Ideas in Conflict
Tibor R. Machan
Amartya Sen is a Harvard University, Nobel Prize winner in economics, who has been Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he also received much of his higher education. Sen has been a very active player in the field of political economic debates and although he is no champion of the fully free society, he has been closely associated with the ideas of human freedom as they relate to economic development in poor countries. He is widely respected and admired and was on excellent terms with both the late Robert Nozick, the Harvard libertarian political philosopher, and Peter Bauer, the late developmental economists who trusted classical ideas of liberty to serve as the best means to rescue the poor around the globe.
On of Sen’s most influential books is Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999). At first glance the title suggests that Sen shares Bauer’s ideas but that would be wrong. Sen’s idea of what freedom means is very different from Bauer’s and other classical liberals and libertarians.
What Sen means by freedom is the ability—or capability—of people to take active part in politics whereby they can demand support for their various projects. We know this system as the democratic welfare state. But in Sen’s hands it has some nuances worth exploring.
For starters, Sen holds that the infrastructure or legal order of a country is something that is to be decided upon by way of the democratic process or national conversation. In other words, there are no principles such as the American Founder’s believed in, basic individual rights governments must secure. The principles, if we can even call them that, are conventional, decided upon in a kind of national dialogue. The idea of natural rights or natural laws that are supposed to be discovered and on which the law ought to rest is absent from Sen’s position. Everything is open for debate and discussion and only after the discussion has ended can we talk of constitutional principles, fundamental laws, justice and the like. As he puts it,
“Indeed, the connection between public reasoning and the formulation and use of human rights is extremely important to understand.~ Any general plausibility that these ethical claims, or their denials, have is dependent, on this theory, on their survival and flourishing when they encounter unobstructed discussion and scrutiny, along with adequately wide informational availability.” (“Elements of a Theory of Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4  p. 349.)
Contrary, then, to the American political tradition, which owes a great deal to John Locke’s idea of natural rights—meaning, rights derived from an understanding of an objectively ascertainable human nature—Sen’s idea of basic justice or right has no foundation in nature, only in widespread conversation.
Now this sounds like a coherent notion until one digs a bit into some of what is presupposed in Sen’s position. One thing, for example, that does not appear to rest on debate and discussion is the right of everyone to take part in the discussion! So it appears there is, after all, a natural base for Sen’s idea of freedom—everyone, because of his or her humanity, has the right to take part in political deliberations. Why? The one good answer to this is that by virtue of our human nature, we are entitle to have our political ideas aired in a human community. Being human, moral agents, is what this entitlement or right rests on, not on a discussion or debate.
Now if it is true that there is at least one principle that isn’t negotiable, namely, the principle of free political participation, there could be others. If it turns out that the same features of human nature that support this right to freedom also support other rights, they, too, would be morally and political immune to being discussed away.
One such right that is immediately evident is the right to private property. One’s labor and time, for example, couldn’t be up for public debate—no one has the right to decide that you or I may or may not make decisions respecting the disposition of our labor, our time, indeed, our lives!
Sen’s idea of freedom, however, strongly implies that participants in a democratic discussion and political debate could conclude with the idea that my or your or anyone’s life could be conscripted to serve various goals to which no consent has been given. But then the same could hold for the right of participation in political discussion—that right, too, could be debated away (and in some countries it has been and is, because the foundation of the right to take part in politics is not deemed to be natural but conventional).
A well integrated theory of freedom cannot accept that some of our rights are firmly grounded while others up for debate. These rights are all unalienable. Which means that democratic debate may not end with conclusions leading to the abrogation of these rights. And that is just the kind of freedom that the classical liberals, like Peter Bauer, believed is fundamental and not up for compromise. It is also the best avenue for development and emergence from poverty.
Professor Sen’s bifurcated theory of the right to freedom, whereby political participation is an absolute but property rights, for example, a mere conventional right, just will not hold up when fully scrutinized.