Easterly on the Growth Commission

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If you’re overconfident about development, Bill Easterly pokes holes in your arguments. And if you’re modest, he makes fun of you.

The report of the World Bank Growth Commission, led by Nobel laureate Michael Spence, was published last week. After two years of work by the commission of 21 world leaders and experts, an 11- member working group, 300 academic experts, 12 workshops, 13 consultations, and a budget of $4m, the experts’ answer to the question of how to attain high growth was roughly: we do not know, but trust experts to figure it out.

This conclusion is fleshed out with statements such as: “It is hard to know how the economy will respond to a policy, and the right answer in the present moment may not apply in the future.” Growth should be directed by markets, except when it should be directed by governments.

My students at New York University would have been happy to supply statements like these to the World Bank for a lot less than $4m.

Of course, Easterly also has a serious point to make:

What to do in a world of such unpredictability? There are some general principles and they do not require experts. Another Nobel laureate gave the crucial insight a long time ago – the answer is freedom for multitudinous individuals to figure out their own answers. Friedrich Hayek said: “Liberty is essential to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realising many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and … because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.”

The evidence for this vision is not found in those baffling fluctuations of growth rates, it is in the levels of development attained in the long run. Confirming Hayek, systems that give more liberty to individuals – featuring both more economic and political freedoms – are associated with much less poverty. The evidence for this comes from both history (for example old, despotic, poor Europe compared with modern, free, rich Europe) and cross-country comparisons (for example South Korea compared with North Korea, former West Germany compared with East, New Zealand compared with Zimbabwe). This alternative paradigm has a much smaller role for experts, because experts cannot direct or impose freedom from the top down (or else it would not be freedom).

The end of the “development expert” paradigm does not mean the end of hope for development. Development is al ready gradually ending poverty (global poverty rates have fallen by more than half in the past three decades) – not because of development experts such as those who wrote the World Bank Growth Commission report – but thanks to more freedom for more of the 6.7bn individual development experts alive today.

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