Vital Ideas in Conflict—Sen versus Bauer
Tibor R. Machan
A most influential book by Harvard Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen
is Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999). At first glance the title
suggests that Sen shares the late Peter Bauer’s ideas who argued that
global free market policies would best help the poor everywhere. But that
isn’t Sen’s message at all. What Sen means by freedom is the capability
of people to take active part in politics so they can demand support for
their various needs and projects. This is the democratic welfare state.
Sen holds that the legal infrastructure of a country is to be decided upon
by way of a 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 national dialogue. In contrast to this,
natural rights or natural laws affirmed by the American Founders are supposed to be discovered and the laws of society should rest on them.
This idea of the American Founders 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.)
Now, this idea sounds coherent 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 entitled to
have our political ideas aired in a human community. Being human and thus
moral agents is what this entitlement or right rests on, not on a
discussion or debate. But now other rights could also exist independently
of a national discussion.
Such rights that are immediately evident are those to one’s life,
one’s liberty of thought and conduct, as well as to private property,
meaning that one’s ownership of one’s labor and time, for example,
couldn’t be up for public debate—no one has the proper authority 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. In the United
States Professor Cass Sunstein, a very influential party in the team of
President Barrack Obama, holds this view about rights.
In any case, 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, meaning 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 because it encourages
initiative and voluntary cooperation, not coercion.
Professor Sen’s bifurcated theory of the right to freedom,
whereby political participation is an absolute but others, such as
property rights, are conventional rights, just will not hold up when fully
In response to some of my points, Amartya Sen wrote:
Dear Tibor, 16 Oct 2009
Many thanks for your letter. This reply has to be short since I am about to leave for India and China for a longish trip…..
Re the flute, you are quite right that the issue of decency is quite different from that of justice and right. My discussion of the example was concerned only with the latter issue.
I have also now seen the piece you have sent me under the provocative title of Bauer versus Sen. Since Peter was a close friend of mine, and I have written about this and also wrote an intro to his work for others, I think you overestimate our divide. In general your representation of my arguments is also, I fear, somewhat mistaken. There is a priority of liberty (which I elaborately discuss in the new book) but it arises from the conviction that reasoning in public would sustain it. I take it that you are not going for some kind of a divine right of you to assert a priority irrespective of everyone else’s reasoning. Peter would not have disagreed with what I am saying here.
But I do disagree with you on the inclusion of property rights within the realm of personal liberty – an argument that I have spelt out fairly extensively. But I must stop now.
Best regards, Amartya