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Development as rhetoric
on 11 May 2009
This is Amartya Sen's, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and collaborator of Martha Nussbaum, most famous work. In "Development as Freedom" he gives a broad and general overview of his views on development economics, and in particular on the priorities that must be made in creating social and economic policy in the developing world. The general thesis of the book is that many economic advisors have far too much relied on measurements of real income alone, and ignored the fact that income and wealth are a means to an end, and that this end is freedom (broadly defined as capacity); and that for this reason any policy which increases income but decreases freedom must be rejected. This thesis of itself is strong and well-made, and a deserved rebuttal to the ideas of many Asian development economists and politicians who see a right-wing dictatorship à la Lee Kwan Yew as the most effective way to create economic growth, and therefore desirable.
But that is, unfortunately, the only point of the book. Sen's actual discussion of which economic policies would lead to the results of increasing freedom is so general as to be practically unusable. He has a completely unwarranted faith in the capacity of markets (albeit interventionist ones) to create these increases in freedom, and incorrectly claims that the proof is overwhelmingly in favor of markets leading to growth on their own, when the evidence is in reality wildly conflicting and the strongest proofs are against markets. What makes this even worse is his ignorant conflating of markets as such with capitalism, which leads to such silly canards as dismissing criticisms of capitalism as not understanding freedom, since after all, what can be more free than freedom of exchange? In this way, his defense of mainstream development policy is worse than undergraduate level.
Moreover, the very greatest part of the book is filled with meaningless and saccharine rhetoric of the most astonishingly unintelligent kind. In each short chapter addressing some major aspect of development economics and its problematic, he will, after much talk, come to such stunning conclusions as "take the middle road" and "there are arguments for and against interventionism and we must consider both", as well as the whopping conclusion that we need to take the whole spectrum of effects on people into account when suggesting policies. One hardly needs to have a Nobel Prize to come to these 'insights'.
To add insult to injury, his discussion of past economic policies and economists in general is incompetent and historically dubious. He claims that no democratic state has experienced famines, but then qualifies this by excluding colonies of such states, without however giving any reason for this - creating a wholly ad hoc argument for an unproven link between 'democracy' (which apparently includes pre-Reform Bill Britain) and well-being. Similarly, he constantly cherry-picks quotes from Adam Smith to cast him as a concerned and judicious proponent of development, while a more objective look at the entirety of Smith's oeuvre would quickly reveal the degree to which he appeared as a propagandist for the Glasgow mercantile and industrial interests. It must be said in Sen's favor though that he does recognize that famines can easily occur where free markets are present, which at least puts him at a level above most apologetics for economic orthodoxy.
On the whole this book is a major disappointment. Sen's vague and hand-waving rhetoric is useless for any kind of policy purpose and yet fills most of the book, even obscuring the one point he does have about freedom as end and means. With the idea he originally had, he could have done a lot better, but his unwarranted support for mainstream economics and its equivocations has made this impossible.