Top positive review
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It's about the human being and not efficiency
on 19 December 2008
I was drawn to Amartya Sen's work because of his concern for the poor and his undoubted intellectual mettle. (He won the 1998 Novel prize in economics). I was not disappointed with my choice - Development as Freedom.
Unlike many economists, Sen speaks the language of humans and is concerned with the real life impact of development not on `efficiency' of the market but on ordinary people; their ability to live the lives that they have reason to value. Hence, the title of this book, Development as Freedom, is apt; Sen is concerned with framing the discussion on economic development in terms of freedom of the individual.
Sen's approach to development, which is evident throughout the book, is that the existing literature on development tends to focus almost entirely increase in growth rates and gross national product (GNP). While stressing the importance of GNP, Sen argues that this `human as capital' approach to development is too narrow. Indeed, he stresses than humans are far more than capital in the productive process. Using the examples of China and India, Sen demonstrates that arguing that good education, nourishment and health are important to the GNP growth, it is by no means that only raison-d'être for education. Education may have other benefits such as reading, communication and being able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Indeed, in Sen's viewpoint, education and social development is a fundamental freedom that is desirable in itself and not just because of its impact on the commodity production process.
Development as Freedom touches on every topic under the sun; from philosophy to sociology and from science to - of course - economics. Of all the topics, that Sen's keen mind surveys, the following stood out:
The market mechanism works in a society where there is free flow of information and when the `invisible hand' is not used only in the service of the powerful. The problems that arise from market mechanisms often have little to do with markets themselves but with the lack of underlying institutions, such as the rule of law, conflict resolution, trust and contracts. The solution lies not just in scrapping markets altogether but in establishing the institutions upon which markets can thrive.
The market mechanism alone cannot solve all of society's problems. Sen shows that in the context of developing countries in general that there is a need for public policy needs that create social opportunities. The author argues that in the past of the rich countries of today that there was concerted government action on education, health care and land reform. Why should it be any different today? Sen observes that the problem is really an unspoken belief that human development i.e. health, education and welfare are really luxuries that poor nations cannot afford. By showing examples from Kerala and Sri Lanka, Sen debunks the argument that GNP growth is the only determinant of social development.
Sen challenges the Lee thesis (formulated by the former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew). The thesis holds that freedom and democracy impede economic growth. As a consequence, if given the choice between fulfilling economic needs and political freedom, poor people would rather choose the former. But is the Lee thesis really true? Sen shows that the evidence for the Lee Thesis is very thin on the ground. The only way to judge whether the thesis is acceptable to the poor is to put it to a vote. Alas, that is precisely what the authoritarian ruler fear.
Food, Famine and Population Growth
There is a perception in the especially in the developed world that the poor (in Africa and Asia) are breeding like rabbits and that soon there will be little food to feed all those poor, hungry mouths. Again, Sen presents evidence to the contrary; Malthus definitely got it wrong. Food production has been increasing at an ever increasing pace in the last five decades. Furthermore, food prices had been falling (at least until 1999 when the book was published). While there are good reasons to limit family sizes, the Malthusian doomsday scenario that has been expected since 1800 shall not happen anytime soon.
There is very much else I like about Sen's deeply reflective (if philosophical as opposed to statistical) approach to economic and social development. He tackles everything from corruption to inequality. However, his writing style/expression can be convoluted and high falutin.
Sen sees himself very much in the same tradition as Adam Smith; a champion of liberty who happened to set his mind on economics and politics.
Development as Freedom is a timely call to focus on human beings not because they are producers in a faceless machine but as intrinsically important entities. It is a worthy read and deserves 4 stars.