The ethical economist

October 4, 1996

Andrew Robinson and Michael Prest profile Amartya Sen, the economist whose concern for justice stands out in a profession often obsessed with efficiency.

With nearly 20 books, innumerable public lectures and some 30 honorary degrees to his credit, Amartya Sen is a thinker no economist or anyone excited by ideas can ignore. His career has spanned three continents - Asia, Europe and North America (where he was the first non-American president of the American Economic Association) - and his work has covered several of the central issues in economics. Few economists would be surprised if he won a Nobel prize.

Sen is "the conscience of the economics profession", says Nobel laureate Robert Solow, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Economists are very good at thinking about the 'efficiency' of economic arrangements," Solow explains. "Since we are good at thinking about efficiency we think about it all the time and write papers about minor differences in efficiency. Now efficiency has nothing to do with equity: an arrangement can be efficient while it starves some part of the population. Everyone is aware of the paradoxical character of this obsession with efficiency and inattention to equity. But most of us go on doing what we know how to do. Amartya has insisted that the profession should at least face squarely the ethical consequences of what it does. I don't think he pretends to have 'solved' the problems of equity that arise. But he tries to get his economist readers not to walk by them without a glance."

Sen is more than just an economist however. He has also published significantly in philosophy and regards his work in economics and philosophy as inextricably joined. Kenneth Arrow, professor of economics at Stanford University, another Nobel laureate, remarks that Sen has offered "a thorough analysis of the concepts of inequality among individuals. He has in the process studied more fully the notion of rationality so basic to economic analysis and increasingly to political analysis. I have learnt much from him."

The urge not to specialise came from Sen's childhood education. He was the son of a professor of chemistry and the grandson of a distinguished Sanskrit scholar (whose Hinduism, translated from Bengali by his grandson in 1960 and published by Penguin, remains a bestseller). His father was at the University of Dhaka, capital of what is now Bangladesh, where the young Amartya, born in 1933, spent most of his first eight years. Then he moved to live with his grandfather at the rural school and university founded by Rabindranath Tagore in West Bengal at Shantiniketan, about 100 miles from Calcutta. Although Tagore had died the previous year, his polymathic influence permeated everything. Like Dartington, the institution in England inspired by Tagore, Shantiniketan students were encouraged to feel that there was more to life than academic success. The emphasis was on the arts and on personal development; Sen enjoyed starting a night school to teach local Santhal villagers the three R's, thus foreshadowing his adult concern with literacy programmes. Shantiniketan, he says, "was rather important in making me wide-eyed about having a variety in one's life."

Soon after he arrived there, aged eight, he had an experience which gored him. "A very skinny man appeared in our school compound behaving in a deranged way." Over the days that followed, ten, then a thousand, then countless emaciated people tottered into the university campus. "It is hard to forget the sight of thousands of shrivelled people - begging feebly, suffering atrociously, and dying quietly." Meanwhile no one he knew personally, "in the sense of belonging to the same class or family", was short of food: "they hadn't the slightest problem in continuing to live as they had before". In Calcutta it was the same: he saw thousands of village people dying in the streets, while the life of the city was basically unaffected. This catastrophe, the great Bengal famine of 1943-44, with its shocking contrasts, was a strong spur to Sen's taking up economics.

All his adult life, Sen, a small, spare, energetic figure, has been restlessly on the move - both intellectually and physically (he is an indefatigable traveller). The beginnings of this inner drive can even be dated. In 1952, at the age of 18, while studying for his BA at the University of Calcutta, Sen discovered he had cancer of the mouth. He was treated with a massive dose of radiation, the maximum then permissible. "It was an exercise in brinkmanship," he says, which barred him from eating solid food for five months. He was told there was a high probability of a relapse within five years. "Of course it affected my psychology. It was part of the reason for my always being in a rush."

At Presidency College, then Calcutta's leading college, he received a superb technical training in economics and developed the talent for mathematical reasoning that has ensured professional respect for his work even from economists suspicious of his interest in ethical issues. Then, in 1953, he migrated to the University of Cambridge, where he gained his PhD (supervised by Joan Robinson) and became a fellow of Trinity College in 1957.

His subsequent institutional career has been as varied as his interests. He had a spell in India from 1963-71 at the Delhi School of Economics, and helped to make it India's leading centre for economics. Then he returned to Britain, to the London School of Economics, before moving to Oxford in 1977, latterly as Drummond professor of political economy and fellow of All Souls College. Finally, in 1988, he deserted the dreaming spires for the delights of Harvard Yard, where he is both Lamont university professor and professor of economics and philosophy - a combination which is perhaps possible only in America.

Throughout, Sen has kept his Indian citizenship, unlike some of his economist colleagues. "I love being in India," he says, "and in fact after my undergraduate days have never been away from India for more than six months at a stretch. But I also like the academic life in a more severe atmosphere, whether it be Oxford, the LSE or Harvard" - not to mention the convenience of western living (including the specialised medical treatment he needs because of his radiation history), and the fact that his wife, the historian of economic thought Emma Rothschild, is based in Cambridge (England) and some of his children live abroad (he is divorced from his first wife, the Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev, and his second, Italian wife, Eva Colorni, died in 1985). This bicultural arrangement allows him to immerse himself properly in the part of his work - two-thirds, he estimates - that does not directly concern India, while keeping in close contact with his Indian projects.

His work on social choice theory - how social decisions can take note of individual values - is part of that two-thirds. In the early 1950s, he read Kenneth Arrow's recently published Social Choice and Individual Values and became "besotted" by it. Arrow investigated how, in western democracies, different individual preferences can be combined into a collective judgement. His celebrated "impossibility theorem" showed that only four apparently quite reasonable conditions (such as that there are no restrictions on the way in which people rank different alternatives) make the reaching of consistent collective judgements impossible. A well-known example is the paradox of majority voting whereby, in a majority vote for, say, the US capital, Washington would be beaten by Boston, Boston would be beaten by Chicago, but, in a vote between Washington and Chicago, Washington would win.

Sen both extended Arrow's impossibility theorem and, further, showed ways of resolving the conflict through the use of richer information about individual preferences.

In the standard economic view of preference, that of Paul Samuelson, "the individual guinea pig, by his market behaviour, reveals his preference pattern". In other words, if a person chooses a particular thing or action A, we can deduce that he gets more satisfaction from A. But this overlooks the possibility that the person chooses A because he believes it would be right to choose A, for one reason or another. Sen argues that economics needs to take more account of the complexity of motivation behind actual human choices. "He stresses the ways in which group norms and the culture of a class or community can affect choices. For example, in choosing an insurance plan or making wage demands, people working in a particular job may be influenced as much by the attitudes of their fellow workers as by their personal preferences", wrote A. B. Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College, Oxford, whose work on economic inequality has influenced Sen.

In various writings, especially Collective Choice and Social Welfare, published in the 1960s and 1970s, Sen introduced the ideas of rights and freedoms into social choice theory, and presented a way of formalising this. It was "pathbreaking" work, according to Arrow, but unlikely to excite the interest of a nonspecialist readership. Gradually, however, Sen's thoughts focused on a problem of widespread interest: the cause of famines and the role of economic interaction in generating them. In 1981, he published a short monograph, Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, and then, in 1989, Hunger and Public Action (written with Jean Dreze, a Belgian economist at the University of Delhi and close collaborator with Sen). Solow again: "I think these two books literally changed the way intelligent people think about famine and widespread hunger. In many ways they may be Amartya's most important work. There is no highbrow economist's technique in them, but they ask the right questions and they are not put off by conventional answers."

The issue, in a nutshell, is why famines occur even though there is no overall decline in food supply. In Bengal, for instance, in 1943, the supply of rice was 13 per cent higher than in 1941; but in 1943 as many as three million Bengalis starved to death, while in 1941 there was no famine. By careful analysis of data from the Bengal famine (and other famines), Sen showed that the famine was not caused by an overall shortage of food, but by a shortage of practical ability among some people - mainly agricultural labourers - to obtain food. These people lacked income, or political weight, or social standing or other means to get sustenance. The word "entitlement" in the book's title summed up the collection of powers which enables people to meet their needs. One of the book's unusual features was Sen's understanding of social factors. In some families, for example, the male head of the household might claim food first, or boys would take precedence over girls when food was limited. The impact of gender relations on economic behaviour is a thread running through much of Sen's work. (His 1990 article, "More than 100 million women are missing", in The New York Review of Books, has become one of his best-known writings.)

In the nature of academic life, Sen's case was not universally accepted. He cited evidence from Asian and African famines where, he said, food supplies had not significantly changed overall but where people starved because they lacked adequate entitlements. Some critics claimed, however, that food supplies had actually fallen in the cases Sen used; one even went so far as to accuse Sen of falsifying data. An acrimonious correspondence ensued. But today Sen's analysis is widely accepted, including by Oxfam; and the debate also had the effect of introducing Sen to Dr ze, whose critique of the 1981 book led to the jointly authored 1989 book.

His comparison of famines in India, Africa and China led him to what is undoubtedly an important conclusion. There have been no serious famines in India since 1943, during which period India became a democratic nation (from 1947). China, by contrast, suffered probably the worst famine in history between 1958 and 1961, when up to 30 million people perished. And Africa, in particular the Sahel, Ethiopia and Somalia, has continued to suffer regular famine. The difference was public opinion: in India, it can exert pressure on the government through a free press and in other ways; in China and in many (though not all) parts of Africa, it cannot.

So the relief of poverty in a country, Sen maintains, entails much more than market-led policies designed to accelerate economic growth. It also, crucially, entails freedom. Referring to his most recent book, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, a remarkably accessible work once more written with Dreze, Sen says: "Jean and I have an indivisible view of freedom - that freedom in economic, political and social matters is central for social change and progress, for economic progress and for development itself."

This book, and Sen's work generally over the last decade, compares India with China, and Indian state with Indian state. All have failed in one way or another to achieve the best policy combination. India has long enjoyed substantial political freedoms and in 1991 embarked on economic liberalisation, freeing trade and investment after decades of bureaucratic controls. But continued neglect of social policy such as education and health undercuts these freedoms by making it hard for hundreds of millions of Indians fully to take advantage of them.

China, by contrast, has few formal political freedoms, but started to liberalise its economy in 1979 and has much higher literacy and life-expectancy rates than India as a result of effective government policy from 1949. Within India, the southern state of Kerala has achieved literacy and birth rates which compare very favourably with rich countries, but has a low per capita income. While a northern state such as Punjab is relatively backward socially - shockingly, half the girls aged 14-16 surveyed in north India had never been to school - but has had more economic expansion than Kerala.

What emerges from the accumulated work of Sen and his colleagues is more than an approach to development, or even a clever synthesis of different disciplines, mediated by economics. There are elements of a fresh political platform. Sen makes no bones about his leanings: "I see myself as left of centre - decidedly so." But he thinks there are some "unexamined prejudices" on the left. "One is a basic mistrust of the market, the belief that somehow organisations which encourage people to operate through the market must be antisocial. There's no particular reason to assume that. After all, the original championing of the market came from radicals like Adam Smith - whose works inspired many of the intellectual leaders of the French revolution. It's easy to see why. In so far as respect for individual freedom is part of the radical tradition, the market is part of that because people should be able to exchange goods.

"The other unexamined position is a kind of general belief that somehow fiscal prudence is an alien idea to the left. The government can spend money without being worried about how big the deficit is. That is a big mistake too. Inflation is not only a conservative worry. It can make the poorest of the poor go under" - as it did in wartime Bengal. "So the idea that fiscal conservatism has to be conservative in the political sense is a mistake. Fiscal conservatism has to be part of a responsible left-wing position too."

But before Sen begins to sound too much like New Labour, he adds, "What I am also keen on, is not to lose sight of some of the things which make the left position credible and important, namely, to recognise that the state has a role" and, further, "to recognise the importance of social cooperation outside the market".

Despite the commitment, the language is characteristically cautious. Amartya Sen is not given to dramatic statements and revolutionary theories of social change: he is too deeply aware of the diversity and subtlety of human societies. If that means that in some of his work he may be more of a "synthesiser than a theoretical innovator" (in the words of one economist), this may be, like conscience, a strength as well as a weakness, depending on one's point of view. As Sen remarked in the conclusion of his 1991 Darwin lecture, "On the Darwinian view of progress", the publication of Darwin's great book changed the intellectual world irrevocably, without a doubt. But he went on to warn: "A worldview based on the Darwinian vision of progress can also be deeply limiting, because it concentrates on our characteristics rather than our lives, and focuses on adjusting ourselves rather than the world in which we live. These limitations are particularly telling in the contemporary world, given the prevalence of remediable deprivations, such as poverty, unemployment, destitution, famine, and epidemics, as well as environmental decay, threatened extinction of species, persistent brutality to animals, and the generally miserable living conditions of much of humanity. We do need Darwin, but only in moderation."

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES, and Michael Prest is a former economics correspondent, The Times.

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