Amartya Sen - Power and Capability; Development as Freedom
As Amartya Sen took the stage to speak, his slight frame and gentle manner seemed to belie a force of intellectual rigor. A Nobel laureate for his work on economics, Sen pioneered the idea that development is ultimately about freedom. The freedom to choose one's life course and the capability to take advantage of that freedom.
Freedom has many dimensions. In his view, it is among the most feared of human conditions. Precisely because those in authority often fear the freedom of their citizens and the limitations it could bring to their own power. The fear leads to what Sen called "unfreedoms", or injustices, for others.
He urged the audience to take a more pragmatic approach and seek out injustices and use the power we have to challenge them. Currently, Sen said, we focused too much on just institutions to mediate a just society. To illustrate his point that economic and social advantage is reflected in capabilities (what one can do measured against the things that one values), Sen introduced the concept of the conversion handicap - the cost of converting income into a good living. A disabled person not only faces additional challenges in raising an income, but the cost of living is also higher. As such, the sole focus on income as an indicator of economic justice is inadequate.
Speaking about the shortcomings of GDP as an indicator of development, Sen suggested that individual characteristics such as biological makeup, circumstances, gender, talents, as well as the extent of pollution and local crime often impinge on human freedom in ways which are more significant that economic inequalities. When asked for his opinion on bankers, Sen appeared to be single-minded. With greater economic power comes greater responsibility, he said, and the state must have a role to play in redistribution through progressive taxation.
For economists and those interested in development, Sen's words present a significant challenge. How do we develop public policies that lead to human freedom and challenge 'unfreedoms'? Here challenging economic inequality is the start, not an end in itself.
TJN adds: from his book Development as Freedom, Sen summarises:
"Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers - perhaps even the majority - of people."