Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Develoment as Freedom

Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen
1999, 384 pp.

Amartya Sen's magnum opus is distinctly uneven: rather like Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion, it sometimes reads like a "greatest hits" of his (justly) famous previous work. On a number of occasions, Sen swiftly and effectively summarizes a vexing problem of economics or political philosophy and refers to "the extensive literature" on the subject, but the assiduous reader who follows the endnote will find only a half-dozen papers by Sen himself. Presumably these papers have robust bibliographies, but after ten chapters or so of this, it begins to seem that the book is structured around only those issues on which Sen has already established his eminence.

To be sure, Sen touches on virtually every major problem of human society: the problem of poverty, gender equality and "missing women," differing interpretations of freedom, natural rights, cultural relativism, and hunger. He is very skilled at laying out the problem, but the poor organization of his book makes whatever solutions he may have difficult to locate and devoid of particular emphasis. He has an alarming command of facts and figures and qualitative knowledge, but knowledge alone does not an argument make. Sen offers no new formulation to prove a priori the existence of natural rights, does little to confound the self-serving casuistry of the relativists, and in effect only repeats his mantra that development requires freedom and freedom creates development over and over. His is a disappointingly simple syllogism: freedom is good, X is an aspect of freedom, therefore X is good. Replace X with human capital, gender agency, access to food, etc, and you have the book.

To some extent, the ten years since Development as Freedom was written and the political proclivities of this reviewer steal most of the resonance from Sen's argument. It is necessary to remember that when Sen was writing, the Human Development Index was still young and incomplete (though Sen has since criticized it as a "vulgar measure") and the Millennium Development Goals had not yet been proposed. The idea that development must be more than just an increase in per-capita GDP and that growth for its own sake without expanding human capabilities no longer seems new and daring: indeed, for us Marxists, it has been old news since approximately 1844. A line from George Orwell's review of a Bertrand Russell book seems appropriate: "If there are certain pages of [this book], which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. It is not merely that at present the rule of naked force obtains almost everywhere. Probably that has always been the case. Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking." In that sense, little has changed since the writing of Development as Freedom. Or Bertrand Russell's work, for that matter. Therefore it is important to persevere through Sen's thoughtful argument, however little fire and passion his dessicated prose and rudderless organization may help.

To be sure, Sen is not a radical. It is very easy to agree with his above-delineated syllogism and still be left unimpressed by the book. Certainly one of the key (if not THE key) variables in development is whether or not a country has a government which is interested in helping its people rather than oppressing, immiserating, dispersing, raping, pillaging, mugging, murdering, or otherwise maltreating them. Unfortunately, few governments, particularly in the developing world, have such interests, and there Sen is silent. He does not grapple with the issue of national sovereignty or the problem of foreign intervention. He does not deal much with aid, and he has little to say about international or humanitarian law. We can all agree that it would be most desirable for Robert Mugabe to implement Sen's arguments about freedom, but in the interim, what should the world do?

This is not to say the book has no value. Sen's details illuminate several excellent debating points: the success of Kerala indicates that high per-capita GDP is neither necessary nor simply sufficient for raising standards of living. The lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and reduction of human agency endured by poor African Americans is in Sen's framework an issue to be dealt with in development studies, which purely GDP-related interpretations precludes. Sen's analysis recognizes that development is not teleological, and indeed has a relevant critique of virtually every society on earth. Several states in India have a larger population than the entire country of Russia, yet endure sub-Saharan levels of development, with little international discussion. And so forth. Interesting, and useful, but by no means a systematic, revolutionary theory, and unfortunately a work devoid of practical solutions.

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