Amartya Sen returns 27 years later

We return to Amartya Sen 27 years later. On this occasion for the awarding this Friday of the Princess of Asturias Prize for Social Sciences 2021 to the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. We say that we return because already in 1994, the University of Valencia, together with the Faculty of Economics, Doctor Honoris Causa was invested, being the one in charge of reading the ‘laudatio’ the professor of this academic institution Emèrit Bono, co-author of this article. It was the first Spanish university to grant him this honor. Then his name was hardly known in Spain. It is not bad that, from time to time, the work of the Valencian university community is vindicated.

On that occasion, it was already underlined that Amartya Sen (Santiniketán, India, 1933) was a classic of political economy, a worthy successor to Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. And when the winds changed at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the domain of microeconomists and business economics ended, Professor Sen, who has taught at numerous universities such as Delhi, Cambridge or Harvard had all the numbers to be honored with the Nobel Prize. And so it was in 1998, when he was finally awarded such a distinction. It was then, when in this society of the spectacle, Professor Sen became a cult character in the university environment and in general in the world of culture.

But who is Amartya Sen and what are his basic ideas? The central core of his ideology is the concept of “positive freedom.” That is, the freedom to be and do what is possible in reality, the freedom to be and do what one considers appropriate, with sufficient reasons to estimate what is appropriate. Thus, freedom cannot be understood only as the response to the interference of others or as the reaction to the interference of others.

From this first concept derives another of his most relevant ideas, important within normative economics: the ‘capabilities’, the capacities and functions that any good has for human development. Hence its novel concept of economic development, conceived as a process of improving the capabilities rather than the utilities of the human being. The UN would welcome this concept of Amartya Sen for the elaboration of its well-known Human Development Index (the HDI).

Another of his basic lines of research has been the understanding of human behavior, developed in his ‘theory of social choice’, which addresses the central problems of a theory of democracy. We are referring to the conflict between individual motivations and choices, on the one hand, and the social optimum, on the other. That is, between morally appropriate behavior and the aggregation of individual preferences.

All this he would display in his research on well-being, inequalities and the ethical behavior of the economy, which over time have become the basic lines of economic analysis, as evidenced by the work of Thomas Piketty or that of the Nobel Prize Winners of 2019, the marriage formed by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.

The Bengali professor’s deep knowledge of economics is also marked by his philosophical vision, the result of multiple readings, especially of analytical philosophy (Wittgenstein is one of his main influences), and by his mathematical studies.

Before finalizing this text, a brief recollection of his first visit to Valencia in 1994. Amartya Sen seemed a bit surprised by the knowledge of his work, by the consideration he received and by the distinction of the first ‘honoris causa’ that he was awarded in Spain. It was held, as usual, in the old rector of the Nau of the University of Valencia, whose rector was then Ramon Lapiedra. Then, in 2001, he returned to the city to participate in the 14th Deben International Congress (European Business Ethics Network), organized by the Valencian foundation Étnor. The Jaume I University of Castellón then took advantage of the Nobel’s stay to also invest him with an honorary doctorate. And there, he reaffirmed his ideology: “Without freedom, there is no progress.”

Perhaps it remains to be noted that, if one reads Amartya Sen’s memoirs, ‘A home in the world’, recently published by Taurus, it is right to think that Professor Amartya Sen still has many things to say at 87 years old, about the economy, philosophy, society and, ultimately, life.

We want to say thanks to the author of this post for this remarkable material

Amartya Sen returns 27 years later

Hank Gilbert