Sen's Sensibility | The Nation


Sen's Sensibility

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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.

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James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

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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.

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