Cover Story

Books of the Year

"Books of the Year" Continued...

Issue: "2014 Books Issue," June 28, 2014

ANALYSIS

WINNER:
The Tyranny of Experts
by William Easterly
RUNNERS-UP:
Mission Drift
by Peter Greer & Chris Horst
Darwin’s Doubt
by Stephen C. Meyer

THE WINNER IN THIS category is William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books), which shows the folly of a technocratic approach to poverty-fighting. The economic “experts” whom Easterly lambasts demonstrate “a terrible naiveté about power—that as restraints on power are loosened or even removed, that same power will remain benevolent of its own accord.” Easterly sees this naiveté as tragic because “the real cause of poverty [is] the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Easterly eviscerates top-down, government-centric approaches that treat people as blank slates. He’s long been at war with Jeffrey Sachs and others who tend to “see each poor society as infinitely malleable for the development expert to apply his technical solutions.” Easterly regards local people without Ph.D.’s as more knowledgeable about how to use funds effectively: “Major gains in well-being would be possible by moving funds from problems with low benefit-cost ratios to high benefit-cost ratios, but these gains will never happen when the goals are set inflexibly from the beginning.”

William Easterly
William Easterly
Easterly could go deeper by looking at the theological roots of unchecked, centralized power: When we don’t worship God and in desperation turn instead to human gods, government power grows. But he does point out the complicity of journalists who don’t worry about a leader with “unconstrained power” because “his intentions concerning what to do with that power are presumed to be good.” Easterly notes that while dictators kept their nations poor for decade after decade, “the New York Times was four times more likely to mention successful autocratic countries than failed ones over 1960 to 2008.”

Nevertheless, hope remains: James Madison saw states as laboratories, and Easterly says progress comes when we “have many independent individuals trying lots of different things. … Just as important as the science beloved by technocrats is the individual’s knowledge of constantly changing details of other people, places, and opportunities. More important than how to build a machine is where and when and for what group of people a machine will really pay off.” —M.O.

(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from The Tyranny of Experts. And listen to a speech by William Easterly that aired on The World and Everything in It.)

PETER GREER AND CHRIS HORST, co-authors of Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House), have seen firsthand how good works that begin on solid foundations often lose their grip on Christ and become ensnared in scandal, financial problems, or outright secularism. Greer (the president) and Horst (the development director) of HOPE International describe problems in their own organization and the steps they took to correct them. Other organizations, such as Christian Children’s Fund, neither heeded nor corrected, and in time dropped “Christian” from their label entirely.

The authors are correct about an “unspoken crisis,” which makes this little book both prophetic and practical. They sketch the clear contrasts between Mission Drift and Mission True organizations, the latter distinguished by humility and faith: “Seeing God for who He is clarifies our role: We are stewards.” Both established organizations and hopeful organizers should take note of potential red flags, such as “Death by Minnows,” “Functional Atheism,” and “Follow[ing] the Money.” The chapters on measurement and corporate culture seem especially helpful for new charities struggling to define their mission and set their goals. —J.B.C.

STEPHEN MEYER'S Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne) starts with Charles Darwin’s confession: “The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the [Cambrian] epoch, is very great.” Darwin admitted that the lack of intermediary forms in the fossil record undermined the key element of his theory, incremental change over long periods of time. He expected the missing links would turn up eventually, but to this day the fossil record has revealed no valid prototypes for the “Cambrian explosion” of new animal forms.

Meyer was WORLD’s Daniel of the Year in 2009, shortly after he published his previous big book, Signature in the Cell, which unravels the incredibly complex structure of the single living cell and demonstrates the unlikeliness of its evolving by chance. Darwin’s Doubt expands that picture with an examination of what the Cambrian explosion reveals and what sort of hypothesis might best fit the evidence. Using anecdote, analogy, drawings, and diagrams, he makes a highly technical subject accessible for a dedicated layman. Along the way he explores the nature of science itself, and how unexamined assumptions can keep scientists from seeing what is right under their noses. —J.B.C.

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