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The Road Upward

Development as Freedom

Amartya Sen
Anchor, 366 pp., $15.00 (paper)


Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998, has spent most of his career worrying about how to understand, measure, and promote “human development,” in the sense of the term that refers to the general condition of the people and not the achievements of a fortunate few. He is probably best known for his work with Jean Drèze on famines and how to prevent them, but his work covers a very broad range. He has worked in social choice theory, a technical discipline that examines the precise relationship between judgments about what is good for society and judgments about what is good for its individual members.

Sen has held a joint chair in economics and philosophy at Harvard. He has written extensively, often in these pages, on poverty and inequality, as well as on gender differences in nutrition and life expectancy in the developing world. His most recent book, which is also the one most obviously aimed at an audience outside professional economics, begins by pointing out that

we live in a world of unprecedented opulence, of a kind that would have been hard even to imagine a century or two ago…. And yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression.

It would be wrong to suppose that our collective achievements can be measured just by the opulence, without taking account of the continuing deprivation, much of it persisting within rich countries as well as poor ones. Overcoming this deprivation “is a central part of the exercise of development,” yet to do so we cannot just react to problems as they come along, relying on an instinct for recognizing development when we see it. We need a coherent conception of what human development is in order to be able to pursue it as a goal. This book is therefore an attempt to develop such a conception.

According to the particular conception Sen espouses, development is “a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.” He contrasts this with “narrower views…such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.” It might sound odd to call “social modernization” a “narrow” view of development, but to see what Sen means, and why he thinks a view of development based on freedom is both broader and better than its rivals, it is important to understand the background from which his thought has evolved.

The common thread running through the varied body of Sen’s work is the idea that public policy has for too long been informed by excessively simplistic pictures of human society, and specifically of human beings and their needs and aspirations. This is a claim that has to be interpreted with some care. It would be trite to assert that human beings and human societies are more complex than you would ever imagine from looking at the GNP statistics. Of course they are, and the GNP statistics would be quite useless for anything unless they abstracted from a vast amount of this complexity.

So Sen’s target is not simplification per se: the complexities of human society have to be simplified in order for public policy to assign any priorities at all. Doing so necessarily involves excluding relatively unimportant information about society (and therefore about society’s individual members) in order to concentrate on the relatively important. Economic policy in particular has been motivated by the search for single numerical measures that allegedly capture most of what is important for a given problem (GNP, say, or the retail price index) and that allow you to say precisely how well a given policy project is doing, and even to rank countries by how well they have achieved the goals set by that project. The really interesting question is not whether public policy has had to simplify, but whether it has simplified too much.

The message of much of Sen’s previous work can be summed up by the statement that single aggregate numbers simplify too much. The average national income per person ignores its distribution among people. The average income of a household ignores its distribution among household members. Income itself, which sums up the importance for people’s lives of marketed goods and services that can be assigned a price, thereby ignores other things people care about, such as health or political autonomy (health care has a price—and how—but health itself does not). Rising incomes, Sen points out, may mean little if people live in much greater fear of violence and expropriation. Likewise, statistics reporting the total availability of food in a given country or region do not tell you how that food is distributed among people. Shifts in prices or in purchasing power may make some people fall below the threshold of starvation even if the total amount of food in a region does not change. In each case you need to know more than the overall averages tell you; something important has been left out.

But what precisely is it that these single aggregate numbers leave out? Part of the answer is easy: averages of any quantity leave out the distribution among people, and that distribution is important, because we worry much more about conditions at the bottom end of the scale than about those at the middle or the top. But part of the answer is not easy. Incomes, life expectancies, and other such measures are only imperfect indicators of what is sometimes called “the quality of life.” What precisely these measures leave out is the question Sen’s account of freedom is supposed to answer. The quality of a person’s life, he writes, is to be judged according to “the capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value.” Measures of economic welfare can be useful indicators of whether people enjoy a good quality of life, but they are far from perfect indicators, and when they conflict with other evidence of the quality of life it is sometimes the other evidence that is to be preferred. High incomes are associated on average with better health, for example, but it is the health that counts and not the incomes per se. Incomes, Sen writes, are “only instrumentally significant.”

What difference does it make to talk about “capabilities”? Here’s an example. Arguments have raged for years about whether poverty is best understood as a relative notion or an absolute one: Are you poor when you have less than a certain real income or when your real income falls below some proportion of the average? Sen wants us to think of poverty as a condition that occurs when people fall below some absolute level of the quality of life. Whether someone is counted as poor should not depend on the statistical accident of the incomes of those who happen to be included in the calculation of the average. But the absolute level should be defined by the “capabilities” people have rather than their incomes. People care about clothes, say, partly for simple functional reasons like protection from the cold but also for reasons of self-respect and respect within their communities. You may be poor if your income is insufficient to enable you to achieve self-respect, which sounds like an absolute criterion. But the amount of income it takes to achieve self-respect may be higher in Beverly Hills than in Bangladesh, thereby explaining why the relative concept of poverty is not wholly mistaken after all. In this case, Sen would emphasize the capability to achieve self-respect.

So capabilities are an important explanatory concept because they are, at least in principle, the underlying valuable goals of development of which measures such as GNP are only indirect indicators. But what have capabilities to do with freedoms? To this reviewer at least the answer is not always luminously clear, even on multiple readings of Sen’s book. At times Sen talks of capabilities and freedoms interchangeably to describe the various activities that are necessary for a full and active life: living long and healthily, enjoying the esteem of family and friends, communicating with others and learning about the world we live in, participating in decisions about our own future and the government of our community. At other times Sen worries that we might confuse the genuinely deprived with those who have voluntarily chosen to forgo some of the activities of a full life: ascetics, those on a diet or fasting for religious reasons, mountaineers losing their lives in the quest for adventure. So he takes capabilities to mean the possibility of enjoying a full life whether this possibility (“freedom”) is exercised or not. At yet other times Sen appears concerned to avoid making capabilities sound like an arbitrary list of things he happens to approve of; so his conception of the enhancement of the range of human opportunities (also “freedom”) appears as what defines the list of worthwhile capabilities: the ability to take part in sport, say, might count as a capability but the ability to take part in military conquest would not. Whether Sen’s appeal to freedom strengthens his overall argument is a point to which I shall return.

The book develops its argument in three main stages. The first, which occupies most of the book, uses large numbers of examples to appeal to our intuitions that simple indices such as GNP or even life expectancy do indeed leave out dimensions of human development of foremost importance. Judging countries solely by their average performance on some index—be it GNP or infant mortality or literacy—can lead to the shocking neglect of groups and regions within those countries. Thus “even entire [Indian] states such as Uttar Pradesh (which has a population as large as that of Brazil or Russia) do not do much better than the worst-off among the sub-Saharan countries in terms of these basic indicators of living quality [adult literacy and infant mortality].” So distribution within countries matters as well as the averages, especially since the averages are arbitrarily affected by the boundaries of nation-states.

Furthermore, the hope that GNP might be a good shorthand for overall development progress because it is correlated with other important indicators may lead us to overlook some major issues of concern. Thus “in the United States, African Americans as a group have…a lower chance of reaching advanced ages than do people born in the immensely poorer economies of China or the Indian state of Kerala.” And even for individuals, the presence of handicaps and different social circumstances means that incomes are not just an unreliable but a systematically misleading way of comparing the welfare of different people. Someone who is handicapped may have fewer capabilities than another person in every aspect of life, even with a substantially higher income. What matters, then, are not the incomes but the human capabilities that such incomes can support—and different people in different circumstances can convert income into human capabilities with strikingly different degrees of effectiveness.

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