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Amartya Kumar Sen:

Philosopher among Econimists


Arvind N. Das

Economics is indeed a dismal science. And if Amartya Sen were a mere economist he would have had enough to be dismal about. After all, his life’s work has focused on such depressing themes as famines, hunger, lack of entitlement, inequality, deprivation. Unlike other more-in-fashion economists who have been celebrated much earlier than Sen received his long-overdue Nobel Prize, Sen has not talked so much of the "wealth of nations", of economic growth – that elusive tide that is supposed to lift up all boats, the yacht as well as the leaky dingy. Instead, he has written on distribution, on the sharing of wealth, on the social causes and consequences of economics. It is this that makes him stand apart from the other recent Nobel laureates and others who have been hailed as the gurus of the New Age. And it is this concern that makes him less than dismal. Amartya Sen is not just an economist; he is a political economist.

Sen has never disguised the politics in his economics and the economics in his politics. While he has never described himself as a Marxist, he has also not been shy of declaring that his "politics is of the Left". Indeed, during his days at the Delhi School of Economics, Amartya Sen was an active member of the Marx Club discussing and debating various aspects of the theory and practice of Marxism including the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of China, a phenomenon that was enthusiastically (and perhaps prematurely) endorsed by his one-time mentor, Joan Robinson. Sen even attended Marxist-Leninist groups which discussed the Little Red Book of Quotations of Chairman Mao.

However, none of these and his participation in other "good causes" prevented Amartya Sen from following the classic dictum of Karl Marx himself: omnibus disputandum – question everything: the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Thus, for instance, while greatly admiring different aspects of the achievements of socialist systems in terms of education, health care and other aspects of development of human capabilities, Sen also focused on the lack of democracy and public information which resulted in the avoidable loss of life through famines in China and elsewhere. Other more orthodox Left economists pointed out that perhaps Sen was making "democracy" into an absolute; that there was no reason to suppose that only formal parliamentary democracy was sufficient to bring about transparency and public knowledge but Sen stuck his ground and with reasonable cause.

The reason behind this is that Amartya Sen has treated economics not only as a science, dismal or otherwise, but as a philosophy, as something which cannot be separated from its ethical dimension. Thus, while the Impossibility Theorem of Kenneth Arrow on voting behaviour was statistically sophisticated but politically an altogether negative proposition, Amartya Sen was disturbed enough about it to turn it around and discover possibilities among impossibilities. And what he did through this almost purely mathematical exercise, he did even more when he talked of "entitlement" and "empowerment", concepts meant to add body to the idea of democracy.

Amartya Sen’s constant affirmation of the need for public action – mobilization, agitation, what used to be called "revolutionary activism" at one time – is a very necessary counter to the superstitious belief among many economists in the efficacy of the "hidden hand". The myth of the market as the supreme force in human affairs has never impressed Amartya Sen. The disembodied forces that so intimidate neo-classical economists and monetarists are not at the center of Sen’s economics; human beings are its focus and the human beings are not passive even in the era of globalization, at best helplessly landing up in the make-shift "safety net" but active participants – political actors in the processes of shaping economies and societies.

It is not that Amartya Sen dismisses the market altogether. On the contrary, like all economists of sophistication, he recognises the power of the market both as a reality as well as an economic concept. However, Sen rejects total marketization, unrestricted privatization and complete reliance on the competitive animal spirit of participants in market activities. On the other side, Sen sees the inefficiencies and even oppressiveness of the state. As such, he is no statist. Nevertheless, he does not reject the role of the state in the economy on the contrary, he advocates an increased and intensified activity by the state particularly in the social sectors like education, health care etc. as also in the development of the social and physical infrastructure.

It is in this context that Amartya Sen’s writings on secularism and communalism are as significant as his interventions in economic issues. Although he has imbibed the Hindu sanskara from early childhood – even assisting his maternal grandfather K.M. Sen in his research, a fact acknowledged in the latter’s book on Hinduism – Amartya Sen has always been against the bigotry of political Hinduttva. He has been severely critical of the narrow-minded and sectarian politics of the Sangh parivar and made his views amply clear in the wake of the demolition of the Babri masjid.

Amartya Sen’s intellectual achievements have been recognised for long. They are such that the Establishment in India and abroad just could not possibly ignore them. However, the politics implicit in his academics has been such as to make the Establishment slightly uncomfortable with Sen. His views on the social dimensions of economics did not endear him to the votaries of unbridled market forces, ideologues who have basked in the approval of the Washington Consensus that has hegemonised economic thinking in the last several years. When extreme right wing monetarism, the Thatcher-Reagan voodoo economics, was the prevailing fashion and in fact the ruling ideology, there was no question of Amartya Sen’s critical political economy, roughly labelled welfare economics, receiving the Nobel Prize. It required the collapse of the economies of East and South–east Asia and the resurgence of left-wing social democracy in Europe for Sen to get the award that he deserved so well and for so long.

In India too, Amartya Sen’s politics, which is critical of the Sangh Parivar as well as of the other forces of the unthinking Right, has kept him out of the Establishment. It is significant that, despite the fact that Sen’s intellectual achievements have been acknowledged around the world even before he got the Nobel Prize, Amartya Sen has never been part of the many state institutions that have so attracted other academics. He has kept out of the state structure and, curiously, the state too has felt more comfortable honouring Sen but keeping him out.

On his own part, Amartya Sen has not pretended that he is a "mere academic" confined only to the ivory towers of intellectuals.

He has of course spent his life working in academic institutions in India and abroad but he has intervened in the manner of the best intellectuals in current political debates and discussions and in shaping public opinion which in turn influences the contours of policies. Like another economist before him, Sen too believes that while philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways, the point is to change it. And he does not believe that either the market or the state are the prime movers in the process of bringing about that change. When economics becomes philosophy and academics becomes ethics, it is the people, public opinion, democracy that are supreme. Amartya Sen’s greatness is that he always remembers that.

Another source of his greatness of course is that he is a great scholar and a great teacher.

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