Reflections on DRI’s New Directions in Development Conference: Professor William Easterly

Below are some of my thoughts on Professor Easterly’s talk at the NYU Development Research Institute‘s New Directions in Development Conference on March 4, 2011.

From Skepticism to Development

William Easterly, NYU Department of Economics

Professor Easterly’s talk was centered on the idea of challenging the notion of the “benevolent autocrat.”  He first outlined four biases that inform the notion that in order to stimulate economic growth, it helps to have autocratic leadership that can enact unpopular but necessary economic reforms.

First he challenged the claim that most big successes are autocrats by pointing out that this does not address the questions of whether most autocrats are successes or whether most failures are also autocrats.  He did, in fact, make the absolutionist claim that all failures are autocrats.  (Personally I have an aversion to absolute statements and am pretty confident I could come up with at least one exception to this—if I understood how “failure” was being qualified.)

So it was around this time I started wondering what exactly we were talking about when referencing “success” and “failure.”  It took me a while to understand that growth in GDP was the measure of success for this talk.  Another question that came to mind was how exactly are we qualifying “democracy” in its juxtaposition to autocracy. Professor Easterly cleared this matter up by describing it as “something sensible.”

The second bias he highlighted was that you hear more about autocratic successes than their failures; and the third was the “leadership bias,” in which people tend to attribute successes and failures to leadership even if there is a weak or absent relationship between the leadership and certain economic outcomes.  We tend to take leaders too seriously, Professor Easterly said, when it comes to autocrats and economic growth.  The fourth bias was the bias of the “hot hand”: that hot streaks will perpetuate themselves.  In this way we end up not giving leaders credit for what happens in the future; they’re praised for growth even if that growth can only be short term.

It is around this point that I began to get the feeling the “we” in Easterly’s talk is not Western scholars and social scientists in general, but Western economists— and maybe political scientists too, given that poli-sci seems to be getting more and more fixated with economics and economic models.  I know this because I have a background in the liberal arts, international law, and, to an extent, anthropology and history—and most of the biases that Easterly’s “we” apparently takes for granted are familiar to me as assumptions that should be questioned.

Professor Easterly then listed four facts to dispel the myth of the benevolent autocrat:

  1. Autocracies have lower growth on average compared to democracies, and higher variance in growth; (I briefly wondered how the Gini coefficient and other measures of inequality would fit into this)
  2. Autocracies have lower income levels— “bad” institutions lead to low income (quotes are mine);
  3. Global economic growth has historically followed the idea of individual rights;

Here I had a bit of a problem with the correlation/causality issue, even though I don’t think Professor Easterly was really trying to make a case for causation. What I had a bigger problem with was the fact that economic growth also historically follows slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and exploitation; and to me the connection there seems a little more concrete.  If you can exploit people overseas, you don’t have to exploit your own citizens at home so individual rights becomes more feasible.  The claim also omits the fact that the origins of “individual” rights— and by extension citizens’ and/or human rights— lie in paradigms and legal frameworks that advocated rights for particular groups of people at the exclusion of others, such as slaves or non-property owners or indigenous people or women.  Seems to me that, if anything, the correlation should be turned on its head—individual rights appear to follow economic growth, which was enabled by the denial of individual rights to people outside the sphere of political power.

4.  Even if there are some benevolent autocrats, it is doubtful that they provide a helpful model. (That I agree with 100%.)

Professor Easterly then highlighted four doubts that illustrate the holes in the benevolent autocrat theory:

  1. How can we give credit to benevolent autocrats for economic growth when even the most prominent economists and scholars in the world have been unable to agree on or empirically establish what causes economic growth?
  2. How can a centralized autocratic regime have the necessary local knowledge to affect economic growth at the national level?
  3. Democracies actually contribute to the economic success of autocracies through FDI and other means.
  4. Can autocracies “do” innovation?  (Quotes are mine.) According to Professor Easterly, you can’t plan innovation—it’s a surprise.  You stumble upon it and you need individual rights to create the environment for innovation.

Then, four surprises:

  1. Countries’ top exports have changed drastically over the past ten years;
  2. Public goods payoffs are often a surprise as they have unexpected repercussions;
  3. Scientific discoveries often have surprise payoffs;
  4. There are often surprises in the way these changes manifest at the local level

Professor Easterly then asked, shouldn’t we be skeptical? The answer, he says, is yes, but that there are three default positions in the face of skepticism:

  1. Evidence: the evidence is, at best, inconclusive;
  2. Ignorance: If top-down doesn’t work, then what’s needed is a system that doesn’t require that approach;
  3. Values: Rights are an end in themselves; autocracy is not

An important point Professor Easterly made during the Q&A is that he was not trying to make the case that evidence shows democracies are more prone to growth; just that the evidence is inconclusive.

By and large I agree with Professor Easterly’s main points.  I am wondering where the phrase “benevolent dictator” came from because it seems like a contradiction.  To me it implies a scenario where basic human rights are generally respected, quality of life is high, and the government is autocratic.  “Benevolent,” after all, is defined according to the dictionary in my version of MS Word, as:

  1. showing kindness or goodwill
  2. performing good or charitable acts and not seeking to make a profit [1]

This hardly sounds like a recipe for disaster.  Kuwait springs to mind as an example; consistently ranking highly in the UNDP Human Development Index despite autocratic rule.  The general assessment of human rights in Kuwait is mixed—but for the most part severe abuses pale in comparison to a lot of other places.

The phrase “benevolent dictator,” then, seems inapt.  It was Pinochet and his collaboration with the Chicago Boys, which led to impressive (though short term) economic growth, that came to mind as Professor Easterly was giving his speech— and benevolent is the last word I would use to describe him.

To highlight my general agreement, though, I will end with an excerpt from the introduction to my Master’s thesis at Yale, written in the spring of 2009:

… the debate over whether democracy or totalitarianism is better for economic growth and development, with proponents on both sides, is out of date and misses the point.  Both sides have significant empirical evidence to back them up, indicating that context is key and regime type is not necessarily determinant.  What both sides of this debate should be aiming for is an analysis of how economic development on the one hand and respect for human rights and the rule of law on the other can be pursued in such a way as to be mutually reinforcing.


[1] Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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6 Responses to Reflections on DRI’s New Directions in Development Conference: Professor William Easterly

  1. Brett says:

    That’s a good summary of a good talk.

    My only (or main) complaint is that the title is misleading — Easterly didn’t really go from skepticism to development, he’s just raising a new area / theme about which we should be skeptical. Advocating skepticism is good, I believe. But the title didn’t fit the subject matter. His talk at LSE, “We Don’t Know How to Solve Global Poverty and That’s a Good Thing” (http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2010/20100519t1830vOT.aspx) covered much of the same material and has a more appropriate title.🙂

    • Carol says:

      Cool, thanks for the link!
      Yes, I agree with you about the title of the talk.
      I’m glad this theme is being talked about in Economics the Discipline, finally, as I have to say it’s not a new theme to me.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Matt says:

    I found this talk to be very interesting, in particular what he said afterward about how we tend to identify “benevolent” autocrats based on whether or not their country has high GDP growth… kind of stacking the deck. I just approached a professor of mine about this subject, I think I’m going to write a paper and try to get it done by next semester creating a “benevolence” index. I’m not sure what will be in it yet, but I plan on measuring autocrats’ (probably identified through the polity IV, might ask Easterly how he did it) benevolence according to the independent index then compare that to GDP growth.

    Would be interested in seeing if we really are stacking the deck or whether there really is a difference in the growth rates of “benevolent” autocrats (defined not by the results, but by their approach to rule) and everyone else.

    • Carol says:

      Interesting– would love to read it if you do end up writing it. So, you mean you would look for correlations (or lack thereof) of dictionary definition benevolence (however you decide to measure that) and GDP growth?

      • Matt says:

        yeah, pretty much. It will be tricky trying to create an index that people wouldn’t hate (the primary goal, getting most people to “like” it seems a stretch with all the haters out there :P), but yeah. Would probably compare it to lagged GDP growth, I’m really at the very beginning of designing the study though

        • Carol says:

          Eh, don’t worry so much about what people will “like.” I know what you mean, but most really great scholarship comes from people who don’t pay any mind to what people like and focus on what makes sense. Keep me posted if this is something you pursue, I’d like to read it. I’d even be interested in non-scholarly, non-evidenced-based musings.

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