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Revisiting a classic
Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

Reviewed by Piyush Mathur

The issue of a new paperback edition gives me the opportunity to consider this work against its remarkably celebratory reception since its original print in 1999. My retrospective overview suggests that that reception perhaps had as much to do with a range of external factors as with the book itself.

Those factors include: the long-standing reputation of Sen, both as an economist and a general-purpose cosmopolitan intellectual; his having been awarded the "Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel" shortly before the book's publication; and the contrast between what the book delivers in the name of economics and what economics has long come to mean to significant sections of global intelligentsia, activists, but especially professional economists.

By emphasizing these reasons I do not mean to undermine Sen's significance as an economist: I am only proposing to relocate the book out of the haloed biographical persona of its author. Furthermore, instead of upholding it as a "transcendental" work of unimpeachable merit - as the majority of previous reviewers have done - I invite fellow readers to approach the book critically for its contextual relevance.

Broadly, Sen re-conceptualizes development in terms of freedom and vice versa. This resolutely reflexive maneuver can be simplified into the dictum - let us be free to develop, and develop to be free - or the truism that: development is inconceivable without freedoms, just as freedoms are inconceivable without development.

Establishing these symbiotic precepts may seem easy or mundane to the naive; to the suave, on the other hand, it is instantly clear that Sen has chosen to pick a fight with an entire range of intra and inter-warring constituencies. Those constituencies variously: find and declare development and freedom incompatible - at least in degrees - and thus prioritize one over another; define either or both of the two phenomena either too narrowly or too broadly to be realistic; define them such that they could be used as alibis for parochial or misguided objectives; and/or view them in culturally prejudicial and historically inaccurate terms. In the last instance, for example, some of those constituencies may view democracy as singularly "Western", and deem dictatorial pursuit of economic goals as a foremost, natural, or "understandable" choice for peoples of non-Western cultures.

Sen does not dismiss almost any of the constituencies he undertakes to examine. Instead, they enter his domain as notional and/or methodological extremities, attain salvation through his empirical and intellectual moderation and audit, and ultimately find their virtuous relevancies harnessed for a comprehensively democratic redefining of development and development economics.

As part of that process, Sen divides freedom into two main kinds: "instrumental", and "substantive". "Substantive freedoms" refer to formative tenets of a general, lived environment that allows individuals to realize and develop their self-cherished capabilities. "Instrumental freedoms", on the other hand, are the means for generating and strengthening such an environment, and include "economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security" (pg xii). Sen argues that development should be viewed as - and planned in terms of - the furtherance of both instrumental and substantive freedoms.

In order to assert and demonstrate the rationality of his proposition, and to effect his hypothesis, Sen critically appreciates some dominant evaluative frameworks for how they define and measure development. His analysis reveals that those frameworks carry varyingly truncated conceptions of development owing to their own limited and/or exclusionary informational bases (pgs 55-66). So, on one hand, Sen acknowledges the positive significance of: "the 'economic' concentration on the primacy of income and wealth"; "the 'utilitarian' focus on mental satisfaction"; and, "the 'libertarian" preoccupation with procedures for liberty" (pg 19). On the other hand, he criticizes the "economic concentration" for neglecting "the characteristics of human lives and substantive freedoms"; utilitarians for neglecting "creative discontent and constructive dissatisfaction"; and libertarians for neglecting the "consequences that derive from" the procedures they promote (pg 19).

In reference to the last case, for instance, Sen points out that "even gigantic famines can result without anyone's libertarian rights (including property rights)being violated. The destitutes ... may starve precisely because their 'entitlements' - legitimate as they are - do not give them enough food." (pg 66)

Alternatively, Sen argues for, and articulates, a far more expansive "information base" - and proposes his "capability approach to justice" (pgs 54-60; 25). This framework retains meritorious elements from the previous approaches, but chooses "substantive individual freedoms" and "free and sustainable agency" - essentially a cross between individual free will and active responsibility - as the primary indicators of development (pgs 18; 190-203).

The framework also renders: poverty as individuals' "capability deprivation" (pgs 87-110); market as the "basic ... arrangement [for] mutually advantageous activities" and interaction - hence, a sign of freedom (pg 142); democracy as the quintessential means for people to express their economic needs and interests truthfully and adequately; famine as a result and symptom of undemocratic polity, capability deprivation, and income inequity - rather than the fallout primarily of food shortage or free marketing; overpopulation as an attribute of gender inequity and subordination of women's choices and interests; culture (normatively) as a matter of individual choices rather than authoritarian dictates; individual rationality (normatively) to be inclusive of "canny pursuit of sympathy ... and promotion of justice" (pg 270); market capitalism as the best bet for realizing development as freedom - for being "extendable by an appropriate development of ethics" (pg 267); responsibility as a direct correlate of freedom; and development as "a momentous engagement with freedom's possibilities" (pg 298).

Notably, Sen excludes any analysis of profit, and oversimplifies the meaning and reality of market by disregarding the variety of its forms and dimensions. Hence, while promoting market capitalism as the most viable economic system, Sen ignores the effects on development specifically of a capitalistic market, and of the new international finance capital. This is an interesting omission given that many important "freedom struggles" may not be about how to enter the (globalized) market, but about how to stay out of them. For example, the spate of farmers' suicides in southern India can be attributed to their inability to be competitive producers in the newly "globalized" agricultural market.

Sen also seems convinced that free markets can neutralize traditional identities and orthodoxies. Here, he bypasses indications from previous research that markets have only so much to do with cultural liberalization; and, even there, they are as likely to harden, or generate newer, orthodoxies as to loosen them. Likewise, while pleading to focus "on the freedoms generated by commodities", Sen ignores the constricting effects of commodity fetishism, status-symbolism, and commodification itself (pg 74).

Because it has little conception of this strand of freedom (or constriction), Sen's book ends up being more didactic than either empirical or democratic. That didacticism is aggravated by his: ignoring the possibility of traditional communitarian - rather than individual, corporate, or state-rights over ecological heritage; overlooking the threat that the globalized market and intellectual property regimes pose to indigenous knowledge and products; and failing to account for the domestic economic impact of international power relations.

On the methodological and conceptual fronts, Sen successfully establishes the relevance of development economics to all economies (and not just Third World). He also succeeds in showing a compelling way to "democratic" development through conceptual and ideological bridge-building and pragmatic compromise. However, his peculiar theoretical reflexivity lets him occupy discursive, empirical, historical and normative spaces in an overlapping fashion: and not always with enough analytical justification.

That makes it difficult for the reader to decide when - and when not - to distinguish between his two implicit positions of "development is freedom" and "development should be freedom". Potential responses to this dilemma of distinction between representative realism and normative idealism ramify for the larger realities, philosophies and criticisms of development; they are also apt to test Sen's honesty about analytical and historical anomalies to his overarching thesis of Development as Freedom.

Thus, Sen's contention that the "process of development ... is not essentially different from the history of overcoming ... unfreedoms" appears to represent a politically corrected, rather than actual, history of development (pg 33). Even some spectacular contemporary cases - such as the dam controversies of China and India - provide a very different profile of development than Sen typically admits. On that count, Sen's normativity is more Utopian than realistic, and some of his historical derivations are only chastened rational reconstructions. Accordingly, his redefinition of rationality betrays ad hocism.

Perhaps Sen's biggest contribution lies in his trying to bring economics out of its parochial empiricism and disciplinary insularity: into a broader, yet traditional, framework of political economy. But that is also something that has been attempted equally well - though with very different orientations - by the otherwise unpopular economists from JNU, New Delhi, as well as by feminist economists and sociologists from around the world. In that sense, this book is as much a mark of Sen's originality as it is a reflection on the dismal state of mainstream economics. And for all that, I deem it a mandatory read for all thinking adults.

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; ISBN: 0-19-289330-0; 366 pages; price US$10.50.

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Oct 31, 2003



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