Sen's Sensibility | The Nation


Sen's Sensibility

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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.

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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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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.

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