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 …

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