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Sen's Sensibility | The Nation

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Sen's Sensibility

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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.

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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 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.

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