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4.1 out of 5 stars
Development as Freedom
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on March 8, 2017
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on June 26, 2004
I read this book because Sen had written the preface to one of my favourite books, Paul Farmer's "Pathologies of Power." I had absolutely no knowledge of economics when I went into this book, but a friend assured me that it was very accessible. It was fairly accessible: but perhaps my ignorance was just extreme. There were a few terms that I had to google, but overall it was a good introduction to some economic theories.
As to the economic theories themselves: just plain brilliant. Who says that economists have no common sense? This book just made complete and utter... sense! I just sat there shaking my head, because sentence after sentence was phrased in just a way to make it so obvious that I wondered why I had never thought of it... and why those who have the power to listen to this book don't do something about it.
I recomend this book to anyone who is interested in the state and the future of developing economies. Frankly, this should cover everyone who lives in North America and Western Europe because (as Sen shows) what affects horribly impoverished people on the other side of the globe affects us too. No knowledge of economics is required (though you might find Google helpful ;-) ), but an open mind and a modicum of common sense is necessary.
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on December 12, 2003
There are few riddles more entrenched in the economist's mind than that of how economies prosper. Economists have been baffled by the miracle of economic growth and have offered various hypotheses to account for its existence: the expansion of markets, the enforcement of property rights, strong governments that invest wisely, Protestant ethics, Asian values, international trade, technological growth, people's savings, and so on.
While theories abound, the economic profession, smitten by the desire to quantify, has often been too narrow in its approach to development. Discussing what motivates economic growth usually entails the use of elaborate equations and complex graphs. "Development as Freedom" is a both welcoming exception to that rule, and a direct challenge to it.
The thesis that Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, puts forward is that freedom is and should be both the means and the ends of development. The former (that freedom promotes development) flies in the face of conventional wisdom that prioritizes economic growth over political enfranchisement. Yet Mr. Sen defends with eloquence, both theoretical and empirical.
As for the latter, Mr. Sen offers an alternative to the "growth per capita" approach to economic development. Development, Mr. Sen contends, should be a process by which people can live the lives they have reason to value. This thesis can be traced back to the writings of the classical economists, and more recently to Frederick Hayek and Peter Bauer. But one would be hard pressed to find policy makers today speaking in terms of enhancing people's freedoms rather than merely increasing their incomes.
In the end, "Development as Freedom" is probably the most ambitious work on development economics in last quarter century. It shares with other classics an attempt to encompass the various processes of economic development under one theme-in this case, freedom. Yet, what is remarkable is not how much Mr. Sen has brought in under the umbrella of freedom, but how little he has left out.
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on June 28, 2003
Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen argues most convincingly that people need first and most freedom. Freedom is the necessary basis from which poverty, famine, violation of elementary political, social and economical liberties, the protection of the environment and the subordination of women can be dealt with. Freedom means also a change in mentality: human beings should not be considered as patients but as actors.
Real development is removal of intolerance and lack of freedom (opportunities for everyone, a free market, free elections).
His critic of the theorem of Lee (Singapore's ruler Lee Kuan Yew) is essential. For Lee, people don't need first democracy, but economic growth instead. For Sen, the strengthening of the democratic system is a conditio sine qua non for the development process. Free elections will generate economic growth and more freedom, because otherwise the men in power will not be re-elected.
But Amartya Sen argues also rightly that, besides the free market, there must be some basic public goods: education, medical aid, social security and a solid legal system (against corruption). He also fustigates against investment in military goods instead of in those basic public services.
He stigmatizes communism as a new form of feudalism.
This book contains also excellent comments and/or criticism on Pareto, Rawls, Hayek, Arrow, Bentham and Nozick.
The only point I don't agree with is his rosy picture of the Japanese economic and social system (see K. van Wolferen, A. Nothomb's 'Fear and Trembling' or A. Sergeant's 'The old Sow in the Back Room').
This book is the work of a true humanist with a very broad intellectual horizon. An essential read.
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on April 30, 2002
This book is in reality an argument against relying solely on the market to produce the best outcomes. In the fifties Keynsian thought was triumphant and it was thought that an unrestrained market system would lead to problems. As a result governments had to intervene to ensure demand management and to also deal with problems of structural inequality. In more recent times such an approach has been rejected and any interference with the market is seen as likely to lead to poor outcomes.
Sen suggests that there are a number of reasons for not abdicating completely to the market although acknowledging its importance as the most efficient way of determining the overall use of resources. Sen is an economist who has been concerned with Developing countries for many years. One of his specialities is the phenomena of famines, why they occur and how to prevent them.
This book is really a collection of essays that have a common theme. Sen argues strongly that the provision of certain services in developing nations not just as a means of achieving equity but of achieving development.
The first issue that he canvasses is the importance of democracy. He says that no democratic country has ever had a famine. Even in a country as poor as India it has been possible for governments to prevent famines. To explain the way famines are prevented Sen explains in some detail how they are caused. In 1943 British India suffered a famine in which 3 million people starved to death in Bengal. Oddly enough this was not brought about by a fall in the availability of food but rather by a fall in wages for some groups which led them to not being able to buy food. Sen explains that very modest employment programs have been used by successive Indian governments to prevent this happening again.
Sen then goes on to argue for the importance of the provision of medical services and education in providing freedom and the potential for development. To illustrate this he discusses the death rates and the death rates by sex in various Indian states. The difference between progressive Kerala and Rajastan are instructive.
The book is easy to read and is very interesting .
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on October 13, 2000
People who object to laissez-faire economics are forced into "irrationality": either ungrounded identity politics or equally ungrounded to notions of equality and fair play.
Amaryta Sen rebuilds the ability to argue with laissez-faire for he demonstrates how to introduce notions of human equality and fair play. But Sen doesn't get trapped into arguing for fair play and equality as such.
The turn of the century philosopher G. E. Moore tried to establish that "the good" in ethics is a given and came close to arguing for a laundry list of good and beautiful notions. As such, Moore was the spiritual father of the "Cambridge Apostles", a group of Englishmen whose left-liberal world-view grandfathered the American liberal consensus of the post-war period.
The 1960s *reductio* of this consensus, inspired by the media, destroyed it and created an opening for laissez-faire. It took the permissiveness of liberalism to imply that a selfish world was one of the views sanctioned by liberalism and this was a real contradiction that destroyed liberalism.
This means that appeals to selfishness have great rhetorical force in American domestic politics, and their force is amplified in international economics: for example, many Americans believe that the United States gives billions of dollars away in foreign aid, and should not, whereas the reality is that about 1% of the budget is earmarked for such aid, and the United States is a deadbeat dad with regards to an institution it helped to parent, the United Nations, and behind in its dues.
We therefore need conceptual tools to counter lazy laissez-faire. The technique should neither be, in the matter of G. E. Moore, to merely claim the primacy of the good, nor to try to construct elaborate "proofs" in the manner of mathematics that it is better to be nice and good (for note that "it is better to be good" is equivalent to "it is good to be good", and this is a tautology, and Moore noticed it, and one sometimes wonder if philosophers are up to anything worth while, at all.)
Instead, Sen demonstrates the worth of international economic solidarity by means of the facts and by building a structure that is logically coherent, and which coherence tracks its sustainability. Pure laissez-faire self-destructs because there is no way of curbing the appetites of the bigger players, and preventing them from using force and fraud. Their force and fraud is met with desparate resistance which amplifies the process leading to a non-sustainable situation.
Sen shows mechanisms, both economic and conceptual, which lead both to logical coherence and sustainability. He suggests replacing econometrics which more complicated measures of the quality of life, but Sen does not fall into a sort of Stalinist trap. This is to REPLACE the measures agreed on in the current consensus (notably income per capita) with another simple-minded measure, perhaps compounded in a fashion more or less arbitrary out of sub measures.
The economists fetishize and reify measures and do not see, for example, the results of inequality which are concealed by average income per capita. If there are two men on an island (Robinson Crusoe and Friday) and one of them enjoys an income of ALL the breadfruit on the island and the other (guess who) enjoys the status of slave, with right to zero breadfruit trees, then the average income is one-half the breadfruit trees. This presents that old harlot, and mother of harlots, Rosy Scenario, to the economist, blinded as he is by spreadsheets.
But Sen does not fall into the trap of replacing spreadsheets by sob stories, although he presents some sob stories about real misery in countries that present Rosy Scenarios to development economists. His narratives INCLUDE and do not include the numbers.
But they use the numbers in a less simple-minded way. Even a laissez-faire American businessman would be ill-advised to run his company by looking at one number and one number alone. The businessman who looked ONLY at quarterly net profit would not see how his employees were running down equipment in order to meet his singular target, resulting in later failure to meet the chosen target.
For note that if we feed the numbers (such as the higher rate of loan repayment by poor women) into narratives informed by an unquestioned committment to equality and justice, this automatically prevents both our being blinded by injustices hidden by single, utilitarian, numbers, and it also has the side-benefit of preventing some forms of fraud, as the fraudulent numbers fail to cohere with the honest numbers, and the honest narratives.
The cynicism of laissez-faire economics hides a naivety which has been regularly exposed, in the international debt arena, by the fraudulent misappropropriation of loans for consumption instead of development. For example, American economists went naively into the former Soviet Union believing in capitalism as a sort of god that would magically bring prosperity to that country. Like farm boys, like hicks, like yokels, they were taken for a ride by the former Communist *nomenklatura*, which simply appears to have grabbed the money and used it to empty the Black Sea of caviar. They were supposed to invest it in a new infrastructure to replace the presumably out-of-date Communist rust belt. They said they were gonna and did not.
This is causing an unprecedented phenomenon: the reversion of a developed country to Third World status. This was caused by the imposition of a development model.
Economists are often wrong: for example, Sen points out just how wrong Malthus was. Condorcet's prediction, that better living conditions would bring the benefits of Enlightenment to the poor, causing them to refrain from irrationally having large families, has, as Sen points out, been proven right by recent developments. But Malthus is accounted as one of the "worldly philosophers" and his spirit, if not his exact ideas, pervades much Yuppie thinking in America. It is a nasty and narrow spirit; read Sen for a set of tools to argue for the better way.
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on March 1, 2001
Amartya Sen clearly has a bone to pick with the dominant, economic growth-driven explanation for "development," as represented in such fashionable works as Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy." Kaplan, as a big admirer of Sen's theoretical arch-enemy, Lee of Singapore, writes that "If Singapore's 2.8 million citizens ever demand democracy, they will just prove the assertion that prosperous middle classes arise under authoritarian regimes before gaining the confidence to dislodge their benefactors" (77). The obvious implication of this statement is that prosperous middle classes can only "develop" under authoritarian regimes, and in the meantime they cannot afford the luxury of having "confidence" in their own freedoms. And since all too many contemporary scholars and policymakers subscribe to this view, Amartya Sen has made it his job to detail how and why development actually has a better chance of arising under democracy than under authoritarianism, and why developing-world citizens should have "confidence" in freedom's value, regardless of their economic situation.
But what is freedom's value, to Sen? Not only does it have normative and intrinsic importance as a social good, but it also has an instrumental or "consequential" role that provides political incentives for economic security (thus helping the operation of the market and leading to economic development), as well as having a constructive role in the "genesis of values and priorities," which is the kind of substantive, social development that Sen sees as an essential companion to economic growth. This development is conceptualized as the five benefits of freedom: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.
As an economist, Sen does not, of course, neglect the role of the economy in the freedom/development causal process. On the contrary, Sen makes use of Adam Smith for his own purposes, though admittedly giving Smith a more "social" spin than most neoclassical economists by focusing on Smith's views of education, political freedoms, and the social context of the market. Sen accuses Smith's followers of myopically focusing on technocratic economic incentives for "development" and therefore being blind to the kind of "political incentives" that freedom can provide to a developing nation. Deftly using the Asian examples often touted by his foes, Sen argues that Japan, South Korea, etc. made large investments in social opportunity freedoms like literacy and health care before their economies boomed. In other words, sociopolitical development precedes economic development, and not the other way around.
Theoretically, Sen formulates a kind of modified, "deepened" rational choice theory, arguing that a truly rational social choice depends on an adequate "informational base" in society, which only his five benefits of freedom can provide. This use of the incentive-based rational language of orthodox economics makes Sen's critique of authoritarianism all the stronger, showing why a lack of freedoms might impede the workings of the market (by limiting the information available to rational choosers), despite the best-intentioned, purely economic incentives that might be given to an unfree population.
The bulk of Sen's evidence comes from political theory, economics and personal knowledge. Much of his causal process-tracing lacks step-by-step empirical illustrations for each link, being that this is not exclusively a work of social science, but the book as a whole is inconsistently rich with empirical justification. Indeed, it cites liberally from a large body of literature, and also draws upon a great deal of quantitative indicators for development, tracing such factors as life expectancy, GDP, infant mortality, gender disparities, and literacy rates.
The easiest critique of Sen's work is that it is nothing more than a nobly futile plea to the development policymakers and corporate players; a plea that will most likely cause them to nod their heads, say "yes, he's right, that sounds great . . . that's the way it should be," but then to push ahead anyway with their technocratic, economics-based sidestepping of the role of freedom in development. Indeed, when one discovers that "Development as Freedom" has been lauded by such influential figures as the World Bank President and "Business Week" Magazine, then one immediately suspects that something is wrong. If the World Bank and global corporate elites agree with Sen, then why aren't they pushing his recommendations more aggressively? The answer is that most development players have an interest in keeping Sen's freedoms at bay. Sen might argue that these players need to read his book and realize that their objective, long-term interests actually lie in pushing freedoms (longer life, healthcare, education, etc.), but the immediate pursuit of such freedoms is a hard sell to the struggling factory owner or the finance minister under pressure from the IMF. Long-term interests have rarely figured into the real, ground-level process of market-driven development, and there's no reason to expect that this unfortunate state can be changed anytime soon. Development is driven by multinational corporations who favor a "liberal" investment climate made up of fiscal restraint, a restraint that tends (in practice) to divert resources and attention from the kinds of freedoms that Sen proposes.
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on September 21, 2001
"Development" is usually thought of in terms of poor and agricultural nations becoming wealthier and more industrial. This view of the world has many implications. Helping these developing countries becomes a matter of charity and we wonder what is so wrong with these places that they cannot achieve economic growth and prosperity. And we must consider the question of whether increasing per capita incomes can really make people better off. What if services such as health care and education are sacrificed? If women are discriminated against, and if the citizens cannot vote? It is not adequate to discuss the goals of development in terms of per capita GNP.
Amartya Sen would ask us to view development in the frame of freedoms. The ends of development, he argues, are not wealth or productivity, though these can be instruments to achieve certain freedoms. To see the increase of the well being of others comprehensively, we must understand how "well being" is achieved and focus on increasing the freedoms of people. These freedoms include political, social, and economic freedoms and they tend to reinforce each other. Making people better off requires that policy makers keep these goals in mind.
Sen's book is an articulate, fully developed argument. It is a mixture of economics and philosophy and it is written for a layman, without condescension. That is, it may still be a little difficult to read if you aren't used to academic writing. Those who finish this book, however, may end up seeing development, freedom, and social justice in a fresh and hopeful way.
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on June 17, 2001
James Versluys, editor, Houston Review
This is a very hard book to rate on some kind of star system. Being a longtime fan of Armatya Sen, this remains one of my favorite books, and it contains a good deal of worthwhile information and is an excellent general discussion of development.
The problem with the whole book arises out of a very open and rather immediate consequence of Sen's reasoning. Simply put, development is not freedom, it is development. "Freedom to", or the "positive freedoms" are nothing of the kind- freedom to something is simply a trick phrase used by academics in general as a rather conscious attempt to subvert the meaning of the word.
I call this approach the 'trigger word problem'. Politics likes to use certain emotional and somewhat vague words to its advantage. The political left has not for a long time been able to use the word freedom in a political context to its advantage for the simple reason that they're not for it, but consequently do not want to be seen as the enemies of freedom.
Consequently the diversion of the idea of "positive freedoms" has come about, and is one of the central lies of this exccellent book.
Development is not freedom, it is development. Being "free" to have something may indeed be a good thing, but it remains an entitlement, not a freedom. The term is only honestly used when it is used in the negative sense.
Arguments may be made for any number of Sen's points. Certainly freedom in a political sense enhances the possibility of advancement in wealth and health. And there is a vaguely defined but nevertheless certain truth that people who have advanced economies will have a tendancy toward general freedom- these points are as obvious as they are important to understanding development. The problem is freedom is not a number of dollars on one's pocket. One does not describe a man with enough money to buy a limousine with a driver as a man with an important freedom. People can be poor and free or rich and not free.
Development as freedom rests on a linguistic trick of the word "freedom" arising from the need of a political left not to be on the recieving end of the political rights attacks. Whatever one thinks of the actual issues involved, Sen and his cohorts in political thinking (Isiah Berlin) have created a false sense of a basic political word, an Orwellian attempt to deform language for simple political ends. No one is "fifty dollars freer" than they were before payday.
Freedom is freedom. Development is development. They are interrelated subjects the same way economics and politics are related, but they are also different in the same way politics and economics are words with seperate meanings. This book is a clear attempt to benefit from the good will that comes from a valued word and deposit the good feelings on to certain political ends.
This is an excellent book. I highly suggest it to everyone. It is, however, a consciously produced intellectual lie by a superb sophist. This book would have been much better had it not decided to explain development as freedom. The book could have stood well on its own by discussing the relationship developed economies have with freedom. It IS interesting and relevant that political freedom aids development and that development aids in freedom. Had Sen merely noted the relationship as coinciding together, he could have made one of the best arguments the left has in rational choice philosophical modelling. As it is, Sen has besmirched one of the few good works of the left by wrapping his politics in the glory of a word. Lies do not deserve credit.
This book has in it the workings of a dozen good conversations. That makes the dissapointment worse. Word tricks do not add to debate.
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on April 28, 2000
When learning economics at university I had "Economics" by Samuelson as a handbook. I learned a lot from it and I still consider it as perhaps the best available introduction into classical economics. On its own ground, this book can hardly be surpassed. But, as many others, I have come to the conclusion that the classical paradigm of economics, which this book reflects, has serious shortcomings. Samuelson fleetingly points out some of them, but he does not pay much attention to this aspect.
Of course, there exists an abundant literature by less orthodox economists in which these questions are discussed at length. Unfortunately, much of this literature is rather unbalanced.
Recently I discovered "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen. Finally I found a book that offers a balanced philosophical reflexion on the premises of classical economics and its relevance for the development problem.
Mr. Sen asks questions rarely asked by economist. What purpose does the acquisition of wealth serve? Mr. Sen argues that dire poverty makes people unfree. Wealth is a means to freedom. From that perspective he draws very interesting conclusions concerning development policy.
Classical economics can be a useful tool in understanding society. Samuelson's book is an excellent introduction into this discipline. But in order to put the classical paradigm in perspective, you should also read "Development as Freedom" by Mr. Sen. It is a deep and compassionate book by a wise man.
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