Beyond Liberalism?

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

Separating problems makes it possible to establish priorities and to go for piecemeal social engineering. Overpopulation, for example, should be tackled by providing women with easy access to education and health care. - PRAKASH HATVALNE/AP

Separating problems makes it possible to establish priorities and to go for piecemeal social engineering. Overpopulation, for example, should be tackled by providing women with easy access to education and health care. - PRAKASH HATVALNE/AP

IN the 1960s Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed that "Marxism is the inescapable horizon of our time." One could advocate or criticise Marxism for various reasons, but it was impossible for a political philosopher to ignore it. Almost everybody in the field felt compelled to define his or her position with reference to the Marxian legacy.

The times now have changed. Marxism is no longer fashionable, not primarily because it has been refuted theoretically, but rather because the transformations of the real world it inspired turned out to be a catastrophe in many parts of the world. Nowadays, many contemporary philosophers consider liberalism to be the inescapable horizon of our time. Amartya Sen has never really identified himself with any particular label. Nor has he given many cues with regard to his political sympathies. Nevertheless, from his writings, it is not very difficult to derive his stance towards liberalism.

Liberalism, however, is a house with many different rooms. First of all, there is political liberalism. It stands for the priority of human rights above utility considerations, growth of gross national product or other macro-economic goals. Here, Sen is clearly on the side of liberalism. He has always defended the universality of human rights against the claim that, for instance, "Asian values" could overrule them. Also, he stresses the value of democracy and free press, not only for their own sake, but also because these are preconditions to fight against poverty and famines.

Second, in the American tradition, liberalism has to be distinguished from libertarianism because it does not focus exclusively on liberty, but also aims at reconciling the values of freedom and equality. A person who is illiterate, or whose health is undermined by preventable diseases, or who is so poor that he can barely survive can formally be said to be free, but he is unable to make use of this freedom. Only the opportunity to develop basic capabilities makes freedom real for everyone. There is a reminiscence of Marxism in this advocacy of real freedom, although Sen would certainly not give the impression of despising `merely formal' freedom.

Third, economic liberalism is often characterised by the presumption that market solutions are most efficient in organising large-scale human interactions. Sen's stance in this respect is more pragmatic. If private property and a free market for food were to lead in a particular case to cause and aggravate famine and hunger, it should be curtailed. If, on the contrary, the world market provides corn or rice at cheap prices, it would be better for a particular country to grow export crops and to import food. The important thing is to keep a clear view on means and ends. Market solutions should be implemented only insofar as they are the most efficient means to reach the objectives society has set; for instance, the eradication of hunger in the world. Moreover, there is not one single model of a market. Economics is largely the art of regulating markets in such a way that the intended goals of social policy can be reached. The institutional framework within which markets function is at least as important as the market in itself.

In this sense, economic liberalism is somewhat misleading. Often it pretends to favour laissez-faire and tolerate only a minimal state. Here, Sen objects strongly. An interventionist state is indispensable for obtaining social justice, but this does not mean that markets have to be eliminated. On the contrary, markets need government in order to function properly. Moreover, governmental action cannot and should not be neutral.

In this context, Sen's rejection of the notion of economic man plays an important role. Human beings have complex motivations. They have various preference orderings. Some of them may be very myopic or excessively selfish. Others are more sensible or even altruistic. Mostly it depends on circumstances what preferences will prevail. In situations of distrust - civil war could be taken as an extreme example - narrow self-interest will dominate. In a more secure environment, people tend to trust one another and to behave in a trustworthy way. Now government has a considerable influence in creating the appropriate context for human action. It can enhance or destroy intersubjective trust. It can devise social structures and institutions that can stimulate the best of our preferences and discourage the worst of them. For instance, we prefer that nobody throws garbage on the streets, but if nobody else complies with this rule, we tend to join the majority of free riders. If government on the contrary succeeds in imposing its rules on most citizens, generally they will be happy to comply - although the free rider option still remains attractive to some of them.

Can we then conclude that Sen is an advocate of political liberalism, but a critic of economic liberalism? I think at least in one respect Sen goes beyond economic and political liberalism as well. He strongly insists that human beings are not just interested in preference satisfaction, but also in political action. They are not only passive consumers, but also actively involved in shaping their social environment. Sen's emphasis on empowerment and participative justice gives a `republican' flavour to his theories. Again, the easy opposition between freedom and government is refuted. Freedom need not be conquered against the law, but in the struggle between the weak and the powerful, between the poor and the rich, it is the law that sets free. Only political action can compensate for economic weaknesses and protect vulnerable groups.

MORE than most liberals, Sen wants to change the world. However, he is too much imbued with economics to be a utopian thinker. First, in his work on social choice, he strongly insists that one should not try to make people happy against their will. People's preferences should be taken seriously, although not just the consumer preferences that can be derived from their market behaviour, but also the opinions they state in public debates. Second, economists typically refrain from devising great blueprints of the good society. They try to make problems manageable by dividing them up. If one piles up all the problems of the world, then the most profound pessimism seems to be unavoidable. Separating problems makes it possible to establish priorities and to go for piecemeal social engineering. Overpopulation, for example, should be tackled by providing women with easy access to education and health care. The threat of a famine in a particular region should be overcome by offering jobs to the vulnerable part of the population, for instance, through a policy of public works. In this way Sen joins the line of thinkers who offer pragmatic policy advice to the most abstract theoretical concepts.

Sen's success has to do with his ecumenism. He has been able to synthesise various traditions that were traditionally considered to be incompatible. With his capability approach of development he has been able to draw the Aristotelian tradition within an egalitarian framework, to rejuvenate the Marxian theme of real freedom and to develop liberalism in the direction of republicanism. It is the quality of this grand synthesis that explains Sen's immense influence on the agenda of international development institutions.

Toon Vandevelde is Professor of Economics and Philosophy, University of Leuven, Belgium.

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