We can learn more about development from one block in SoHo than reading Bill and Melinda Gates’s 2014 Annual Letter.
That’s according to William Easterly, professor of economics and director of the Development Research Institute at New York University, and his new book The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor,.
The block is Greene Street between Prince and Houston Streets, on the west side of Manhattan, not too far from NYU. Easterly notes that the street started as a residence for wealthy New Yorkers fleeing a yellow fever outbreak in 1782. But the street slowly declined, becoming known for its brothels. Later still, it became an industrial center and then—during New York's decline in the 1970s, artists moved in to those abandoned industrial spaces. Now the cachet that those artists brought has taken the block full circle: It's some of the most expensive real estate in the city, and home to an Apple Store.
"The story of that block shows how much development really is a spontaneous order full of surprises, and cannot be ‘intelligently designed’ by a ruler or a philanthropist," Easterly explained.
The book contrasts that story with the story of development as we usually hear it from the Gates Foundation, The World Bank, USAID, and other leading development organizations.
Thanks to a combination of history, hubris, and human nature, Easterly says these institutions are captive to a view of the development process that is not only not the way development happens, but inadvertently undermines the real root cause of development.
"In his 2013 annual letter, Bill Gates praised the government of Ethiopia for what it had accomplished in the fall in child mortality," Easterly said. "That’s a real ‘intelligent design’ kind of view: that child mortality is under the control of this conscious designer that happens to be the ruler of Ethiopia and if it falls it’s because he wanted it to fall and he should be celebrated. And that winds up celebrating an authoritarian oppressor who puts peaceful bloggers in jail and violates human rights."
Respect for human rights, Easterly argues, is what fuels spontaneous order and complex, adaptive, problem-solving systems in the messy, unpredictable, but wildly successful process that he calls "free development," the process that he uses Greene Street in SoHo to illustrate.
Meanwhile it’s the model of "authoritarian development" that is trumpeted by the army of so-called experts at work in development today, experts who advise leaders of poor countries who implement their solutions with one hand while, Easterly says, oppressing individual rights with the other.
"Humanitarian groups that work on development don’t want to hear the free development alternative because it threatens their work, it threatens their alliance with national security interests who need autocratic allies in the war on terror," Easterly said. "It also makes it more difficult to sell their funders on something more nebulous as the rights of poor people achieving their own development, rather than ‘I’m financing this well in Ethiopia.'"
"Philanthropists that are supporting the general advocacy of individual rights are doing more good for development than those that are doing what they think is more direct and more concrete," Easterly asserted. He brought up George Soros and his support of Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundations as prime examples of that type of support.
But even with some of today’s staunchest advocates of human rights, Easterly will have plenty to debate. The three thinkers whose ideas Easterly uses to explain how respect for human rights fuels development are Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, and Paul Romer.
"I think how Hayek and Smith both have been appropriated by the right—and repudiated by the left—is in both cases mistaken," Easterly says.
As for the lesser-known Paul Romer (read more about him here), this book may serve as a welcome introduction of his groundbreaking work on innovation and economic growth to mainstream development debates. But he’s still far from a traditional scion of human rights.
One thinker whose name is conspicuously absent from The Tyranny of Experts? The capo-di-tutti-capi of all development experts, Jeffrey Sachs.
"It really wasn’t intentional," Easterly claimed. "Jeff Sachs has not had that much interest in rights, either for or against, so he’s not really that relevant to this debate. I’m really ready to move on."