Another bit of Sen

by Chris Bertram on December 13, 2003

One of the drawbacks of “Development as Freedom”: is that it really is very repetitive and very similar points supported by the same examples and quotations recur less than 100 pages apart. In several places, though, he makes a good and important about markets and the freedom to transact:

bq. In recent discussions, the focus in assessing the market mechanism has tended to be on _results_ it ultimately generates, such as the incomes or utilities yielded by markets. This is not a negligible issue ….. But the more immediate case for the freedom of market transaction lies in the basic importance of that freedom itself. We have good reasons to buy and sell, to exchange, and to seek lives that can flourish on the basis of transactions. To deny that freedom in general would be in itself a major failing of society. This fundamental recognition is _prior_ to any theorem we may or may not be able to prove … in showing what the culmination outcomes of markets are in terms of incomes, utilities and so on. (p. 112)



Ophelia Benson 12.14.03 at 6:02 pm

Yes, I’m well into it now, and there is quite a lot of repetition. It’s still interesting though – but I’m skimming in places.

One thing I really wondered about though – the table on page 50 that illustrates two great surges in life expectancy in England and Wales in the 20th century. Sen is arguing that they coincide with and are also causally related to the two Wars – that rationing improved health overall. But staring at the table, I was surprised by the height of one column, and putting aside Sen’s case for a moment, just wondered about it. The column for 1941-50, it was. The 40s, I thought; what…? Oh! Antibiotics.

So I looked up the antibiotics section in Roy Porter’s history of medicine, and as I thought, the 40s is when they were really being developed. Well, that made a massive difference in life expectancies – yet Sen doesn’t mention it. That does seem like an oversight, to me.


Chris Bertram 12.14.03 at 8:42 pm

Sounds plausible. Though would antibiotics have made a big difference _then_ or in the following decade? I’ve no idea when they would have become available for ordinary general practitioners to prescribe to the hoi polloi – but I’m sure someone does.


Ophelia Benson 12.14.03 at 9:15 pm

Well, Porter does talk about that. Antibiotics already made a huge difference in treating war wounds, and also in cutting the mortality from pneumonia from 30% to something single digit – maybe 7%. More of them did get developed in the following decade, but they were already cutting mortality rates in the 40s. So that big spike – it seems to me it must be partly due to antibiotics, as well as rationing. It’s so very tall…


Conrad Barwa 12.15.03 at 6:55 am

One of the drawbacks of Development as Freedom is that it really is very repetitive and very similar points supported by the same examples and quotations recur less than 100 pages apart.

There are two main reasons for this, I think. Firstly, Sen, despite his philosophical and artistic leanings (mostly due very much to the milieu of the mid-20 century bhadralok that he comes from; rather than any original contributions in this regard) still basically thinks and writes like an economist, and any familiarity with economists trying to write generalised texts means that there is an awful lot of repetition and recurrence going on. Not always the most imaginative of people in the literary sphere, our economist cousins. Secondly, much of Sen’s work tends to flow in certain increasing cycles; a lot of the thinking behind ‘Development and Freedom’ can be traced back to his early theoretical work, that was slowly applied to empirical case studies in India and other LDC countries and then gradually extrapolated out to a more globalised level. This pattern of thought means that a considerable level of repetition on differing scales will be inevitable. For example, if you read his “India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity” you will realise that he uses exactly the same arguments and approach, confined to a national level, that crop up in “Development as Freedom”.

Most of his really rigorous work, which tends to more concise and without any of the excess padding, can be found in the slimmer volumes “Economic Inequality Re-examined” and “Choice, Welfare and Measurement”. Which unfortunately tend to be rather drier and less hospitable to non-specialists.


Ophelia Benson 12.15.03 at 5:26 pm

Yes, I have a copy of Inequality Re-examined, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and all the more so just lately because I’ve been reading, as I mentioned, Nussbaum’s Sen-influenced work. So now I’m even more motivated to do so, despite dryness.

It’s interesting how collaborative and multi-disciplinary all these people are. All the articles and books Nussbaum has written or edited with other people – lots of different other people. Sen, too. It seems like enough work for five or ten lifetimes. Very impressive.


Antoni Jaume 12.15.03 at 7:42 pm

Is not the repetitive aspect of this work the result of it being a recopilation from previous works?
I can easily imagine that each chapter was a one time an article by itself, so it would include some information, that in the book is plainly redundant, so the reader has not to look any other place to get a background.



Dan Hardie 12.15.03 at 8:29 pm

Re Ophelia’s point, that the massive improvement in the health of the UK population 1941-50 might well have been caused, at least in part, by antibiotics:

I’d need to look this up in a history of British medicine, but I am convinced that antibiotics were not very widely available to the British population in 1941-50. Of course, before 1941 they weren’t available at all: but I’m sure
their use for the first 10 years in Britain was rationed, and went disproportionately towards the victims of bombing and battlefield wounds, rather than towards those suffering from, say, bronchial infections. Two anecdotal pieces of evidence: Denis Forman’s (excellent) autobiography ‘To Reason Why’ mentions how he was severely wounded at Monte Cassino in 1943, and would have died had he been an Other Rank; as an Officer, he was entitled to the limited supply of antibiotics. And seven years later, George Orwell died of TB at a time when American doctors would simply have prescribed a course of antibiotics. I also think there’s a discussion in Corelli Barnett’s ‘The Audit of War’ of how British (and Australian and emigre Russian) scientists first developed antibiotics, but how their mass production was left to the Americans. Certainly I suspect that there may have been some antibiotic effect on mortality in the UK in 1941-50, but I would suspect that the drugs were too rare to explain most of the changes that Sen notes.

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