William Easterly toured DC last week to discuss his new book, The Tyranny of Experts. On Wednesday, he returned to the World Bank to engage in a dialogue on the book. The World Bank website advertising the event reads:
Global poverty has largely been viewed as a technical problem that merely requires the right expert solutions. Yet all too often, experts recommend solutions that fix immediate problems while ignoring the political oppression that created them in the first place, accidentally colluding with autocrats who violate the rights of the poor. The Tyranny of Experts traces the history of the fight against global poverty, showing how development has long suppressed the vital debate on the individual rights of people in developing countries, the crucial debate on whether unchecked power for dictators is the problem and not the solution.
Easterly's discussion of "the rights of the poor" demonstrates once again the fundamental liberalism at the core of classical liberalism. This is a point that progressives seem unable to recognize. The debate is one over means if the progressive rhetoric is to be taken seriously.
In some very basic sense (though unrecognized), Easterly's argument is The Tyranny of Experts is an application of Vincent Ostrom's The Intellectual Crisis of American Public Administration -- where Ostrom contrasts "democratic administration" with "bureaucratic administration". Modernist rule by experts is "bureaucratic administration" of public policy, and decidely undemocratic. The Ostrom argument is, in turn, also an application of the broader philosophical point raised by Frank Knight's Intelligence and Democratic Action. Democracy in these discussions is not meant to signify one man, one vote; simple majority rule, but instead signifies a way of relating to one another. Experts, almost by definition, must step outside of that democratic relationship. Of course, in all walks of social life there is earned authority, but expertise (especially from afar) assumes authority where none has truly been earned and given. The line between authority and authoritarianism is thus broken. Thus, rule by experts is undemocratic.
Of course, the arguments concerning the privileging a technical elite in economic affairs also is related to Hayek's argument in The Counter-Revolution of Science. Watch the dialogue, it is fascinating.
Though from a different perspective, and in fact a different perspective than what he would eventually hold himself, I have always appreciated the meta-message of Peter Berger's Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change for precisely the same reasons that Easterly presents about a disregard for the poor in the calculations of the technical experts.
It is time to re-engage this debate about the moral responsibility of public administrators within a liberal order.