Review: Development as Freedom and In Our Own Best Interest

Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred Alfred Knopf, 1999) and William F Schulz, In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits All Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) 256 Pages ISBN: 0807002267)

By Viktor von Buchstab (reviewer) | 2003-01-01 12:00:00

These books, both by eminent authors, address the causal connections between the processes of economic and democratic development.

"Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means," argues Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, who establishes solid links among the various forms of freedoms, along with cost-benefit analyses for each one. Seldom is a book's rationale so succinctly summarized. Sen constructs a rational case for supporting humanitarian aid to enable people to be more free. He also promotes increasing autonomy for people to establish and nurture their own freedoms. With adequate social opportunities, he argues, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other. They should not be treated as passive beneficiaries of development programs. As causal participants in development, Sen says, "There is indeed a strong rationale for recognizing the positive role of free and sustainable agency - and even of constructive impatience."

Sen's analyses classifies democratic rights into five interconnected groups:: political freedoms; economic facilities; social opportunities; transparency guarantees; and protective security. This collection of empirical suggestions for achieving such freedoms has an academic/demographic orientation, as well as providing a practical cookbook; its recipes typically stop just short of telling just how to achieve the liberation of target populations. Rather, it sets up the theoretical infrastructure, backed by empirical data on historical precedents that suggest the best approaches. The book's delightful attention to detail is presented in a somewhat demanding writing style with unusual "data density." The work is not unapproachable, but requires disciplined attention at every page, with less repetition of important ideas than usual. Numerous pivotal items are presented once and never broached again - so if you miss it, you've missed it. (It is said that writing is an act of faith, and Sen places a great deal of faith in the reader's alertness and stamina.)

Having said that, we must also see the work's thoroughness and thoughtfulness. The author frequently reflects on great economic thinkers, starting with Adam Smith and working through Malthus and Keynes. Unlike Smith, however, Sen amplifies his theses along pragmatic lines. He defines the practicalities of freedoms and shows how they are implemented or neutralized. He asks how we can have sophisticated political or legal freedoms if our entire existence requires attention at the subsistence level, leaving no energy for exercising "higher" options. But causality runs in both directions; before this book was published, Sen had already shown that no famine has even occurred in a democratic society. Here his Chapter 9, Population, Food and Freedom, specifically centers on a trio of tables:

Table 9.1, Indices of food production per head by regions, takes regional and world food production averages, with the 1971-1981 span taken as "100.0". This static statistic is hindcast to the 1974-76 timeframe and then moved forward, in three increments, to 1996-97. This tells a big part of what fuels freedom. As the world food production index grew from 97.4 to 111.0, over the 21-year period, Africa declined from 104.9 to 96.0, underscoring that continent's inability to sustain reasonable levels of freedom, even as it failed to feed its populations. Only North and Central America maintained any sort of stasis over this period of time, and all other regions prospered by upping their food production: China leads the field, having boomed from 90.1 to 192.3, while India's improvement was more muted, going from 96.5 to 130.5; and South America only inched forward from 94.0 to 117.2.

Ever the pragmatist, Sen goes on, in Table 9.2, to tell some good news-the sort that inspire people to follow and work on viable productivity issues. Food prices in constant 1990 U.S. dollars: 1950-52 to 1995-97 is a simple one:

Food 1950-1952 1995-1997 % change

Wheat 427.6 159.3 -62.7

Rice 789.7 282.3 -64.2

Sorghum 328.7 110.9 -66.2

Maize 372.0 119.1 -68.0

Obviously, if the world's masses are being fed for less money, in real terms, than half a century ago, the other half of the thesis suggests the time is ripe to develop other freedoms. The author allays the fears of neo-Malthusians who still fear the classic projections of overpopulations, and who may regard this growing mass of humanity as some sort of protoplasmic infestation of the planet. Again, Sen's gentle suggestions point toward the growing ease of maintaining basic existence, which will support political, economic and social freedoms that have been traditionally compromised by obsession with subsistence.

The author views every aspect of life from a moral viewpoint. In Chapter 12, Individual Freedom as a Social Commitment, he comments, "A society that allows famines to occur when prevention is possible is unjust in a clearly significant way."

Beyond the task of feeding people, Amartya Sen explores the physical and moral ecologies of the world across an enormous landscape, from Confucian ethics to Mafia influence on government policies. His insights move from situation ethics to long-term global environmental issues, even as he translates Adam Smith's ramblings into focused issues affecting today's market-oriented policy-makers.

In his concluding chapter Sen puts basic and higher freedoms in perspective, saying, "Basic civil rights and political freedoms are indispensable for the emergence of social values. Indeed, the freedom to participate in critical evaluation and in the process of value formation is among the most crucial freedoms of social existence. The choice of social values cannot be settled merely by the pronouncements of those in authority who control the levers of government." Repeatedly, the author shifts back and forth between basic and higher ideals of freedom, finally concluding, "We cannot lose sight of the fact that freedom is an inherently diverse concept, which involves…considerations of processes as well as substantive opportunities."


Turning to William Schulz's book, we move from Sen's predominantly economic orientation to one in which democratic rights have primacy. As the executive director of Amnesty Inter -national USA, Schulz is likely the highest-profile advocate of human rights in the world today. In Our Own Best Interest seemed to hold out the promise of a new message-that bonhomie, apart form being morally desirable, would deliver more material rewards. However, the book is not as focused as Sen's, and concentrates more on shoring up human rights and preventing abuses - specifically the physical oppression of victims around the world (including North America).

Early on, Schulz stresses global politics as a bridge that might catalyze the merging of ethical, political, and economic theories. Later he focuses more on economic issues. For example he reviews US labor laws and points the finger at foreign (largely Far East) enterprises that induct workers into their labor forces at younger ages than North American (and some European) unions condone. Regrettably, he fails to take into account the financial needs of poorer communities - factors that may result in lower employment, wages and hard-core brutality, particularly that aimed at children and females - Amnesty's traditional ethical domain..

Schultz describes more atrocities than I cared to read; these were drawn from his organization's extensive files of such cases around the world. This litany underscores the magnitude of the need for intervention on moral grounds, and, by implication, demonstrates the ongoing need for AI in its historic role of rescuer/advocate for those imprisoned or otherwise caught in tangles of anguish.

In Chapter 5, Schulz addresses the implications of global-scale transfers of biological threats - not by terrorist activity but the innocent transfer of micro-organisms by world travelers. He documents the health impacts of resistive strains of such ancient terrors as tuberculosis, and the advance of AIDS in the Third World. Here again he argues for the economic benefits of responsible stewardship, though he documents too few 'hard' benefits to satisfy me.

On the other hand, I should perhaps mention the more favorable impression this book made on another Peace Magazine editor, John Bacher, who reminded me of several significant points that Schultz made, such has his observation that the United States is obsessed with its trade policy with China, while paying little attention to human rights there. If China did become a democracy, Taiwan would peacefully reunify with it, removing a potential flash point for war.

Bacher also admires the emphasis Schulz places on the linkage between human rights and ill health - notably in Russia, where inhumane prisons have given rise to a plague of tuberculosis that is now threatening America.

Schulz remarks: "When I was preparing this book, I summarized its thesis to a friend. 'Oh what a shame!' she exclaimed. 'To think that we need selfish reasons to care about our fellow human beings.'"

That comment would seem to reflect back on its foreword, in which Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says, "To convince Americans that the evenhanded enforcement of human rights norms is not only consistent with the highest American values but good for the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, is a formidable task, but an essential one. That is the task this book undertakes. Whether it is successful will help determine whether we live in a humane world or a brutal one, a just world or a world in which parents may notwant to raise children."

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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