Books in Review

Development as Freedom

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 45-48.

Escaping Global Poverty

Development as Freedom. By Amartya Sen. Knopf. 366 pp. $29.95 cloth, $15 paper.

Reviewed by Ronald J. Sider

Development as Freedom is a brilliant book by the world–famous economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, longtime professor of economics at Harvard and now Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. For decades, Professor Sen has been an influential voice on global poverty and matters concerning the poor. This book offers his comprehensive vision on the nature of development.

One of the major themes of the book is the nature of political and economic freedom. Sen argues that freedom is at once the goal of development and the means of development. Underdevelopment is “unfreedom” and development is the process of removing the various forms of unfreedom and expanding the capabilities of people “to lead the kinds of lives they value.” “The analysis of development presented in this book treats the freedom of individuals as the basic building blocks.”

Understanding and measuring development only in economic terms (e.g., growing GNP or rising per capita income) is fundamentally inadequate because it overlooks both the fact that freedom is an inherent good and also that there are complex connections between economic growth and various kinds of freedom. A very rich person, for example, who is deprived of freedom of speech is missing something of inherent worth, but which economic analysis overlooks. Ignoring freedom can also lead to faulty predictions because of the many ways that freedom or its absence is tightly linked to economic well–being. To take a striking example, no famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy, regardless of economic conditions.

Sen emphasizes five types of freedom: political freedoms include civil rights, an uncensored press and free democratic elections; economic facilities include both free markets and access to the resources necessary to participate in a market economy; social opportunities refer to the arrangements society makes for education, health care, etc., which greatly affect a person’s ability to improve his situation; transparency guarantees, which require that people deal openly with each other under guarantees of disclosure and lucidity, help to prevent corruption and financial irresponsibility; protective security refers to the social safety net (e.g., unemployment benefits, income supplements for the poor) that prevents abject poverty. All these freedoms are essential and closely interrelated in Sen’s comprehensive understanding of development, which he labels a “capability approach.”

Sen’s discussion of market econ­ omies and democracy illustrates how his approach offers a balance that is often missing in writings on development. He welcomes the global embrace of free markets that has taken place in the last few decades, yet he warns that we cannot depend on markets alone. Citing Adam Smith, Sen argues both that free markets are both inherently good and highly effective in increasing wealth, and also (again citing Smith) that non–market institutions are “badly needed to supplement what the markets can do.” Supplement, but not replace—he insists that we cannot resurrect what he delicately terms “yesterday’s follies.”

The success of the East Asian economies—first Japan and more recently the other East Asian market economies—shows that there is a crucial governmental role in providing services such as widespread education and health care, which it is quite possible for governments to do successfully at a fairly low level of per capita income. Sen cites recent statistical analyses by Sudhir Anand and Martin Ravallion which show that the correlation between increasing per capita GNP and growing life ex­ pectancy works mainly through growing income for the poor and increased government expenditure on health care. Brazil and South Korea, for instance, have both experienced high GNP growth in the past four decades, but South Korea has had a much greater improvement in life expectancy than Brazil. Anand and Ravallion show that the difference lies in South Korea’s greater public expenditures on health care and its smaller income gap between the poor and the rich. In fact, significant government expenditures on health care and education for everyone can dramatically improve life expectancy even at a very low general level of societal wealth. For example, Kerala and Sri Lanka have a per capita GNP of less than $500 but life expectancy at birth is seventy–three years, whereas Brazil has a per capita GNP of more than $2,500 but life expectancy is only sixty–five. The difference is in the public expenditures, which can create what Sen calls the freedom of social opportunity.

In his chapter on democracy, Sen argues that a democratic polity is important first because freedom is an inherent good, second because it contributes to economic well–being, and third because societies need free political debate to choose what economic “needs” to value. Sen says there are no systematic empirical studies that support the thesis that authoritarian governments are better able to promote economic growth. And there is positive evidence that political freedom prevents some harmful economic development. Famines have occurred in ancient and modern authoritarian societies, in colonial empires and modern technocratic dictatorships. But wherever regular elections and a free press force rulers to listen to their people, governments have always performed the relatively easy task of preventing widespread famine.

All this and much more in this fine book I find convincing. Problems, however, emerge.

First, although it is very important to see that development includes more than merely reducing economic scarcity, it seems unhelpful to define poverty as “deprivation of basic capabilities”—i.e., the absence of freedom. It is certainly true that a rich and well–fed person in a totalitarian society suffers great loss. But does it clarify anything to call that deprivation “poverty”? The label “unfree” rather than “poor” is far more helpful in defining what needs to change. Poverty is only one—albeit very serious—problem that many human beings face. If we label all human deprivation “poverty,” then we run the danger of minimizing the terrible reality of gross deficiency of food, clothing, and housing. Only if we must define development as merely overcoming poverty rather than overcoming all human deprivation is there any reason to broaden the definition of poverty as Sen does.

Second, and far more serious, is Sen’s argument that a highly individualistic notion of freedom is the goal of development. He is very clear. Freedom means the capability of individuals to “lead the kinds of lives they value.” This is an astonishing embrace of Western individualism, especially for a scholar from Asia.  What if all living individuals choose to value consumption in a way that destroys the environment for their grandchildren? What if all the world’s people choose to value fighting each other in a catastrophic global conflict? What if all individuals value their own personal gratification at the expense of the common good?

Third, Sen offers no defense of the inviolability of every human life, a central premise on which depends his admirable insistence that freedom has its own inherent value. After a century in which our science and politics have rejected any belief in the unique value of each person, surely such a sweeping claim demands substantial supporting argument. Glenn Tinder may be right when, in Political Thinking, he wonders whether a conviction of the innate dignity of every human being can be sustained without the ancillary claim that persons (and therefore their freedom) are valuable because every human being is created in the image of God. As a nontheist, Sen cannot take that route. But surely he owes us some argument supporting the central premise of his whole project.

Equally problematic is Sen’s argument that human reason will be adequate to overcome the problem of human selfishness. He knows that a system which defines freedom as what each individual values fails hopelessly unless somehow individuals transcend self–centeredness and choose to value the well–being of their neighbors, future generations, and the environment. But Sen’s only hope for this essential self–transcendence is his belief in human reason—plus the “evolutionary selection of behavioral modes.” He seems to hope that even though there may be no ultimate reason for unselfish conern for justice and ethics, nonetheless such behavior may somehow be useful for economic success and therefore “unselfish” individuals will survive better than their evolutionary rivals. With all due respect, I must say that the experience of the last violent century, with its widespread faith in human reason and evolutionary progress, hardly warrants optimism about transcending selfishness on those grounds. I would rather gamble on God.

Development as Freedom is a brilliant book. But it needs a theistic framework, both to tell us why human freedom matters so much (even though it is not the ultimate goal but rather an essential means to the good of wholeness in all relationships) and also to remind us that persons will seldom transcend selfishness without a belief in a God who commands and enables us to love.

Ronald J. Sider is Professor of Theology and Culture at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, President of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.