Top critical review
If only it would be taken seriously
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.