Book Review: “Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen

What is a developed country? According to Sen, development should be measured by how much freedom a country has since without freedom people cannot make the choices that allow them to help themselves and others. He defines freedom as an interdependent bundle of:

1) political freedom and civil rights,
2) economic freedom including opportunities to get credit,
3) social opportunities: arrangements for health care, education, and other social services,
4) transparency guarantees, by which Sen means interactions with others, including the government, are characterized by a mutual understanding of what is offered and what to expect,
5) protective security, in which Sen includes unemployment benefits, famine and emergency relief, and general safety nets.

Respect for Local Decisions

By defining the level of development by how much the country has, Sen largely sidesteps a value judgment of what it means specifically to be a developed country – this isn’t the usual laundry list of Western institutions. It’s a bold statement – he gives the example of a hypothetical community deciding whether to disband their current traditions and increase lifespans. Sen states he would leave it up to the community and if they decide on shorter lifespans, in the full-freedom environment he imagines, this is perfectly consistent with the action of a fully developed country (although Sen doesn’t think anyone should have to chose between life and death – this is the reason for freedom 3). This also is an example of the inherent interrelatedness of Sen’s five freedoms – the community requires political freedom to discuss the issues, come to a conclusion and have it seen as legitimate, with social opportunities and education for people to engage in such a discussion.

Crucial Interrelatedness of the Freedoms

Sen is quite adamant that these five freedoms be implemented together and he makes an explicit case against the “Lee Thesis” – that economic growth must be secured in a developing country before other rights (such as political and civil rights) are granted. This is an important question among developing countries who see Singapore’s success as the model to follow. Sen notes that it is an unsettled empirical question whether or not authoritarian regimes produce greater economic growth, but he argues two points: that people’s welfare can be addressed best through a more democratic system (for which he sees education, health, security as requisite) since people are able to bring their needs to the fore; and that democratic accountability provides incentives for leaders to deal with issues of broad impact such as famines or natural catastrophes. His main example of the second point is that there has never been a famine under a democratic regime – it is not clear to me that this isn’t due to reasons other than the incentives of elected leaders (such as greater economic liberty), but whether or not there is a correlation is something the data can tell. Sen notes that democracies provide protective security and transparency (freedoms four and five) and this is a mechanism through which to avert things like the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Democratic governments also have issues with transparency but this seems to me an example of how democracy avoids really bad decisions even though it might not make the optimal choices. Danny Hillis explained why this is the case in his article How Democracy Works.

Choosing not to Choose (Revisited)

Sen reasons that since no tradition of suppressing individual communication exists, this freedom as not open to removal via community consensus. Sen also seems to assume that people won’t vote away their right to vote. He doesn’t deal with this possibility explicitly but this is what Lee Kuan Yew was afraid of – communists gaining power and being able to implement an authoritarian communist regime. Sen’s book was written in 1999 and doesn’t mention Islam or development in the Middle Eastern context, so he never grapples with the issues like the rise of Shari’a Law in developing countries such as Somalia. I blogged about the paradox of voting out democracy in Choosing not to Choose in the context of the proposed repeal of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities and the removal of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006. I suspect Sen’s prescription in Turkey would be to let the local government decide on the legality of headscarves in universities (thus the ban would be repealed), and implement all five forms of freedom in Somalia and thus explicitly reject an authority like the UIC.

The Internet

Sen doesn’t mention the internet but what is fascinating is that communication technologies are accelerating the adoption of at least some of Sen’s 5 freedoms, particularly where the internet is creating a new mechanism for free speech and political liberty that is nontrivial for governments to control. The internet seems poised to grant such rights directly, and can indirectly bring improvements to positive rights such as education and transparency (see for example and The Transparent Federal Budget Project). Effective mechanisms for voices to be heard and issues to be raised are implicit in Sen’s analysis.

What Exactly is Sen Suggesting We Measure?

Sen subjects his proposed path to development, immediately maximizing the amount of freedoms 1 through 5, to some empirical scrutiny throughout the text but he doesn’t touch on how exactly to measure how far freedom has progressed. He suggests longevity, health care, education are important factors and I assume he would include freedom of speech, openness of the media, security, and government corruption metrics but these are notoriously hard to define and measure (and measuring longevity actually runs counter to Sen’s example of the hypothetical community above… but Sen strongly rejects the argument that local culture can permit abridgment of any of his 5 freedoms, particularly the notion that some cultures are simply suited to authoritarian rule). The World Bank compiles a statistical measurement of the rule of law, corruption, freedom of speech and others, that gets close to some of the components in Sen’s definition of freedom. This also opens the question of what is appropriate to measure when defining freedom. And whether it is possible to have meaningful metrics for concepts like the rule of law or democracy.

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility in decision making.

Crossposted in Victoria Stodden

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One Response to “Book Review: “Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen”

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