August 02, 2020

Hope for the new year, with change of heart

With beltway politics mired in narrow partisan bickering, citizens may take some comfort in the intellectual restiveness among some of our cultural and economic leaders. A billionaire speculator, George Soros, has argued that the free exchange of currencies is destabilizing national economies. Perhaps even more comforting is the decision earlier this fall by the Swedish Nobel Prize jury to award its economic prize to Cambridge and former Harvard economist Amartya Sen.

Sen’s award should be an occasion to reexamine not merely the international economy but even the relationship between political and economic freedom.

This award was about as close to an upset as one ever sees in the staid world of academic politics. Most of the Nobel winners in recent years have been so called Chicago School economists. For these scholars, everything has its price. Marriage and prostitution, work and leisure, apathy and political commitment are all to be explained by individual self-interest and the blind play of market forces. Political authority at best sanctions and at worst impedes the market’s remarkable ability to blend the play of self-interest into a surprisingly beneficent public outcome.

Even conservative economists cannot deny the existence of poverty, hunger, and famine. But their take on this topic has been consistent since the 18th century. In one way or another, poverty and famine reflect individual failure and-or natural disaster. For Malthus, human population grows exponentially, while our ability to feed ourselves grows far more slowly. The collision of human lust and the law of diminishing returns leads to famine.

Malthusiansim eventually became too harsh a diet even for many conservatives. For these economists there is no natural collision between food supply and population. Market competition will encourage new technologies, including both the green revolution and birth control. Food supply will then outpace population growth and famine will become a distant memory for all but the lazy or reprobate.

Nonetheless, whether conservatism displays its cheery or is frowning face, the policy implications remain clear: Keep hands off the market and let self-interest do its thing. Politics and political systems are irrelevant as long as markets are respected.

The work of Amartya Sen is a thoroughgoing challenge to this orthodoxy. The narrow conception of material self-interest is replaced by a mutifaceted notion of the capacity for self-development, nurtured or impeded by social practices. At the level of macro economics, Sen also shows that hunger and famine are often present even when food supply on a per capita basis is rising. Our modern famines result not primarily from natural disaster but from social and political injustice. Some individuals cannot command access to land or fair wages and consequently suffer hunger or malnutrition even in the face of an expanding food supply.

In addition, political life for Sen is hardly limited to its ephiphenomal role in the Chicago School. Entitlement to food varies with the kind of property system, the role of labor, patterns of wage bargaining, government job creation, and food and transportation networks. These in turn are closely connected to the degree of political democracy prevailing within particular societies. Sen is most known and respected for his assertion that political democracy is an antidote to widespread famine. Within political democracies, the disinherited have the right and the ability to demand redress for their condition. Failure to address their needs carries political consequences. Research by Sen and his colleagues on the Indian state of Kerala has provided an interesting case study. In this relatively poor region, a healthy democracy has been able to guarantee not only food sufficiency but rising levels of health and longevity.

I hope that Sen’s award will signal and evoke a change of heart within contemporary academic and political discourse. Sen has always been an ecumenical thinker critical of established disciplinary boundaries and fixed and certain ideologies. His work should evoke several related lines of thought.

Democracy for Sen is more than simply the formal right to go to the polls. His work invites us to ask just how democratic a state and nation we have. Following the most financially and electorally lopsided campaign in recent memory, only about 36 percent of us went to the polls last November. The poorest citizens vote in even smaller numbers. If the poor decreasingly vote, if our politics is increasingly driven by money and obsessed with narrow agendas most of us care little about, how democratic are we anymore?

Should we be surprised by a report last year from the Maine Center for Economic Policy that 10 percent of the working poor families they surveyed reported having to skip meals for a day or more due to lack of income. Perhaps Sen’s timely prize will inspire us to continue the work to which he has so ably contributed.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail comments to

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