The Women in the Cowshed

Had I not met Professor Dasgupta, I might have wondered from reading his book whether “Dasgupta” was the name of a large committee or a small research institution. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution is a work of encyclopedic learning and matching ambition. It is not just the title of this book that recalls the beginnings of the modern discipline of economics in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith was a moral philosopher, a historian, and a political theorist; The Wealth of Nations is among other things a tract on moral philosophy, social change, and the duties of government as well as what we now call economics. An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution, as well as being a contribution to development economics, is among other things a tract on moral philosophy and political theory, on the duties of government in developing countries, and on the connections between economic analysis and such disciplines as the science of nutrition. The bibliography runs to eighty densely packed pages, and anyone who had mastered even a small part of that literature would be a distinguished practitioner of modern economics and well informed about a great deal else.

Professor Dasgupta teaches at Cambridge but wants to be read by many people besides graduate students in economics. He therefore spreads his net wide. He is concerned with the economics of extreme poverty, and has a lot to say about undernourishment as both a cause and an effect of poverty, as well as about the problems of soil erosion, the consequences of poorly defined property rights, the place of women’s education in tackling problems of overpopulation, and the fate of the unemployed worker in India.

Because he is an economist who understands that economics is often reviled for its narrow view of human motivation—reducing all our hopes, wishes, and fears to the pursuit of “rational self-interest”—Professor Dasgupta wants to incorporate a richer understanding of human experience within economic analysis. And since economists are often complained of for trying to apply “Western” techniques of analysis to societies whose economies are built on habit, tradition, and personal ties rather than the fluid and flexible impersonal transactions of the developed marketplace, he tries to show how the economist’s analytical methods illuminate the predicament of landless laborers and villagers facing crop failure in the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. All this is done with an unusual combination of boldness and subtlety.

An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution raises many questions. One is why books like this are so rare, and so hard to bring off successfully. I should say at once that to the extent that Professor Dasgupta aims at a general audience, he is not wholly successful. His Inquiry is a difficult book; it is neither pretentious nor willfully obscure, but it is stiff going. Dasgupta packs the mathematical demonstration of his results into “starred” chapters, but he expects a lot from his readers elsewhere. He gives …

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