The economic crisis has demolished some of the simplistic assumptions about self-regulating markets even as the old alternative of economic planning remains a proven failure. The world is eagerly seeking new ideas.
Amartya Sen—whose new book The Idea of Justice has recently been published—is a voice that is being heard.
European politicians from Gordon Brown to Nicolas Sarkozy are admirers. Brown’s Labour Party seems close to embracing one of Sen’s pet themes: capabilities.
Sen says societies should give importance to practical freedoms such as the ability to live a healthy life, get educated and participate in society rather than only on negative freedoms that ensure other humans or governments do not invade your life.
Sen also tries to move the inequality debate away from a tight focus on access to assets, income and commodities that the Left is obsessed with.
Sen realizes that the poor may be content in their sorry state; they respond to their deprivation by reducing their expectations from life. “The hopeless beggar, the precarious landless labourer, the dominated housewife, the hardened unemployed or the over-exhausted coolie may all take pleasure in small mercies, and manage to suppress intense suffering for the necessity of continuing survival, but it would be ethically deeply mistaken to attach a correspondingly small value to the less of their well-being,” Sen wrote in his book On Ethics and Economics.
These are concepts dogged by imprecision and relativity. It is not clear how these capabilities are to be provided and by whom. Some could misuse Sen as a cover to meddle heavily in the market process that delivers growth better than any other system.
Sen says that both “the state and the society cannot escape responsibility”. Here, there are echoes some of the more informed talk about inclusive growth in India, minus fiscal irresponsibility and populism. And what about our own Left?
As Sen notes in an interview to the New Statesman: “A party which has a real commitment to the underdogs of society should be worried that India has a higher proportion of undernourished kids than anywhere else in the world. Instead, the Left parties are concerned with whether India is losing its sovereignty by signing a contract with the US for a civil nuclear project.”
Are capabilities an excuse for governments meddling in the market? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org