Review – Development As Freedom

Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, provides a powerful argument that development and progress cannot be measured on the basis of economic output and consumption alone, that personal freedom is a very important and in some areas predominate variable in determining whether progress has been or will be made, and in defining what poverty truly is.

Amartya Sen chooses to describe poverty not as a lack of resources, but as a lack of freedoms. Those freedoms include choosing where to live and work, with whom to associate, freedom to choose our leaders and decide the rules we live by, and many others. This key point is useful in that it does not focus solely on maximization of wealth as a way out of poverty. The problem with poverty is not lack of money, but that lack of money means that people are not free to make their own way in life. They may be trapped being at the mercy of nature, an opressive government, or an economy cripled by bad policy. The conclusion therefore, is that money alone cannot fix the real problem. Government reform, economic liberalization, and the general increase of personal freedoms is the true end we are striving for. Increasing incomes is one of several necessary steps to be accomplished and not an end in and of itself.

Speaking as a non-economist, the introductory chapters were very informative on various economic theories including their positives and negatives as realted to Sen’s thesis, however, they were a bit dense. Once into the later part of the book where modern case studies and data illustrate his point, I found his argument very deep and interesting.

Sen addresses many concerns about the universality of human rights, “western” justice, corruption, viable institutions, and democratic government. Many people tend to either believe that almost no “western” values are transferrable to others, or they cannot comprehend why people could have any other value system. Sen, through examples and analogies that help you place yourself in others’ shoes, marches through all of these potential pitfals and describes how various diverse cultures and values systems still embrace the same freedoms when given the opportunity.

Sen’s thesis in this work is often reduced by others to simple phrases like “democracies never have famines” or other simplistic phrases that are not entirely accurate with what Sen is actually arguing. You can find exceptions to some of these simple summaries, but the whole of Sen’s argument remains very compelling describing the roles and responsibilities of individuals, institutions, and governments in achieving development and real progress.