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Economics

Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen

I finally read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom – a book I should have read 10 years ago.

I definitely recommend it, especially to those interested in development.

Years ago, I read Sen’s On Ethics and Economics, which continues to lay out the thought for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. In Development as Freedom, he develops his thesis that by securing freedoms for people, development follows, and development further perpetuates freedom. Individuals experience freedom through access to food, education and medical care. This applies especially to women who suffer the most globally from “unfreedom” and disappearance, but who also contribute most effectively to development when they experience freedoms. For Sen, basic human rights of individuals are promoted in a blend of utilitarian and libertarian approaches, which he calls a “goal-rights system.” That is, he ties rights to their consequences (utilitarian) and also affirms their intrinsic importance (libertarian).

Freedom for Sen also includes political freedom (democracy), economic facilities (Smithean Capitalism), social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.

I do have a few questions for Sen. He talks about the environment as a public good while approving corporate farming and its benefits on increasing the food supply without mentioning any of its costs on the soil, water table or non-renewable energy consumption. As the poor suffer the most from these effects on the environment, how does he square this with his task that development is first and foremost an ally of the poor (p. 144)?

Sen acknowledges the irreversibility of globalization and criticizes its destructive effects on traditional cultures. Yet, in his promotion of capitalism, Sen has no critique for the destructive economic effects caused by multinational corporations and supranational institutions like the IMF and World Bank. In a book in which he is careful to nuance the positives and negatives of different positions, where is his nuanced position toward economic globalization?

Sen is straightforward about his approach being atheist. Freedom and development are the products of human efforts. His ethic is based on self-interest or, if one can move beyond that, the greater good of humanity. In his system, sin, what he calls “unfreedom,” is identified as being social or political. Here, it seems to me, his thesis moves from pragmatism to an unsustainable idealism. What about the unfreedoms of the individual? How is the individual set free from his own unfreedoms? Where do they have the power to act for freedom when the basis for action is compromised by unfreedom? And, when freedoms compete and conflict, whose freedom is pursued?

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David Chronic

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