Why we'll always have benevolent autocrats

Last Friday, Bill gave a talk at the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia.  NYU-Wagner student Christopher Faris summarized the speech over on the Wagner blog, and gives a great run-down of the audience reaction at Columbia:

...Easterly argued that the theory of growth-boosting 'benevolent autocrats' (think China's economic boom) is, at best, not proven and at worst a compelling but flawed idea to which development practitioners hopefully cling - to everyone's detriment.

But the benevolent dictator is a powerful and compelling idea, dating back at least as far as Plato's Republic. Despite the carefully constructed argument and engaging delivery, the audience of ambitious internationalistas seemed unconvinced, if the questions were anything to go by.

Most questioners (professors and students) wanted to believe in the abiding power and potential for a benevolent technocrat to guide countries through transition; to protect the nation's economic well-being from the foibles of the electoral process; or in the cultural appropriateness of more autocratic leadership in some countries at certain points in their history.

All of which got me to thinking (with apologies to Carrie Bradshaw):

  • Maybe international development students are committed to the idea that, through our education, ideas and energy, individuals can advocate for good policies and make the world a better place;
  • Perhaps we want to believe in the power of strong, technocratic leaders, benevolently steering developing nations through the rapids of the global economy and pro-poor reform;
  • Maybe, just maybe, we are all benevolent autocrat wannabes?

[Easterly's discussion of cognitive biases] added up to a pretty compelling argument against benevolent autocrat theory - or at least a strong case for us to be wary of buying it too easily...

But then came the questions. Once the SIPA professors finished, almost all were from international students (with a Latin and East Asian trend), and almost all betrayed an unshaken faith in benevolent autocrat theory.

So if Professor Easterly failed to convince, why? A few suggestions: because the biases he enumerated are indeed powerful shapers of thinking; because his audience was committed to the possibility of making a difference through their actions; because a more laissez-faire approach to international development is a tough sell to idealistic students.

But further: Easterly described what developing economies should aim for (to transition to innovation-rich modern economies, harnessing local knowledge, and with democratic political systems containing checks and balances against autocratic tendencies) but was light on details of how to do it. He offered a compass bearing but no map. Perhaps we, students and practitioners of development, want maps - especially at this thrilling time of autocrat-toppling. And we want to be able to help. We have a strong pro-action bias.

Mr. Faris generously skipped the possibility that the argument was just WRONG, but he has good insights into the resistance to the argument even if it's correct.