Some years ago, I had the good fortune to befriend an extended family who lived in a poor shantytown in the southern reaches of Santiago, Chile. I got to know the Gamboas through their oldest son, Luis, a bricklayer in his 20s who had invited me out to meet them within minutes of our acquaintance. His mother, Señora Hortensia, was the titular head of the family, but its de facto leader was the eldest unmarried daughter, an extraordinary woman in her early 40s named Maria Eugenia, or Maru.

Maru worked seventy-two hours a week in a garment factory on the other side of Santiago, sewing sleeves onto blouses. She earned $50 a month. She also brought home extra piecework, and after helping to cook and clean she would sit at her own sewing machine for a couple more hours each evening, talking to the stream of younger siblings, nieces and nephews who lived nearby and stopped by for visits.

Maru had been a full-time seamstress since she was 13 years old. She had been doing well in school, but then Señor Gamboa was injured on his construction job, so she was forced to work. Luis told me that ten years earlier Maru had been saliendo, going out, with a young man. But her long working hours interfered with the relationship. It gave Luis great pain to realize that it had become too late for his sister to start a family of her own.

If you asked Maru Gamboa if she was “happy” she would answer yes. She would look at the growing Gamboa clan, at her younger brothers and sisters, now helping her to support the family, at the little nieces and nephews who adore her, at her thankful mother, and she would feel that she was at the center of a circle of love that many people here in the North, in our world of far-flung and sometimes broken nuclear families, might envy.

How would economic philosophy interpret the life of Maru Gamboa? A conventional “free market” economist (or an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal) would not be interested in her at all. Such people simply want to know a couple of statistics: per capita income and the rate of economic growth. The US press runs regular stories extolling what it sometimes calls the Chilean economic miracle. These glowing accounts disregard the two ferocious recessions in the first decade or so of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, after the 1973 coup in which he seized power. But the reports also pay little attention to how Chile’s economic growth in the nineties has been distributed.

Economists in the utilitarian tradition would listen to Maru Gamboa but mainly do a calculus of her mental satisfaction. They would take notice of her worries about her low pay and the family’s chronic debt (the Gamboas still owed on a small shop their father set up after he was disabled and before he died), but they would also note approvingly that she was content, even happy, amid her large family.

By contrast, libertarians would not care about her subjective feelings. They would want to know about the formal political and economic rules that governed Maru’s life. They would disapprove of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the more honest among them would recognize that its undemocratic legacy is still a big part of Chilean life today. But they would approve–heartily–of the “free market” conditions they say now prevail in the country.

None of these approaches come close to capturing the complexity of the life of Maria Eugenia Gamboa. Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, has spent decades earnestly, vigorously and with increasing success trying to challenge economists and others to come up with better ways to analyze human welfare. Sen’s work is indispensable to understanding how to confront the number-one problem in the world today: glaring, and increasing, global inequality. Development as Freedom is Sen’s first extended effort to reach a general audience. Its contents were originally lectures and shorter essays, and it is consequently somewhat repetitive and choppy, in places dry and dense. Another problem is that Sen has made so many original contributions, from his theory of why famines happen to his demographic discovery of “missing women” as a sign of gender inequality, that attempting to stuff so many into a single book was probably unwise. But despite the problems, his basic message–informed, insightful, compassionate and optimistic–does shine through, a summary of the work still very much in progress of one of the most important thinkers of our time.

Amartya Sen is something of an unlikely challenger to orthodoxy. He is by training a neoclassical academic economist. He has been amused to discover people who even thought there were two of him–the Amartya Sen whose colleagues elected him president of the Econometric Society, whose members speak to one another in mathematical equations, and the Amartya Sen who passionately insists that famines in the Third World are not caused by actual shortages of food.

But Sen is also heir to another tradition, the rich intellectual heritage of Bengal, the region of South Asia that is today divided between India and Bangladesh, an area that has given us the great poet, writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the powerful humanistic filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992).

Events in his youth in Bengal, before he went to Oxford, Harvard and eventually Cambridge to study and teach, affected Sen deeply. In Development as Freedom he describes his awful experience as a 10-year-old child, when a Muslim laborer named Kader Mia staggered into the Sen family garden and died after Hindu extremists knifed him. Sen has never let his long sojourn in the West or his immersion in his beloved economic equations erase his memory of Kader Mia.

The young Amartya Sen also lived through the terrible Bengal famine of 1943, and that experience helped inspire Poverty and Famines (1981), which started to win him attention beyond the economics profession. His analysis of famines, summarized in an excellent chapter in Development as Freedom, is counterintuitive. The cause of widespread starvation seems obvious: A drought in Africa, or a tidal wave or flooding in South Asia, dramatically reduces the supply of food. But Sen found that once he looked closely at real famines, they did not follow such causal patterns.

Take the Bangladesh famine of 1974. Sen discovered that it “occurred in a year of greater food availability per head than in any other year between 1971 and 1976.” What actually happened was that the floods that year hit rural landless laborers indirectly. Because they had no land, all their income came from transplanting rice for others. The floods prevented them from earning the meager amount that kept their families alive in most years. There did turn out to be enough food in Bangladesh that year, but the rural poor could not afford to buy it.

Sen points out, chillingly, that large famines can strike down thousands of human beings without anyone’s formal libertarian rights being violated. No dictator stole food from the Bangladeshi poor in 1974. The normal functioning of the economy, with property rights respected, led to their deaths.

Sen has also studied the world population “problem,” a consideration of certain economists since the time of Malthus. His findings here (consistent with others in the field) are an extension of his work on famines; he is certain there is no overall world food shortage today, and there will not be one for the foreseeable future. More than ever, Sen’s findings should force us to recognize that the “population explosion” alarmists (who just got another chance to shudder as the world’s total passed 6 billion) are motivated by a combination of fear, guilt and old-fashioned Western elitism, disguised as scientific concern.

World food production, Sen shows, has more than surpassed the amount needed for a population whose rate of growth is declining dramatically just about everywhere. Many people (1.3 billion by one count) are hungry because they do not command enough economic power to obtain food, either by growing or buying it. In fact, Sen makes an extraordinary but persuasive assertion: World food production would increase even more if those more than 1 billion poor had more purchasing power, because they would bid up prices and stimulate even greater supply.

Sen has also been influential in studying gender and economic development. He is best known in this area for his thesis of the “missing women.” In the West, women outnumber men by a ratio of about 105 to 100. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, the ratio still favors women, but by smaller margins. He explains that these ratios are normal, because there is strong evidence that women survive slightly longer than men, given equal care.

But in other parts of Asia, like China and much of India, and in North Africa, males outnumber females. In Pakistan, for instance, the ratio is as bad as 100 men to ninety women. The places with fewer females coincide with areas where the status of women is particularly low, because of a combination of historic, economic and cultural factors. Sen contends that more than 100 million women are “missing” and that occasional accounts of female infanticide are not enough of an explanation. He asserts that “the main culprit would seem to be the comparative neglect of female health and nutrition especially–but not exclusively–during childhood.”

Amartya Sen’s insights about famine and female deprivation helped him come up with his concept of a person’s “capabilities”–by which he means “the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value.” At various places Sen describes these freedoms, which include the ability to acquire sufficient food, freedom from disease and ill treatment, access to education, freedom from social exclusion, freedom to participate in the life of the community, freedom from unemployment. He even cites Adam Smith (who Sen says is not the cold, one-dimensional economic man that today’s Smithians revere) as insisting on a person’s right to clothing that will allow him to appear in public without shame.

Sen’s list of freedoms is broad and somewhat fuzzy, probably necessarily so, because he is trying to recognize human complexity instead of focusing on a single variable, like income, or a subjective indicator, like a person’s sense of his or her own well-being. The capability concept is particularly useful because it helps capture both a sense of potential and of unnecessary loss. Those landless laborers who died in Bangladesh in the 1974 famine did not have the freedom to find work to sustain themselves and their families–although there was more than enough food for them. Those little girls who are dying in South Asia are not free enough from disease and malnutrition to choose the kind of lives they might have had–although boys in even the same families have slightly more freedom to survive.

The capability concept also applies to my Chilean friend Maria Eugenia Gamboa. Maru may be happy, much of the time, but she has not been free. She lived (for seventeen years) under a military dictatorship that prevented her from organizing with others to work less than seventy-two hours a week for more than $50 a month.

Amartya Sen characterizes freedom as a primary value, not just as a means to achieve some other end. So Maria Eugenia Gamboa also did not, for instance, have the freedom to openly play cassette tapes by Victor Jara, the great Chilean folk singer whom the Pinochet dictatorship executed just after the 1973 coup. Instead, she and her neighbors hid inside on the nights when the military patrols hissed down their unpaved streets. Thus, even if her income had not grown, Sen recognizes, she would have had more freedom if she had been able to play those tapes without fear–and he refuses to say that one dimension of freedom is more important than another.

Sen also tries to take account of the role of psychological adjustment, particularly among the most deprived. Simply to use Maru’s frame of mind as a guide is insufficient; like any of us, she would bring her day-to-day expectations into line with reality, never considering, for instance, telling strangers what she really thought of General Pinochet. So, all along, she had been robbed of fulfilling her capability to be a free, outspoken member of a society, a citizen among citizens. And she also had the capability to be a wife and mother herself, but she was not free to experience it due to the harsh economic environment. Sen’s struggle over the years with the complexities of freedom in the lives of real people is attracting a growing number of economists and philosophers to the search.

One of Sen’s greatest strengths is that he proves that the various elements of freedom are so interconnected that you cannot give some of them priority over others. He takes dead aim at the concept of “Asian values,” the argument, sometimes associated with Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian leader of Singapore, that economic growth requires harsh, almost military discipline and that political rights are a luxury that a society can afford only after its economy has grown. This argument has a long and ugly history; it was once used to justify repression in the Soviet Union and the old Eastern bloc, and today Western multinationals employ it to defend mainland China.

Sen uses his knowledge of famines as part of his campaign to disprove this obnoxious view. He asserts flatly, “Famines are extremely easy to prevent if the government tries to prevent them, and a government in a multiparty democracy with elections and free media has strong political incentives to undertake famine prevention.” He shows how the famines that hit India in his youth have ended since independence in 1947. Now, an Indian press is free to report on the danger, pressuring the government into action. Press freedom is not simply a luxury affordable in rich countries but a matter of life and death in poor ones.

Underlying Amartya Sen’s philosophy is a universalist presumption, “a belief in the ability of different people from different cultures to share many common values and to agree on some common commitments,” such as “the overriding value of freedom.” He uses a powerful example from India. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi seized emergency powers, claiming she needed them to accelerate economic growth. She called a sudden election in 1977, expecting that voters would endorse her drastic moves. Instead, Indians overwhelmingly repudiated her. Sen says that “the Indian electorate–one of the poorest in the world–showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty.” In June this year, voters in Indonesia further confirmed Sen’s view, decisively rejecting the heirs of the Suharto dictatorship, which had ruled them for more than three decades.

Development as Freedom does have one major weakness: Sen does not take account of the huge global enterprises that dominate the world economy today. He insists that freedom of transaction is a basic liberty, quite apart from its positive impact on growth, arguing that “the freedom to exchange words, or goods, or gifts does not need defensive justification in terms of their favorable but distant effects; they are part of the way human beings in society live and interact with each other.”

Such a defense of trade on a human scale is persuasive. But Sen surely knows that we live in a world in which, as the United Nations reported in 1996, the assets of the planet’s 358 billionaires exceed the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people. These billionaires use instruments like hedge funds, international banks and multinational corporations, and they have great influence over governments, in the West and everywhere else. What they do has tremendous impact on the capabilities and freedoms of people like Maria Eugenia Gamboa.

First, and most obvious, the United States and other Western governments supported the Pinochet dictatorship, and international financial institutions and banks funded the general with billions of dollars in loans. The Chilean people finally forced Pinochet to relinquish power in 1990, but they are still vulnerable to overnight changes in the flow of international funds, as Mexicans, Thais and Indonesians have discovered while they suffer through catastrophic recessions. Chile’s semidemocratic governments have put in place some safeguards against the most abrupt kinds of international economic pressure, but the country could still get sucked into a worldwide implosion that would begin elsewhere, like the disaster the US hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management nearly triggered in the fall of 1998.

Yet, also, Maria Eugenia Gamboa works in a garment industry that is increasingly global. Wages around the world are not set predominantly by free working people bargaining for their rights. Even if the Socialist Ricardo Lagos becomes the next president of Chile, people like Maru Gamboa will still be competing with other women, and even children, elsewhere in the world, people in factories in southern China who cannot vote or speak out but whose products are freely on sale in the West. The international economic system continues to reach right into Maru Gamboa’s neighborhood, conscripting her as a low-paid seamstress. Amartya Sen’s efforts to increase her freedoms must confront that hard fact.