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Rephrasing my critique of Sen

October 27, 2010

My previous post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, and I think I have a more comprehensible version somewhere in my brain. In a nutshell: I think Sen is too individual-oriented. His theory has no room for the fact that individual freedoms do not exist in a vacuum: they often conflict with each other. Given the nature of resource and power inequality in our world, if we were to try to magically give everyone freedom of self-determination, those with more resources and power would quickly infringe of the freedoms of those with less.

Or, to borrow an idea from a classmate, Sen seems to view freedom as a sort of public good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable. But any structural or power analysis would lead to the conclusion that freedom acts more like a private good: consumption of the good does reduce its availability for others. To believe otherwise would indicate either an extraordinarily optimistic view of human nature or a complete blindness to systems and structures.

Why does this matter in practice? Because changing what we measure from income to freedoms (or, to put it into indicator-ese, from GDP to HDI [for example]) isn’t enough. It’s a step in the right direction. But the world of development indicators and development practice needs an additional level of analysis, one that considers unequal power relationships and offers methods for mitigating or minimizing them.

Flying Whale

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