Development as Freedom

Amartya Sen

Oxford University Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
Development as Freedom is a popular summary of economist Amartya Sen's work on development. In it he explores the relationship between freedom and development, the ways in which freedom is both a basic constituent of development in itself and an enabling key to other aspects.

No knowledge of economics is assumed — there is no mathematics at all, not a single equation — and the more philosophically complex material is concentrated into a few places. And, while there's the occasional historical analysis, most of the examples are recent or even current. Sen's prose does have a tendency to the wordy, lacking concision, but the result is nevertheless broadly accessible. Covering a diverse range of topics, it should have something for anyone involved with development.

Rather than the common focus on income and wealth, or on mental satisfaction (by utilitarians) or processes (by libertarians), Sen suggests a focus on what he calls capabilities — substantive human freedoms. And he argues for a broad view of freedom, one that encompasses both processes and opportunities, and for recognition of "the heterogeneity of distinct components of freedom".

"An adequately broad view of development is sought in order to focus the evaluative scrutiny on things that really matter, and in particular to avoid the neglect of crucially important subjects."
Though of course it is — and must be — a matter of debate as to what is important.

Freedom is both constitutive of development and instrumental to it: instrumental freedoms include political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency, and security, which are all different but inter-connected. Sen ranges widely in illustrating this, considering the contrast between China and India, education and basic health care as drivers of growth, and mortality reduction in 20th century Britain.

Chapter three is more theoretical, with Sen himself suggesting some readers may want to skip sections. In it he explores different informational bases for evaluating justice — utilitarian, libertarian, and Rawlsian — and argues for a focus on the capabilities of people to do and be what they value. He stresses that this is not an "all or none" choice — that even if an approach has limited application, answers to some questions may be useful.

Further chapters apply these ideas to specific issues. Sen argues that capability deprivation is a better measure of poverty than low income, because it can capture aspects of poverty hidden by income measures. Illustrative examples include differences between the United States and Europe in healthcare and mortality, comparisons between sub-Saharan African and India in literacy and infant mortality, and gender inequality and "missing women".

In chapter five Sen ventures into some of the most contested areas of economics. He surveys the role of markets, their efficiency, their ability to provide public goods, and their relationship with the state. And he considers the targeting and means-testing of welfare, suggesting that capability-directed provisioning may create less distortion of market incentives.

Economic needs are considered by some to be more important than political freedoms, but the opposition is, Sen argues, mostly illusory. He also reminds us that democracy, as well as being an end in itself, plays an instrumental role in giving people a voice and a constructive role in shaping values and norms.

"Political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves."
It is also important to support the effective functioning of democracy: formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice.

In chapter seven Sen summarises some of his best-known work, on famines. These are usually caused by a lack of purchasing power or entitlements, not by actual food shortage — famine-struck areas sometimes continue to export food — and are easy and cheap to avoid, with state employment schemes the most straightforward approach. Large-scale famines have never happened in a democracy and, Sen argues, are unlikely to: they can only happen in authoritarian systems lacking openness of information and transparency. A similar analysis may be applicable to the Asian monetary crisis at the end of the 1990s.

Another focus of Sen's work has been the role of women in development. Here he argues that, while improving their well-being is important, enhancing their agency is just as critical. One notable illustration: women's literacy and employment levels are the best predictors of both child survival and fertility rate reduction.

Looking at population growth and food supply, Sen counters doomsday predictions of imminent food shortage. And he points out that Kerala has been more successful than China in limiting population growth, suggesting that China might have done nearly as well without the use of coercion.

Turning to human rights, Sen briefly rebuts criticisms of the concept's legitimacy and coherence. He then treats at length the "Asian Values" cultural critique. Looking at historical examples, he argues that "Western traditions are not the only ones that prepare us for a freedom-based approach to social understanding" — and that diversity and pluralism are the norm, not the exception.

Next comes some more theory, in the area of social choice and individual behavior. The conclusion to be drawn from Arrow's Theorem is not that democracy is impossible, but that we need a richer informational base, while Hayek's "unintended changes" may nevertheless be predictable. Against the idea that selfishness is the only motivating force of importance, Sen stresses that capitalism itself requires other values, touching on business ethics, contracts, the Mafia, and corruption.

In his final chapter Sen surveys the relationships between justice, freedom, and responsibility. And he reiterates the advantages of capabilities over narrower measures of human development. The idea of "human capital" is a step forwards, but is still too narrow in its restriction to effects on production; it fails to capture the direct contribution of human capabilities to well-being and freedom and their indirect effects on social change.

October 2003

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Related reviews:
- Amartya Sen - Inequality Reexamined
- books about economics + finance
- books about politics
- books about social justice
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T Development as Freedom
%A Sen, Amartya
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1999
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0192893300
%P xvi,366pp