The financial crisis started in the UK with the run on Northern Rock in the summer of 2007.

But on a global level the crisis became most visible following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The scale of the bail-outs, paid ultimately by the tax payer, rightly is leading people to question the role of financial institutions in capitalist economies. What people are not for now questioning is national income accounting as the yardstick by which to measure economic performance. In the UK the financial crisis has for the last few weeks been pushed from the front pages by another crisis. The MPs’ expenses scandal is profoundly angering the UK public, and shaking what little faith people have in those they elect to office. MPs have done what only a few weeks was unthinkable: anger the public more than bonus-happy bank bosses. Amartya Sen’s Freedom as Development makes salutary reading in light of these two crises. Sen focuses on what one might call progressive outputs as the true measures of economic development. This is in contrast to the standard focus on income accounting. Sen’s analysis is drawn from developing countries. However the scope and probable longevity of the economic crisis which developed countries are facing mean it is reasonable to consider what his analysis could mean for the UK, the US and other developed economies. At a time when democracy in the UK is likely to deliver 5% of the vote to the hateful, far-right British National Party, Freedom as Development is additionally a timely reminder of what democracy can be. While democracy is not the central theme in Freedom as Development, in detailing Senian economic development the author makes a number of persuasive points about its benefits. Electoral democracy makes leaders accountable for the interests of those they are elected to serve. It is an obvious point but one which Sen illustrates powerfully: there has never been a famine in a democracy. This in Sen’s view is an example of an instrumental benefit of democracy. A second set of benefits are termed constitutive: even in the absence of instrumental benefits, democracy is still desirable since the act of consultation itself has value. In economic jargon this is known as ‘procedural utility’: even if China continues to experience economic growth for another 100 years, without political reform the lives of its citizens will still be blighted by the autocratic nature of the political elite. An issue such as this, of political rights, is a good lead-in to what is the real focus of Freedom as Development. We are accustomed to think of freedom in terms of political rights, and of development as increasing GNP. Sen takes issue with both these assumptions. For Sen, freedom is as much about freedom from afflictions as it is about rights. Freedom is about access to resources, public services and institutions. So in Sen’s analysis the ability to continue to work because of the availability of operations to remove cataracts is a freedom. The ability to attend primary education likewise is a freedom. Female access to employment is a freedom. In short, a freedom is a capability - an individual’s ability to exert agency

over their life. And the goal of development is to increase the range of which individuals enjoy. The key difference in this analysis vs. the standard approach to development is the focus on GNP. The literature on development for the most part assumes that by increasing the monetary resources available to a population that people will inevitably have more agency over their lives. This assumption is mistaken, argues Sen. By way of illustration the author cites the example of black slaves in the US – typically paid more than hired workers but no more able to control their lives because of it. In essence: increasing wealthy may lead to increasing freedom but the latter does not ensue inevitably from the former. And as the former is only an instrument to help enable the latter, measures of economic development should focus on progressive outputs not income, an input. Investment in public services such as health, education and transport, all of whicn enable more people to contribute productively to the economy; a liberal approach to cultural institutions and the rights of all to participate equally in society. To left-leaning thinkers it sounds like good stuff. But is any of it that original? Is the conflation of ‘freedom’ and ‘development’, initiated in the book’s title and explained through the text any more than a a rhetorical flourish for what is ultimately standard left-ish fare? A rhetorical flourish it may be, but two things are striking about Development as Freedom: first, the skill with which Sen is able to show how inter-connected political and economic development are; and secondly the sweeping scope of his analysis. On the latter point in particular readers in the West should take heed: for Sen development is not something which takes place in a dusty, sun-baked, continent elsewhere. Development takes place, or should take place, much closer to home: the freedom to have a good chance as a male of surviving beyond one’s twenties to lead a full and productive life? An issue in the world’s conflict hotspots, right? No, an issue for African-American males in the contemporary US.

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