, 1989.  I think this can make your blood boil regardless of whether or not you view an 8% growth rate as impressive.

But it is unfortunate that Rieff devotes so much of his critique to undermining Easterly's thesis that development and autocracy are natural enemies-- it can leave Rieff sounding, in spite of himself, like an accomodationist to autocracy, and I don't think this is what he intends.  Nor is it essential to a critique of Easterly.

Much to the contrary, in fact, what most needs to be questioned in Easterly's analysis is the claim that free markets and autocracy are unalterably opposed to one another.  Implicit in his claim is the assumption that laissez faire is the natural state of society-- that it is the proper way to simply "let people be" and work out their own answers to their problems.  This only makes sense, however, so long as we assume that "government" exists outside of "society" in a way that "the market" does not.  But in the sort of genuinely representative political systems Easterly favors, this distinction between government and society becomes increasingly difficult to make.  Consequently, it becomes all the less clear why a choice people exercise in the marketplace, where they may be constrained by limited resources, reflects their true "demands" in a way that their choice at the ballot box does not.  Indeed, the similarity between political and economic choices has become one of the pillars of the free market critique of the welfare state, and has been employed to suggest the impossibility of pursuing social justice or egalitarianism through political channels.  But this only ends up undermining the very premisses of the free market argument, for if economic and political decisions are so similar, one cannot defend the former as being more responsive to people's genuine needs than the latter.

Easterly is a sincere democrat, it is clear.  But what happens to his theory when people in a democratic society vote in leaders or policies that favor protectionism, social insurance, public health care, progressive taxation, or even foreign development aid, as they have been known to do?  Were these votes not an expression of their genuine "demands," in contrast to their market behavior?  If we answer this question with an affirmative, we are edging rather close to the view that voters in such societies must not have known what was good for them, and that we know best.  We are starting to sound a great deal like "experts."

There have been many times in history in which the "free market" was thrust upon people with the full terror of state power to support it-- more than that, times in which it could only have been thrust upon people in this manner, if it was to remain a truly "free" market, unblemished by any concessions to welfare state concerns, Poor Laws, etc.  Easterly cites Greene Street as an instance of the benevolent and peaceful way in which a community can be assimilated into capitalist prosperity.  Well, Karl Polanyi cited the rather more impressive example of the industrialization of Great Britain to show that peaceful assimilation is the exception, not the rule.  The argument of Polanyi's classic work on The Great Transformation was precisely that the "free market" could not have been introduced into Britain in the 19th century under genuinely democratic conditions-- the massive destruction of traditional ways of life that it brought with it would have utterly damned it at the ballot box, if there had been a wider franchise in place-- or at the very least, the market's perfect "freedom" would have been tremendously abridged by popular demands for parish relief, protectionism, and so on.

Meanwhile, Mike Davis has shown us how imposing a "free market" in grain in colonial India triggered a catastrophic famine, which provoked in turn widespread popular demands for such state interventions as price controls and public relief.  These demands had to be either ignored or quashed by the colonial government in order to preserve the "freedom" and "autonomy" of the marketplace.  Are we meant to think that the starving Indian farmer and his children were expressing their "demands" by struggling to afford grain in the marketplace and eventually dying of starvation-- whereas they were guilt of favoring "top-down planning" in so far as they asked for public relief and public works?

Of course, Easterly is perfectly entitled to favor democracy and at the same time to earnestly advocate that people exercise their democratic rights in the pursuit of free market policies.  What is illegitimate is the assumption that the adoption of a more self-consciously libertarian policy would constitute a "new direction" on the stage of international development.  After all, is it not precisely "free markets" that the IMF and the World Bank have been struggling to impose on the developing world for the past several decades?

Easterly's critique of "developmentalism" and "the development project" as a whole, so far as I can gather from Rieff's account, elides one of the most obvious and significant changes of recent history-- the shift in the international development consensus away from top-heavy Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, the acceptance of whose tenets was made a condition of international development loans under the controversial "Structural Adjustment Programs" (SAPs). To Easterly's point, these SAPs were largely imposed by international institutions on the global South, rather than being demanded by the latter (even if they were imposed more by carrot than by stick).  This was surely a case of the "Tyranny of Experts" if there ever was one.  But the reason they had to be imposed and were not more graciously adopted was, at least in part, that they enshrine so many of the "free market" principles that Easterly puts forth as the decisive answer to technocratic hubris.

Easterly's argument appears fraught elsewhere with similar inconsistencies.  According to Reiff:
"[V]ery real reductions in poverty and hunger [...] have occurred throughout the world during the past thirty years, even if the largest part of these, as Easterly has tried repeatedly to point out, are due to the rise of middle classes in China and India rather than to the development project in any of its historic versions."
Well, hang on-- the development Establishment would surely tout India as its own success story -- as a brilliant example of what neoliberal reforms can achieve, that is, under the guidance of international institutions.  India, meanwhile, for all the comparative stability of its parliamentary system, is not entirely free of the "autocracy" that Easterly detests -- and this autocratic character has especially made its presence felt in the service of those very economic changes that have enriched India's middle classes (while displacing, evicting, and impoverishing millions of others).  China, meanwhile, is the modern world's definitive autocracy.  Are we to believe that its expanding middle class is the work of its "free market," but that the imposition of this market has nothing to do with the country's reliance on heavy state coercion?

Rieff does not elaborate further on what Easterly could mean by trying to invoke India and China in support of his claims, so I'll have to leave the point there.

All of this is to say that Easterly has exploded some of the right myths and has accused the right mentalities and assumptions of being "tyrannical."  But telling us that we should simply "let things be," is not an answer.  It is hard to deny that many evils have come to the world through the arrogance of expertise, and that unexpected goods will sometimes arise from allowing people and communities to forge their own path.  Few of us would disagree with William Blake that "If buds are nipped,/And blossoms blown away; […] How shall the summer arise in joy,/ Or the summer fruits appear?"

But what if these buds-- the ones we nip to our peril -- might germinate in people's political choices, and not only in their market choices?  Are the former less real than the latter?  That seems hard to defend, if we are talking about a minimally democratic polity.  In fact, we might say that people's choices at the ballot box tell us rather more about their genuine "demands," because there each person has a vote, at least ostensibly, rather than each dollar.

To accept the basic validity of Easterly's critique is not necessarily to support "free enterprise" in place of socialism, in short.  The latter does not have a monopoly on "experts."  Nor does it have a monopoly on tyranny.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Easterly's new book either, but based on his previous book, "The White Man's Burden," which I have read, I'm not sure he's quite as much of a laissez-faire libertarian as you and Rieff suggest. It's of course possible that he's become more ideologically extreme as his success has brought him to the attention of laissez-faire types and made their funding, etc. available to him, but in my experience Rieff isn't an especially nuanced or sympathetic reader so I'm inclined to trust my memory over his portrayal (though I did read the earlier book in the summer after the first year of college so my recollections probably aren't that reliable either).

    Anyway, as I recall, Easterly says very explicitly there that he's not opposed to all forms of development aid and praises aid that goes to specific, concrete projects (such as individual roads or bridges and public health interventions) as well as just giving out cash to people in poor countries. He's also pretty critical of the general idea of free market "shock therapy" and of specific free-market development ideas such as giving the poor property rights, which he rejects on the basis that a property-based legal regime can only function once a society has reached a certain level of wealth.

    He criticizes SAPs as well, although my recollection is that he focuses on the objection that they don't work because they're imposed by foreigners and therefore don't have the local legitimacy or sensitivity to local conditions needed to be effective (it's not clear, at least in my memory, if he thinks austerity, privatization, etc. are good development strategies or not). Conversely, I think what he likes about the Indian and Chinese development models is not so much the specific policies used but rather the fact that they were developed organically by local actors rather than imposed by the West (there is a sort of romantic post-colonial side to Easterly that's somewhat problematic).

    With respect to the general question of market and political choices, I actually think Easterly sort of agrees with you (though I imagine he wouldn't claim that political choices are freer). I may be misremembering, but I recall a passage where he argues that democratic government and the market are both Hayekian systems because they both function by aggregating local knowledge (consumption and voting decisions as well as other forms of political advocacy) rather than imposing a central plan. Without having read the more recent book, I would guess that some idea like this lies behind his praise for the New York neighborhood and that he would reply to Rieff's objection by claiming that inner-city neighborhoods aren't really self-governing in the way that would be necessary for them to be Hayekian systems.

    Obviously none of this is meant as a criticism of your post, as there's nothing in Rieff's review that would lead one to suspect any of this (and again, Easterly may have become more extreme), but I thought you might be interested in what Easterly actually thinks (or at least what I remember him thinking ...).