Amartya Sen is best known to the general reader for his powerful essays on famine. He is an optimist about some of our gravest economic problems, such as mass starvation in a world that at present can easily produce more food than everyone can eat. Reason and voluntary participation are his watchwords. He shows that some of the nostrums about which we have become complacent or cynical can actually work. Thus with a fallible democracy and a fairly free press, India has not had a famine since independence; during the same period China had one of the worst famines on earth. In Zimbabwe there was food while the Sahel region starved.
Sen has long used the poor southern Indian state of Kerala to illustrate how high levels of education, especially for women, can short-circuit poverty. Kerala has more dramatically reduced its fertility rate than has China with its one-child policy. Fertility fell from 3.0 to 1.8, against 2.8 to 2.0, between 1979 and 1991—and without much altering the rates of male to female live births or surviving children. And whereas men outlive women in most of South Asia, in Kerala the life expectancy of women is seventy-four, compared to seventy-one for men. Such facts illustrate how basic human aspirations can be measured in gross but telling ways. The Costa Rican GNP per head is one-twelfth that of the US, but Costa Ricans live just as long as Americans. Because they have effective policies for basic education, communal health services, and medical care, they live far longer, on average, than the citizens of Brazil, Gabon, or South Africa, which have a much larger GNP per person.
Such views of Sen’s are well known from his occasional essays. His colleagues acknowledge that there is no more eminent student of welfare or development economics. He has recently finished a term as president of the American Economic Association, and he has presided over many other institutions, national and international. He teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard and earlier had a distinguished career in England. He has steadfastly insisted that economists check their theories against reality; that their abstractions about preference, choice, and values seldom describe what individuals, communities, or corporations actually want or do.
When Sen was growing up in India, he suffered a severe case of palate cancer (more common among Indian populations than others). Doctors in Calcutta treated him with radiation at levels that would now be regarded as lethal, necessary though they may have seemed at the time. Sen possibly owes his life to what we now hold to be overdoses. We can imagine how that has left him with a certain caution about absolute certainty, a skepticism about current wisdom, and, perhaps, an inveterate optimism about problems that others believe to be intractable.
He is a true rationalist, philosophically at home among the European thinkers of the eighteenth century, such as Condorcet, who called themselves moral scientists. Yet in the key ideas of his …