Lead Stories

The real cause of poverty in the world

"The real cause of poverty in the world" Continued...

William Easterly
Basic Books
William Easterly
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. 

From The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly. Copyright © 2013 by William Easterly. Used by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

William Easterly
William Easterly

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