Human Capability and Global Need

By Amartya Sen

Knopf. 366 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Joshua Muravchik

People have argued about the priority of physical and spiritual needs as far back as Moses's admonition to the Israelites that "man doth not live by bread only." In modern times this debate has often focused on the relation between political liberty and economic rewards.

Communists and various Third World socialist regimes advanced the claim that a full belly was more valuable than a free election or a free press. Eventually, this approach was discredited by the failure of collectivist dictatorships to produce the material benefits they had promised. However, the underlying "bread first" idea soon reemerged in capitalist form. The economic growth achieved in the 1970s and 1980s by Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and to some extent Chile was held to demonstrate that poor countries could achieve prosperity through free markets upheld by authoritarian rule.

On the other side, advocates of "freedom first" pointed to the spread of democracy across Europe and Latin America and into significant parts of East Asia and Africa as demonstrating that people of many cultures and circumstances, not just the affluent West, desire self-rule and are capable of it.

This camp has been strengthened further by research showing that democracies do not go to war with one another. Thus, beyond its intrinsic value, democracy can claim an important derivative benefit. More recently, Amartya Sen, an Indian-born professor at Cambridge and Harvard who won the 1998 Nobel prize in economics, has advanced the striking observation that no famine has ever occurred in a democracy. So far no one has produced an example to refute him.

Now, in his new book, Sen attempts to carry the argument a big step further. Not only is political liberty compatible with economic progress, as he sees it, but our whole concept of "development" should be recast to get away from narrowly economic criteria. It should be seen instead "as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy." In addition to being inherently desirable, freedom conduces to economic betterment because free people will fight for policies that benefit them. It is even essential, he says, to defining economic goals, since only in open discourse can people discover their wants.

Sen is at his best in rebutting the claim, advanced by a convenient marriage of leftist and rightist dictators, that "Asian values" are antithetical to individual liberty. "These justifications of authoritarianism have typically come not from independent historians but from the authorities themselves," he says. In contrast, when the people of Burma were given a chance to vote in 1990, they opted for the democratic course proposed by Aung San Suu Kyi, just as in 1977 the people of India had rejected the repressive state of "emergency" imposed by Indira Gandhi. In a particularly interesting discussion, he cites liberal elements in Buddhist, Confucian, Kautilyan, Islamic and ancient Indian thought and points out that liberalism in the West emerged out of alloy with contrary elements, as in Greek philosophy's justifications of slavery.

I should confess here that, having devoted many of my professional energies to studying and advocating democracy, I am on Sen's side in this. I wish I could report that I found the book as a whole compelling. The first problem is that the writing is hard to follow. Terms are repeated rather than explained. Many things are said to be "connected," "related," "interconnected," and "interrelated" without the exact nature of those relationships being specified. Odd coinages serve no evident purpose: Where he means social security or social welfare, Sen instead uses "protective security." Some sentences seem banal. Do we need to be told that "People suffer from hunger when they cannot establish their entitlement over an adequate amount of food"? And jargon abounds. Here is an example: "Even when each person's preference is taken to be the ultimate arbiter of the well-being for that person, even when everything other than well-being (such as freedom) is ignored, and even when -- to take a very special case -- everyone has the same demand function or preference map, the comparison of market valuations of commodity bundles (or their relative placement on a shared system-of-indifference map in the commodity space) tells us little about interpersonal comparisons."

The infelicity of the prose seems to reflect a lack of clarity in the ideas. Take "freedom" itself. This is the book's central concept. Sen uses it to encompass a host of things: democracy, political and civil rights, economic opportunity, social welfare, the absence of corruption in government, equality, liberal social mores and more. Linguistically, we can place the words "the freedom to" before any desideratum, but how can we then make freedom a meaningful measurement of development? Don't we merely invite a plethora of contradictions among conflicting "freedoms"?

For example, Sen repeatedly says that American blacks are deprived of "the freedom to live long" because they have shorter life expectancy than citizens of China or Kerala, India, who are much poorer. But the sources he cites for these data list smoking, alcohol consumption, overweight and cholesterol as factors elevating black mortality rates. Are the people of China and India "freer" because they have less opportunity for self-indulgence? Conversely, China's dramatic rise in life expectancy occurred before Deng Xiaoping's reforms, during Mao's totalitarian rule. Was "freedom" advancing then? We do not strengthen the case for freedom by calling all desirable things by its name. We only empty a precious term of meaning.

Sen has already made a noteworthy contribution to the democratic cause. Development as Freedom, alas, adds little to it.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.