Development As Freedom

by Amartya Kumar Sen (Afterword)

Hardcover, 1999

Status

Available

Publication

New York, A. Knopf, 1999

Description

By the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Economics, an essential and paradigm-altering framework for understanding economic development--for both rich and poor--in the twenty-first century.  Freedom, Sen argues, is both the end and most efficient means of sustaining economic life and the key to securing the general welfare of the world's entire population. Releasing the idea of individual freedom from association with any particular historical, intellectual, political, or religious tradition, Sen clearly demonstrates its current applicability and possibilities. In the new global economy, where, despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers--perhaps even the majority of people--he concludes, it is still possible to practically and optimistically restain a sense of social accountability. Development as Freedom is essential reading.… (more)

Media reviews

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility
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in decision making.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
This is a treatise on the importance of individual freedom, both as an end in itself and as the best means of economic development. It is based on a series of lectures Sen gave in 1996-7, which netted him a Nobel Prize in Economic Science. Nearly two decades later, all of his points seem obvious,
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but I bet they were revolutionary at the time. His writing is an odd mixture of turgid institutional-ese with occasional hilarious sarcastic asides or brilliantly lucid and forthright sentences. Here's an example of the prose you get upon opening this book: "[To base our choices on reason] we need an appropriate evaluative framework; we also need institutions that work to promote our goals and valuational commitments, and furthermore we need behavioral norms and reasoning that allow us to achieve what we try to achieve."

Sen credits the "fast economic progress" of East Asian and Southeast Asian economies to social reforms; he claims that in addition to social reforms having positive economic consequences, "lack of social development can quite severely hold up the reach of economic development." He references studies done in India which showed increased economic growth and overall life expectancy and decreased infant mortality and fertility rate after initiatives to improve female literacy and out-of-the-home employment. Additionally, contrasting states within India, or India vs China, show that providing agency and education to women is more effective at reducing fertility and infant mortality than coercive birth control methods. All of this is a delight to read--it's like being told one can have one's cake and eat it too.

Increased freedom and individual agency also prevents some disasters. Sen notes that expending less than 3% of the GNP, or 4-5% of national food consumption, will end a famine, so long as the arrangements are made "in good time." They can be prevented entirely through countervailing government expenditure, particularly in (temporary) job creation. He goes on to say that "Famines are, in fact, so easy to prevent that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all. The sens of distance between the ruler and the ruled--between 'us' and 'them'--is a crucial feature of famines."

By far my least favorite section was entitled "Social Choice and Individual Behavior," which consists of dismantling several strawmen (It is impossible to rationally derive social choices from individual preferences! All actions have unintended consequences, so trying to do good will lead to evil, while self-interested behavior will lead to good unintended results!) and a tangled mess of Adam Smith quotes to prove that capitalism does too have ethics. Basically, Sen claims that because capitalism requires mutual trust and norms in order to function, institutional structures and common behavioral codes are created and maintained. This in turn means "the developing countries have to pay attention not only to the virtues of prudential behavior, but also to the role of complementary values, such as the making and sustaining of trust, avoiding the temptations of pervasive corruption, and making assurance a workable substitute for punitive legal enforcement." Personally, I don't understand what makes capitalism so special in this regard--people have to trust each other and set up methods by which they can keep each other in check for *any* system to work. But Sen seems convinced.

The basic message I took away from this was that instead of measuring development through gains in output, income, or consumption, we should focus on how decisions are made within the society, and what opportunities and freedoms people have. Even if development organizations are only concerned with economic growth, they should keep in mind that if people lack rights (such as the right to education or reproductive control of one's own body) and freedom, economic growth will be stalled.
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LibraryThing member McCaine
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member ErlangerFactionless
The overarching ideas in this book are solid. Sen argues that individual freedom is both the means and the end of economic development, and that development shouldn’t simply be measured by Gross National Product or absolute wealth levels. His economic ideas are an unexpected synthesis of Adam
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Smith and Karl Marx (amongst others) that result in what I’d call gentle capitalism. I appreciate both the evidence he supplies and his careful analyses of opposing viewpoints.

Unfortunately, like his biggest influences, Sen has an unrealistically rosy view of human nature. We humans may not be inherently nasty or selfish, but neither are we perfectly rational beings who always know what is best for ourselves and our neighbors. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement in the world, and I’m confident that the world is improving now thanks in part to people like Sen. However, he too often seems to ignore the difference between the way the world SHOULD be and the way the world CAN be.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Read for class.

Very interesting book, discussing the idea of societal independence and personal freedom to be most necessary for development. Provides excellent examples and reasoning.

Finally, I'd like to add that the author sounds like a genuinely good person and I'd love to have a pleasant
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discussion with him over lunch.
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LibraryThing member justindtapp
This was the first book I bought after returning home from two years overseas in 2004. It has traveled with us until now. It's probably best that I didn't read it until recently since I have a much better appreciation of the arguments.

Sen is a Nobel prize winning economist (1998), and one of my
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grad school teacher's teacher's teacher. He combines economic analysis with moral philosophy. His point (I think) is that freedom is both and ends and a means of development, and we should analyze policies' effects on freedom.

He delves into the philosophical problems of development. For example, material well-being can't be the best measure of economic development because American slaves had higher incomes and life expectancy than certain people in the third world today-- yet they had no freedom. We need a measure of freedom, which requires its own understandings and definitions.

Sen compares the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment to libertarianism to Rawlsian thinking. So, there are some deep philosophical weeds to wade through. Chapter 4 is the best, dealing with issues of statism vs. markets.

Sen bases his thinking mostly on Adam Smith, and he fleshes out many of the lesser-known aspects of Smith's writings. But he also brings Eastern thought to the table in an attempt to humble Western assumptions of moral/philosophical tolerance. He debunks the idea of "Asian values" being culpable for Chinese statism but roundly points out the progress of the Chinese economically while dealing with their restrictions on freedom.

It's not a book for the non-philosophically or economically inclined. But it was good to read at this stage in my career. I'm more interested in some of his other thinking and works on development.

2.5 stars out of 5.
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LibraryThing member abergsman
This book formed the inspiration for my master's thesis, and will always hold a special place in my heart.
LibraryThing member qaphsiel
An amazingly well thought-out treatment of economic development, its goals, its impact on people, and how those people (i.e. the human capital) feeds back into economic development. Sen is careful and thoughtful--and undogmatic--in establishing a framework by which we can enhance the freedom of
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individuals as well as grow economies.
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