There’s more to Amartya Sen (who turned 75 on Monday) than pamphleteering on the parlous condition of the poor. In these get-the-government-back times, his writings can teach a lesson or two on the subject.
In 1951, another Nobel Prize winner, Kenneth Arrow, wrote a famous impossibility theorem that showed voting cannot be used to create a “general will”. Only a dictatorship could meet Arrow’s criteria. Sen did much to weaken Arrow’s pessimistic result, showing when political choices can be coherent.
This qualified yes is, however, lost on our politicians as it is on Sen’s students and colleagues, among them Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The sorry shape of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (promoted, ironically, by another of Sen’s colleagues, Jean Dreze) and the waste of government resources meant for the poor show that his ideas are paid mere lip service. But that should not detract us from celebrating his formidable academic achievements coupled with concern for the poor and the underprivileged.