Economics Without Morals Is An Empty Vessel: The Life Of Amartya Sen

Economics Without Morals Is An Empty Vessel: The Life Of Amartya Sen
Book Review: Amartya Sen. ‘Home in the World’. (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation. W.W. Norton & Co. 2021).

Visions of economics

Economics is a divided discipline. Its various schools continually claim to their respective rightfulness. The neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxist schools are the three primary theoretical models, with numerous variations among them. They also have a tendency to feed into political dogmas. Yet, the founders of these theoretical traditions were more open about other perspectives, than the ideologues and model builders of the present times.

Adam Smith, the father of the free market and renowned economic theorist, had deep sympathy for the poor, just as Karl Marx acknowledged the role of liberty and freedom in his later writings.

Each school is based on some strong assumptions about human society and its behavioural imperatives. In this sense, economics is inseparable from sociology, despite its claim to be a discipline of impersonal interests and forces.

This is the wisdom of Amartya Sen’s autobiography, which largely is the intellectual history of his personal growth. His interest in economics has been focused on searching for ways to advance equity, justice and social choice. In his academic work, Amartya Sen has concentrated on the neglected discipline of welfare economics, earning him the Nobel Prize in 1998.

The Bengal famine of 1943 witnessed by Amartya Sen in his childhood left a life-long imprint on his mind of social responsibility to meet the basic needs of people, regardless of their resources. One could not but be exposed to Marxist thought in Calcutta, now Kolkata, of the 1950s in its colleges and more excitingly, the coffee houses.

When he proceeded to Cambridge for higher studies, he sought out Marxist scholars, Maurice Dobbs, Pierra Sraffa and Joan Robinson. He was in a cohort of Indian-Pakistani students, who distinguished themselves in many disciplines. Among his Pakistani friends was Mahbub-ul-Haq, the economic planner of President Ayub’s development strategy, who later developed the UN Human Development Index. So was Rehman Subhan, a Pakistani and later Bangladeshi, who devised measures of regional economic disparities.

Marx and economics

One of the most balanced accounts of Marxist economics in Sen’s book is a chapter entitled “What to make of Marx.” Marx’s labour theory of value assigns labour as the primary determinant of the value of a product. Yet, the contributions of the other factors of production, including the free goods of natural commons, such as environmental resources, cannot be overlooked.

Marx analyzed economic outcomes in terms of  social structures and modes of production. He delved deeply into the history of economic production as well as distribution, taking almost 17 years to bring out the first  edition of Das Capital, after labouring over many revisions. His other books, The German Ideology and The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), present further modifications of his formulations.

Taken together, his formulations can be briefly summed up in the following propositions. The first is that labor is exploited and does not get a fair share of its contribution in the economy. The inequality of power underlie the unfairness of the treatment of labour, and though material conditions are dominant in determining social choices, ideas also play a role in creating living conditions. An aura of objective illusion and false consciousness can be created to rationalize the distribution of economic benefits, as is the case with the conventional notion of free exchange between capitalists and labour. Apart from supporting the equal rights of workers to get the ‘undiminished product of labour’, Marx advocated for the need principle,  namely distribution of the economic products to meet people’s needs, regardless of their labour.

Influenced by the writings of Hobsbawm, Galbraith and Dobb, among others, Sen came to realize that many issues Marx dealt were reflections of his historical times, with little relevance to the economic problems of the mid-twentieth century. Yet his emphasis on the inequalities inherent in a market system set Sen on the path of probing the bases of social choice and welfare economics.

How can social choices, namely goods and services desired by a community, in terms of the guns or butter dilemma, be determined? This question presents an economic conundrum because individuals differ in their priorities and those are often incommensurable. Out of individual desires, societal choices for the goods and services cannot be readily derived. This dilemma is encapsulated in Arrow’s famous impossibility theorem, which discusses the idea of introducing normative principles, such as equity, to guide economic policies.

Sen has made path-breaking contributions to advancing arguments for the supremacy of social values in economics and philosophy. His capability approach, though not mentioned in the book, is one of his key contributions.

Sen’s investigations of the causes and cures of famines is a good example of the application of his insights. Famines, he maintains, are not essentially the result of the shortage of food, but of a society’s inability and break down in allocating entitlements through income and welfare needed to sustain the necessities of life.

Sen’s life and interests

Lest it may be inferred that Sen’s autography is treatise on economics, l may clarify that the book offers nuggets of illumination about many issues that ail the Subcontinent and his personal life.

Sen came from a family of academics and political activists. His father was a professor of chemistry, and many of his relatives went to jail on Gandhi’s call. His schooling at Tagore’s free-ranging Santiniketan, laid the foundation of his inquiring mind and as an admirer of Tagore.

Founded by the British, Calcutta became the centre where classical Indian learnings interwove with modern sciences and enlightenment values to produce what has come to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. The city’s early start in modern education helped nurture many distinguished academics. Physicist Satyendra Bose contributed to ‘Bose-Einstein statistics’, while Prasanta Mahalanobis contributed significantly to the discipline of statistics, for example. Sen came from this milieu.

The “argumentative Indian” is a description that arose out of Calcutta’s coffee houses. These were the result of Bengal’s, Hindus in particular, ready acceptance of English education, which Muslims in India were late to. And even then, they poured much of their intellectual energies in poetry and literature.

Tagore, a Nobel laureate himself in 1913, was a globalist before the term was coined. He found nationalism to be too limiting. The humanistic spirituality of his poetry resonated with the West, which was liberating itself from centuries of the church’s dogmas. The poets Yeats and Pound became the sponsors of his message, though he did not like them presenting him as a mystic.  He defended rationalism, which brought him in occasional conflict with Gandhi.

Sen gives a breezy lesson in the history of Bengal. The eastern part has always been distinct from the west, and not just by the Hindu-Muslim divide. Its ancient name was Vangal, which became Bangal, while the western part was called Ghoti. This division was the rationale behind Lord Curzon’s 1905 division of Bengal, but it has finally given rise to Bangladesh and West Bengal, though a common language still ties them together. Bangladesh’s national anthem is a Tagore poem.

Regarding the personal life of Sen, the book offers rich vignettes and a detailed account. From Santiniketan to the Presidency College, and then Cambridge University is a quick and distinguishing journey of his formal education. From a student at Cambridge, he rose to be a master at Trinity College. He has also taught at Harvard and Stanford in the US and in universities of Delhi and Calcutta. His descriptions of the academic rituals of these institutions are amusing.

Like many others, he has had his share of life’s challenges. At a young age, he suffered from cancer of the mouth. He survived, but has lived with the dread that cancer survivors experience.

The idea of singular identity was an anathema to Tagore, and Amartya Sen is more explicit about the multiplicity of identities. All of us have many identities, and the context determines how we identify. One could be a Muslim, Pakistani, Baloch, brown skinned, engineer or farmer, Bajwa or Khan, but not just one of these exclusively.

Amartya Sen begins the book with a vignette about a journalist asking him where he is from. His answer included all of the countries where he has lived and worked, which left the interviewer puzzled. This is how Sen has a Home in the World.

He carries an Indian passport, despite having permanent residences in Britain and the US. For Amartya Sen, home means an ancestorial place, somewhat akin to the notion of roots, even though one may never have lived there. Yet one can be a citizen of many places. He ends the book by quoting Tagore, “the best and noblest gifts of humanity can not be the monopoly of a particular race,” and of course not bound to one place.

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.