Amartya Sen – Development as Freedom

Political modernization for Samuel Huntington involved the creation of political institutions designed to facilitate the professionalization and organization necessary for an expanded role of governance. Note it is the institutions which are central for political modernization. Political parties, for example, became vehicles for mass political participation not just within democracies but even within nondemocratic political systems. Institutions are the foundations of the social infrastructure, so political institutions lay the foundations for a political infrastructure.

Amartya Sen helps explain how economic modernization depends on the development of key components for an economic infrastructure. Improvements within education and health care are not simply expenses. For countries who face the challenge of modernization, they become investments into the economic infrastructure which pay strong dividends through economic development. His insights build on the traditional recognition of the role of law within the development of capitalism and the market economy. The consistent application of law was necessary for economic modernization. This isn’t anything new. Nearly all economists and historians accept this as historical fact. But Amartya Sen takes it to its next logical conclusion. He sees modernization as the development of multiple components necessary for its emergence.

In 1998 Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in economics because he found democracies avoided famines. Governments who are accountable to their people find ways to deliver food before starvation occurs. Famine is a political outcome where governments fail to commit the resources for its avoidance. I do not want to get into the specifics of his economic work. Rather I want to highlight how Sen interweaves ideas from economics and political science into something new. He is trained as an economist but is regarded as a dominant influence within political science as well.

But he does not simply interweave ideas. He sees the economic development and political development as interrelated. It is easy to see the influence of Lipset who saw a correlation between economic development and the proliferation of democracy. But Huntington may be a closer influence. Huntington turned Lipset’s insight around and redefined political modernization as an independent phenomenon. Sen ties the two together. He sees political modernization as a necessity for economic modernization.

Of course, political modernization does not require democratization. Indeed, Sen finds China has often done a superior job over India in its investments in human capital. These investments in education and health care were integral to its economic revitalization whereas India was left behind for decades. But it is helpful to recognize it takes a modern political system to coordinate these investments. Traditional political institutions lacked the capacity and organization to make these investments into human capital.

An American audience may refer to Development as Freedom as a justification for a left-wing political agenda. But Amartya Sen does not justify any form of social expense as an investment. Indeed, there is an enormous difference between the gains within the developing world and the developed world. Nonetheless, there are communities where an increase in social spending may deliver an economic investment. But too often economic programs within the United States are designed to benefit the middle class rather than the communities left behind by economic modernization. The developed world must consider how their investments in human capital will translate into the wider economic infrastructure.

Finally, Amartya Sen transforms his economic insights into an ethical commitment. The book is titled Development as Freedom. He does not simply see the Third World as an economic challenge. It is an ethical dilemma. People who lack economic opportunities also lack a freedom. They do not have the choice to control their own destiny. Because opportunity offers choice. There is a freedom within economic opportunity. Amartya Sen believes economic development delivers greater freedom for those who it benefits. And the aspirations of economic development cannot simply be the economic well-being of its beneficiaries but their overall well-being. Investments into education and health care are valuable for the benefits they confer on their own terms. Amartya Sen reduces economics to a component of human development.

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