Development as Freedom: Amartya Sen

Development as Freedom (2000) is Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book on his groundbreaking work on development studies. Sen argues and urges in this intellectually compelling tome to go for comprehensive view on economic development rather than just identifying development purely on the basis of per-capita income or per-capita GNP. Development, Sen contends, should be seen in the perspective of freedom; development should be seen as an expansion of people’s freedom.

The prospect of identifying Development as freedom is not new to the literature of economics. Adam Smith in his various works emphasized the importance of expanding people’s capabilities and freedoms as the “ends” of economic development. Sen’s work develops on smithian economics. Development is seen as a process of expanding the real freedom that people enjoy instead of expanding the per-capita income or the aggregate utilities enjoyed by the people. Sen appreciates the instrumental value of income or utilities in expanding the freedoms and capabilities of people. But he is also perturbed by how focus on income as the measure of real development can be misleading. He throws persuasive examples, in the developed, developing and the third world alike, to emphasize how focus on income can deceive the policy makers into a sense of complacency.

Sen moves on from the constitutive importance of freedom to the intrinsic importance of freedom. He delineates freedom into its various realms namely social, political, and economical and cogently puts how expansion of freedom is at the same time “the end” we seek and “the means” to it. In this expanded and comprehensive perspective, previously unattended domains like Healthcare and education gets importance in the measurement of real development. Sen explains how expansion of freedom in one domain is instrumental in expanding the freedom of the other. In this context he notes how female literacy helps in bringing down fertility rates and stalls infant mortality, with persuasive samples of data from some Indian states like Kerala and Tamilnadu.

Once both the intrinsic and the constitutive importance of freedom are well established in the minds of the readers, Sen brings the notion of how democracy and market economics cater to the expansion of people’s capabilities. He draws examples of market reformation from the developing world (mainly India and China) to bring forth the merits and demerits of market economics and the need for state intervention in fields like education and Healthcare. He notes the importance of democracy and public discussion in bringing about social changes like reducing fertility in India or reducing the instances of famine. A whole insightful chapter has been dedicated to the study of how famines are entirely preventable if it is seen as the victim’s loss of capability to get proper food rather than just a reduction of national food-output. Any pessimism regarding the democratic situation in India melts away in these elegant passages. Sen ends his book with his “ideas of social justice” in which he vouches for a more practical view of justice by trying to remove manifest forms of injustice instead of focusing to form a ideally just society. In principle, the last chapter serves as an inadvertent prelude to his latest book “The Ideas of Justice” and gives us a glimpse of his latest work. Though Sen appeals for breaking away from the traditional perspective of development and start focusing on freedom and capabilities of people, he doesn’t provide us a concrete instrument to shape economic policies in this changed perspective. Or as Sen himself emphasizes in the preface of this book, the motive is not to make any serious judgements, but to initiate further public discussion in this regard. For without public discussion, Sen believes, we will never know what people want and value in their life.

The book shines as an important work in the literature of economics, but it is also written in a language easily accessible to layman. Sen’s lucid text never overwhelms itself and thus remaining comprehensible even when explaining the most intricate insights. The book can thus cater to a wide range of audience, including those who are not even remotely interested in economics. Policy makers can get some rare insights in dealing with problems facing democratic nations like corruption, famine, et al. Students of Economics and Development studies will find the book enlightening. In short, “Development as Freedom” is an essential read for policy makers and common man alike.

Nallasivan V

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