The Moral Imagination -  Michael Matheson Miller
The Moral Imagination
Ep. 58 William Easterly Ph.D. : Poverty, Technocracy, and the Tyranny of Experts

Ep. 58 William Easterly Ph.D. : Poverty, Technocracy, and the Tyranny of Experts

My conversation with Bill Easterly on foreign aid, human agency vs. social engineering, the complexity of economics and society, rights for the poor, and how material progress is not enough.

Photo Credit: Tyler Follon - Wingman Visuals

In this episode of the Moral Imagination Podcast, I speak with Professor William Easterly of New York University about his work in development economics, and the problems of technocracy and social engineering of the poor.

Easterly worked at the World Bank from 1985-2001 and began to be troubled by a number of things, including how aid is given without much concern about how it is distributed and managed thus subsidizing bad governance and harming the poor. We discuss Peter Bauer’s critique of how foreign aid politicizes development and delayed the development of business in Africa, and Bauer’s paradox of aid:

  • The countries that need aid — aid will not be effective

  • The countries where aid will be effective — do not need aid

But the key problem with the dominant model of development is not simply a lack of efficiency, but the failure to respect the rights and agency of poor people. Easterly explains that development projects often result in people being deprived of their property, political rights, and participation and consent in the very projects that are supposed to help them. He discussed the tendency to to trivialize problems in the developing world, and the lack of feedback and market tests in development policy. We discuss how the developing world can often become a a lab for experiments for technocrats and social engineers.

We also talk about Hayek’s Knowledge Problem, a response to Marianna Mazucatto idea of moonshots, and what I call “embedded'“ economics.

We discuss a number of issues including

  • “The Debate that Never Happened” - Gunnar Myrdal vs. Friedrich Hayek on development economics

  • Social Engineering

  • Technocracy and the Hubris of the Technocrat

  • Spontaneous Order

  • Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek

  • Soviet 5-year central planning as model for economic development

  • Limited Horizons of Humanitarianism— a secular, hollowed out version of Christian love the focuses on material at the expense of personal agency.

  • Lack of Accountability

  • Material vs. Non-material Needs

  • Materialist visions of the human person

  • People have a right to consent to their own progress

  • Harry Potter novels vs. Mosquito Nets

  • Marianna Mazucatto’s ideas of Moonshots

    • vs. accidental discovery

    • vs opportunity costs

    • vs failed social engineering projects

    • and the complexity of economics and markets embedded in deep historical, cultural, norms, institutions, and religious foundations.

  • How to think about foreign aid and public goods like healthcare, infrastructure, education

  • Aid for emergencies vs. aid as answer to chronic poverty

  • Institutions of Justice including clear title to land, access to justice in the courts, ability to participate in the formal economy, and free exchange.

  • The impact of globalization on manufacturing in the US

  • Trade-offs and economic volatility

  • The moral rules that are needed for progress to beneficial

    • Consent, Self-Determination, Moral Equality

    • Attempts to develop Native Americans, US intervention in Philippines etc.

  • Material progress is never enough to justify intervention


William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co-director of the NYU Development Research Institute, which won the 2009 BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge in Development Cooperation Award. He is the author of three books: The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (March 2014), The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006), which won the FA Hayek Award from the Manhattan Institute, and The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics (2001).

He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed academic articles, and has written columns and reviews for the New York TimesWall Street JournalFinancial Times, New York Review of Books, and Washington Post. He has served as Co-Editor of the Journal of Development Economics and as Director of the blog Aid Watch. He is a Research Associate of NBER, and senior fellow at the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD). Foreign Policy Magazine named him among the Top 100 Global Public Intellectuals in 2008 and 2009, and Thomson Reuters listed him as one of Highly Cited Researchers of 2014. He is also the 11th most famous native of Bowling Green, Ohio.


Essay: Friedrich Hayek: “The Use of Knowledge in Society”

Related: Podcast with Obianuju Ekeocha on Ideological Colonialism and Resisting the Cultural Annexation of Africa

Uganda Farmer Story in New York Times

Poverty, Inc. Film

Recommended Reading

Tyranny of Experts William Easterly

The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little GoodBuy on Amazon, William Easterly

The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, Easterly, William R.

Target Africa: Ideological Neocolonialism in the Twenty-First Century

by Obianuju Ekeocha

Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott

Peter Bauer, Equality, The Third World, and Economic Delusion

Angus Deaton The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality

The Moral Imagination -  Michael Matheson Miller
The Moral Imagination
Welcome to the Moral Imagination Podcast.
The overarching theme of my podcast is what it means to be a human person and what makes for a meaningful and good life.
We will discuss philosophy of the human person, culture, religion, social philosophy, and many other related topics, like education, learning, economics, food, technology, artificial intelligence, and intellectual history. My goal is to interact with ideas and people whose work I find challenging, and intellectually and socially important.