Development as Freedom
by Amartya Sen; copyright 1999 by Amartya Sen
published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN: 0-375-40619-0
The focal point of this book is a simple, yet revolutionary redefinition of economic development: “Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy.” One might argue that improvement in people’s lives has always been the definition of development, but one must not forget that economic development has become synonymous with increasing GDP. As Joseph Stiglitz explained in the video we watched, not only is GDP an extremely crude measure of what life is actually like for the average citizen of a given nation, increasing GDP is an end goal which considers the social and environmental costs of its means of achievement as externalities. To remedy these present inadequacies of development analysis, Sen suggests that development be understood as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy, wherein expansion of freedom becomes both the primary end and the principal means of development. Having established his definition, he goes to work analyzing how it can be used to address a variety of problems including famines, unemployment, poverty, gender inequality, and population growth.
Sen offers 5 basic types of instrumental freedoms which are important for economic development, all of which deeply interconnect and build off of each other. The most developed nation would be one which has maximized and optimized the following – “(1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees, and (5) protective security.” Political freedoms (1) are fairly well-known in America, including “opportunities to determine who should govern and on what principles, and also include the possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities, to have freedom of political expression and an uncensored press, to enjoy the freedom to choose between political parties, and so on.” Economic facilities (2) include opportunities individuals have to utilize economic resources for consumption, production, or exchange. “The economic entitlements that a person has will depend on the resources owned or available for use, as well as on conditions of exchange such as relative prices and the working of the markets.” Social opportunities (3) refer to people’s abilities to receive quality education and health care. Transparency guarantees (4) refer to the extent people can trust that they will actually get what they are being offered, as well as mechanisms for recourse when this trust is broken. “Finally, no matter how well an economic system operates, some people can be typically on the verge of vulnerability and can actually succumb to great deprivation as a result of small material changes that adversely affect their lives. Protective security (5) is needed to provide a social safety net for preventing the affected population from being reduced to abject misery, starvation, or death.”
Relating to our section on income inequality, in particular to the video of Richard Wilkinson’s TED talk, Sen shows how those getting the short end of the inequality stick are severely limited in their opportunities to survive, let alone thrive – “Relative deprivation in terms of incomes can yield absolute deprivation in terms of capabilities. Being relatively poor in a rich country can be a great capability handicap, even when one’s absolute income is high in terms of world standards. In a generally opulent country, more income is needed to buy enough commodities to achieve the same social functioning.” To illustrate this concept Sen compares the survival rates of white American and the perennially poor black Americans with the poorer Chinese and much poorer still Indians of the state of Kerala:
As a result of our outdated, simplistic notion of development a dominant school of thought among policy makers has been that human development (education, health care) is really only a luxury that rich countries can afford. Sen points out that many East Asian economies have disproved this, by greatly expanded education and later health care before breaking the poverty barrier. He explains that because these fields are so labor intensive that the relative cost is much lower in an undeveloped nation, so expanding social opportunities can be a great engine of economic growth, not the other way around like hard-nosed policy makers argue. To exemplify this Sen compares China and India, demonstrating how pre-reform China’s emphasis on education better prepared the nation to take full advantage of the market mechanism when it was later introduced, unlike India where illiteracy flourishes and growth has been mediocre.
Sen’s thoughts on the market mechanism are interesting, and particularly relevant to us, and modern America: “The role that markets play must depend not only on what they can do but also on what they are allowed to do. There are many people whose interests are well served by the smooth functioning of markets, but there are also groups whose established Interests may be hurt by such functioning. If the latter groups are politically more powerful and influential, then they can try to see that markets are not given adequate room in the economy. This can be a particularly serious problem when monopolistic production units flourish–despite inefficiency and various types of ineptitude–thanks to insulation from competition, domestic or foreign. The high product-prices or the low product-qualities that are involved in such artificially propped-up productions may impose significant sacrifice on the population at large, but an organized and politically influential group of “industrialists” can make sure that their profits are well protected.” Sen goes on to quote Adam Smith, showing how the father of market economics understood this problem and how it fueled his belief in the virtues of competition.
Modern America has turned away from competition in many industries, the “latter groups” have indeed taken power as Sen has warned, insulating themselves from the negative effects of competition primarily via the ironically named ‘free market’ deregulations. (Proof that ‘economic elites’ have excessive control of policy decisions: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/08/rich-people-rule/ ) Perhaps the most obvious example of this abuse is America’s food industry; Monsanto has a 90-95% complete monopoly on the domestic market for many crops including corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets. The quality and safety of Monsanto’s products is highly questionable, but there is no official mechanism for scrutiny because Monsanto is deeply involved in writing the laws which regulate it and the organizations which test it for safety, manipulating both through kickbacks and the revolving door of big-business and politics.
One thing Sen’s unique perspective does not seem to be able to handle, a subject he does not even broach, is the possibility that some people may choose not to choose. Total freedom of choice can feel quite overwhelming; Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes anxiety as the dizziness of freedom; “[Anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of [infinite] possibility.” Avoiding the overwhelming feeling which accompanies having an unfathomable amount of choices to make and hundreds, thousands, or millions of options to choose from is a powerful driver in human psychology. Indeed, humanity has a history of willfully giving our choices away to others and biasing ourselves so as to limit our options down to a manageable handful. What would Sen say to someone who eagerly gave away their political freedom?
The other important topic Sen does not discuss is the internet. It makes sense, this book is 15 years old; back in 1999 the internet was a like bumbling toddler. Now-a-days it is more grown-up, more expansive, incorporating all sorts of advanced utilities; people are using the rapidly evolving communication network to systematically enhance Sen’s freedom locally and globally. A great example of this is a D.C.-based ‘civic hacker’ who created a smartphone app called Capitol Bells designed for congresspeople and their staffers to track congressional proceedings in a simple format. They also receive real-time voting alarms so they can get their butts in the seats and never accidentally miss a vote. Over 250 members of the House already rely on the app, including all of the freshmen. The next step of his plan was to build http://www.capitolbells.com/, a platform for public discussion of present congressional bills, with an extremely user friendly format. The website is very new, so sample size is small, but it is designed so that users can view their overall voting record and compare it to their representative at the click of a button; also one would see how the representative’s voting pattern compares to the views of all of the participants in your district as a whole. Finally, voters themselves will be able to offer up themselves as ‘virtual candidates’ to open their voting record to the public to compare with the representative. The idea is that in districts that are particularly poorly represented, vocal virtual candidates whom strongly represent their district can ramp up electoral pressure without the current requisite of millions of dollars of campaign finance necessary to be heard.
The big kicker of this anecdote is that he has now just begun working on integrating the website with the mobile app, using the real-estate he saved by not putting ads in his app to livestream the constituencies opinions in to the hand of the representative while they are voting. If this platform takes off the American public will have an unprecedentedly powerful tool for political expression, substantially empowering both political freedoms (1) and transparency guarantees (4). This platform is a great idea, but getting congress to lovingly incorporate the technology in to their daily life before adding in the accountability aspect is an absolutely genius approach, and we do not get such fantastic opportunities to improve the political system directly very often. It is in that spirit that I ask you, please, check the site out, see what you think, and share it with your community. If any political district reaches a critical mass of users, they can swing the next election and change the game forever. In particular the site currently needs a stronger conservative presence; as it is quite a progressive thing it is not surprising liberals first. But it is designed to be a bipartisan forum, a place for everyone to make their argument. Know anything about current affairs? Go try writing a motion!
Overall, I find Sen’s definition of development as freedom thoroughly satisfying, though his erudite writing style is a bit strenuous to read. But I edge on that sentence style sometimes so who am I to talk…
All quotes from Development as Freedom except for the Kierkegaard quote, found here: brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/19/kierkegaard-on-anxiety-and-creativity/