Reason to battle the odds

Rationality and Freedom
July 25, 2003

John Dunn ponders an economist's philosophy of freedom.

What we need if we are to be free, and what it is reasonable for us to do, are weighty questions in all but the most blighted of human lives. What freedom means or rationality requires remain as hard to understand and as difficult to judge in practice as they have ever been.

The challenge to grasp both and to interpret the practical demands of each is still more severe when we think and act together well beyond the scope of our own individual lives, in settings that necessarily affect huge numbers of other human beings. Involuntary servitude we now consider a crime, though we continue to disagree even in theory whether voluntary servitude is a scandal evincing aberrant personal tastes, or necessarily discloses a corrosion of the will that can only be the product of malign political, economic or social forces acting on an individual at earlier points in their life.

Few would look to an economist for guidance on what it means for an individual to be free. But the economics profession has clearly won, for better or worse, a uniquely prominent and drastically consequential role in interpreting the requirements for freedom in the interactions between very large numbers of human beings in today's world. More elusively, it has also developed over the past three centuries to quite a large degree by sustained reflection on the nature of practical rationality. Amartya Sen is a most unusual economist in several respects. But he is most distinctive in the steadiness of his determination to grasp the relation between these two historical guises of economics: its external political exposure and engagement and its internal intellectual dynamics.

Rationality and Freedom is a demanding book. Large parts of it are simply beyond anyone innumerate or ill at ease with formal reasoning. It is also a work of striking intellectual ambition and unusual intellectual patience, tensely engaged in many different struggles and on a wide variety of levels. What it offers is not a set of simple and readily portable conclusions, or a means for reconciling the reader to a devastatingly imperfect historical world, but a sustained effort to clarify where the main imperfections come from, and what could, in principle, be done to alleviate them. It has at least two core assumptions.

One is that this is very far from being the best of all possible worlds: that it could be quite obviously, and relatively readily, improved in an endless variety of ways, while no doubt remaining tenaciously inclined (and equipped) to resist such improvement. So seen, that world very much remains the site of a vast burden of suffering, imposed or secured not simply by intellectual error or confusion but also by very active and malign power.

The second assumption is that the modern profession of economics - for all the intellectual energy and skill it displays and the cumulative sophistication of its intellectual products - has proved an unreliable contributor to that task of improvement. Part of that deficit is external: a familiar process of corruption than can infect any consequential human activity, from simple openness to being suborned by power and wealth and placing itself docilely at their service. But part, more intriguingly, is relatively internal, a matter of the imaginative shaping and consequent format of professional economic thinking, the assumptions it comes to encode, the structures it erects on the basis of those assumptions and the consequent resources that its practitioners have at their disposal.

While he always worked on other fields, Sen initially made his wider reputation through his contributions to the theory of social choice, a subject with a grand past that reaches back over the centuries to Condorcet and beyond, rejuvenated in the early 1950s by a single dazzling intellectual result, discovered by the young Kenneth Arrow.

Rationality and Freedom covers many topics. But almost all of it can aptly be read as an extended commentary on the intellectual implications of Arrow's impossibility theorem and the interpretation of these that Arrow first offered in Social Choice and Individual Values in 1951 and in its second edition in 1963. The final section of Rationality and Freedom consists of three lectures, named after and delivered in celebration of Arrow at Stanford University a dozen years ago, on Freedom and Social Choice.

Arrow's result was initially puzzling. Simply conceived, it was that there cannot be a single method for taking social choices that yields a clear and stable outcome and, at the same time, satisfies a small number of plausible and apparently undemanding requirements. Its discovery was especially disconcerting for practitioners of welfare economics (virtually all of whom then assumed something rather different). Its practical implications remain puzzling to this day. They certainly should not lead us, as Sen insists, to see ourselves as "at the edge of a precipice, trying to determine whether it is at all 'possible' for us to hang on". But they do demand a resolute attempt to judge "the relative importance of disparate considerations that pull us in different directions in evaluating" different choice procedures.

Rationality and Freedom is just such an attempt. How successfully Sen himself clarifies why these requirements pull against each other as forcefully as they do is for other social choice theorists to judge. Where he places a much wider audience unmistakably in his debt is in the scale of his efforts to show the rest of us what stake we have in the matter.

It would be possible to see these efforts as a process of simple reinforcement, in which early display of enviable abilities attracted wide admiration and applause, and built an increasingly dazzling career, culminating in the Nobel prize, the grandest of Harvard chairs and the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. So seen, it would have been a matter of little (if any) consequence that Sen came initially from India, the second most populous country in the world, with its stunning weight of poverty, misery and degradation, or that his thinking as an economist has continued to focus on that crushing burden throughout his professional life. The experience of India can hardly be a direct aid in grasping the logic of social choice. But what it could offer - and what Sen has taken from it over the decades with remarkable courage and composure - is a rich and differentiated sensitisation to the human implications of framing understanding of economic processes and causalities in one way rather than another.

This, in a more intuitive and rhetorically flamboyant form, was one of Keynes' great gifts; but it is not a natural product of a modern professional formation as an economist, and perhaps could never become one.

It guarantees no special insight into what causes economies to work well or badly from their human participants' viewpoint. But it does make possible a more realistic, less inadvertently callous, recognition of the consequences of their doing so.

Even this would be of restricted value to others, if it merely amounted to the development of a particularly refined individual sensibility, a personal calibration of the distributed pain and frustration of vast numbers of other people. Sen is a deliberately dry writer and far from being a sentimentalist. He does not believe in wringing his hands. It is a mark of the Indian sources of that sensibility that his most elaborate inquiries into economic causality should have focused on famine and the conditions under which human beings die because they cannot secure enough food to remain alive - one of the most heavily contested battlegrounds in the shaping of classical economics. But however local the source of that initial preoccupation, the conclusions he has drawn from his studies over the decades have been as ecumenical as any economist could hope for. They underline the contribution of political openness or closure, and the drastic distributive consequences of the structuring of social relations.

The resulting vision is synoptic and global in its scope to a degree that no other living economist can quite match. It is unsurprising that it should have caught the attention, sympathetic and otherwise, of fellow Indians, and equally unsurprising that it should have made little permanent dent in the economic agendas of successive US administrations. What is remarkable, however, is that it should have lodged as definitely as it has in the practical thinking of some of the great coordinating agencies of global capitalism, not least the World Bank. As a public intellectual campaign, conducted in a global political and economic arena, it is extraordinarily impressive for its continuity, its depth, and its steadiness of purpose.

Harvard University Press is a grand publisher, and Harvard is not merely by far the richest university in the world, but also (not least in its own eyes) much the greatest. Sen has lived his adult intellectual life in exalted company, come to belong to a global intellectual patriciate and become colleague and friend of the leading economists, and (at least among the anglophones) the leading moral and political philosophers, of his generation: John Rawls, Arrow, Robert Nozick, Bernard Williams, and a host of others.

With its companion volume Freedom and Justice, Sen's book summarises decades of extremely successful work, much of it done at the university to which he is now returning. Where better could there be to carry on that public intellectual campaign? It would be nice to believe that his return might even marginally improve the chances for it to affect the economic agenda of a US administration.

To ask for that at present may seem asking for the moon; there are obtrusive practical limits to anyone's intellectual efficacy. The external elements in the history of economics vary greatly in their impact on its internal intellectual dynamics. But it need be no surprise that for most of the time they tend to dominate the practical upshot of those dynamics. The dignity and courage of Sen's campaign, however cunningly conducted, must trade off all along the line against the prospects for its success.

But how could that be a reason for not waging it? Economics used to be a branch of moral and political thought, usually with quite overt political ambitions. For Sen, in large measure, that is what it clearly still is. The result impresses some economists more than it impresses others. To the rest of us it offers a special opportunity to get into clearer perspective quite what it is that economics as a professional practice is doing to the world in which we all now have to live.

John Dunn is fellow of King's College and professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Rationality and Freedom

Author - Amartya Sen
ISBN - 0 674 00947 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 736

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