Saturday, July 14, 2012

Development and freedom

There is a common view that a poor country can either have freedom or it can have development, not both at the same time. This is wrong because multifaceted freedom is both the objective of development and the means by which it is achieved.

The argument that authoritarianism can facilitate and guarantee economic and social development more effectively than a democratic system was proposed by supporters of the Soviet government in the 1920s and 1930s, who talked of having to break eggs to make an omelet. (For eggs, read people.) More recently, Singapore's economic success has been credited to Lee Kuan Yew's relatively benign despotism, not least by Mr. Lee, who is a brilliant and persuasive speaker. Before the 1997-1999 Asian economic crisis took the wind brutally out of their sails, the proponents of "Asian Values" boasted of the superiority of Confucianism and other Asian belief systems (even though these were often mutually incompatible) over perceived Western superficiality and modernism in promoting hard work, high savings, strong families and rapid economic growth. And there remains the argument that China's double-digit growth rates exceed those of India because the Chinese Communist Party's strong grip on power enables it to push through modernizing economic policies without the hindrance of free speech and elected governments.

The opposing arguments have not always been that much better. There is the weak point that, well, a free society may grow more slowly, but at least people are free. Tell that to someone who is left free to starve. The argument made by, for example, the Chinese leadership, that the right to eat is also a human right is often ignored, as if political rights were the only ones that mattered, as is proclaimed by modern "libertarian" philosophers.

Both sides are wrong because they are posing a false dichotomy: freedom and development are not opposing alternatives. Development is a process by which people become more free; freedom supports development.The best exponent of this important truth is the great economist Amartya Sen. This is what he has to say in the introduction to his 1999 book "Development as Freedom":

Development can be a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization. Growth of GNP or of individual incomes can, of course, be very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. But freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements (for example, facilities for education and health care) as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny). Similarly, industrialization or technological progress or social modernization can substantially contribute to expanding human freedom, but freedom depends on other influences as well. If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments. Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that, inter alia, play a prominent part in the process.

In other words, what development is intended to achieve is building the capacity for each person to achieve what he or she wants, not in isolation, but in collaboration with family and other society members:

With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other. They need not be seen primarily as passive recipients of the benefits of cunning development programs.

Rather than summarize Sen's book, I will just urge you to read it. You will find deep analysis, plenty of empirical evidence and some interesting points that you may or may not already have come across. One of them is about famines. Sen has written much about famines, which is not surprising since he was born in 1933 and so was old enough to understand what was going on when the great famine killed some 3 million people in Bengal in 1943. He points out that there have been no such famines in democracies. (Bengal in 1943 was still part of British India.) Governments that have to face re-election can not afford to ignore early signs of food shortage, so will take urgent action. Dictators, with their privileged access to food, may be the last to know and probably not the first to care, so they may only take action when famine threatens social stability (i.e. their rule), which may be too late.

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