Development as Freedom
A popular conception of development that we were taught about through the ISSLP program was development as freedom. This conception of development was pioneered by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his classic book Development as Freedom. In this book, Sen is partially seeking to refute a more traditional perspective on development, a perspective which chooses to measure development by the economic strength of a nation. In response to reducing development to a country's GDP, one of the first points Sen makes clear is that wealth cannot be the sole goal of development, citing Aristotle, who said in The Nicomachean Ethics, “wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else” (Sen 14). This 2500 year-old reply to the modern problem of development shows that the ends of development cannot be wealth because wealth has no value in itself––it is only valuable insofar as it helps us achieve other ends. Therefore, to claim that wealth is the ends of development makes development a worthless project, because unpurposed wealth has no value to anyone.
Yet, most people do value wealth and there seems to be something valuable to wealth as a means. As Sen writes, “The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do––the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve” (Sen 14). This statement seems to resolve our problem with wealth, for it purposes wealth: wealth is not pursued for itself, but because it enables us to achieve what we want. Or, in Sen’s words, wealth increases our “substantive freedoms”. This creates a paradigm shift for the project of development. Prior to this, the end of development was wealth, but because the end of wealth is freedom, then the end of development is also freedom.
This is an expansive statement to make on development, as it increases the scope of development far beyond mere economic development. Economic development is still a major part of development, but only insofar as it increases freedom. In the example of the United States, a nation with absurd amounts of wealth, development then begins to take on different forms, such as “social opportunities”, which include things like healthcare and education. “Social opportunities” are, in fact, one of five instrumental freedoms that Sen identifies as increasing the overall freedom of the individual, the others being political freedoms, economic facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security (Sen 36). The expansion of these five freedoms make up the whole project of development for Sen.
Sen makes another important note while the laying out of his theory of development. Sen writes, “These capabilities [or freedoms] can be enhanced by public policy, but also, on the other side, the direction of public policy can be influenced by the effective use of participatory capabilities by the public” (Sen 18). Sen calls this the “two-way relationship” between freedom and development, in which freedom functions as both the ends of development and as the means to achieve development.
The Gold Standard?
Since the publication of Development as Freedom, Sen's conception of development has become the predominant paradigmatic framework from which development has been approached. Merely look at the language that cloaks the Human Development Reports that are put out by the United Nations. In the forward to the 2004 report , Mark Malloch Brown, the then-administrator of the United Nations Development Program, wrote, "Human development is first and foremost about allowing people to lead the kind of life they choose—and providing them with the tools and opportunities to make those choices." Brown then goes on to write in his thank-yous, "I would also like to extend special thanks to Amartya Sen, one of the godfathers of human development, who has not only contributed the first chapter but been an enormous influence in shaping our thinking on this important issue." Clearly, Sen's development as freedom is the current standard in development practices.
While I was learning about this paradigm of development, however, I found something wanting. It seemed to me that Sen was overlooking something (perhaps purposefully) in his conception of development: What are the ends of freedom? (1) Ironically, the same logic that permits Sen to dismiss wealth as the ends of development is the same logic that finds Sen’s definition of development wanting. Essentially, the question is why do we want freedom? Is it something inherent in the freedom itself or something that the freedom enables us to attain? The answer seems to be the latter, for no one wants freedom for the sake the ability to do what they want. Rather, everyone wants freedom for the sake of what they want. And what do we want in development?
(1) I say "perhaps purposefully" here in my conclusion because I doubt that Sen and many others are not aware of their omission of this question on freedom. Such a question seems to be a subjective one, where each person has their own answer. Freedom then is a convenient stopping point, a lowest common denominator where all people regardless of culture can agree on its virtue. From this perspective, any virtues beyond freedom are deemed too murky to pursue objectively.