Amartya Sen (extreme right) with other Nobel Prize winners at the prize ceremony in the concert hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1998.(REUTERS)
Amartya Sen (extreme right) with other Nobel Prize winners at the prize ceremony in the concert hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1998.(REUTERS)

Review: How to Read Amartya Sen by Lawrence Hamilton

Lawrence Hamilton has put together Amartya Sen’s extraordinary range of ideas in a unified narrative marked by a thankful absence of obscure jargon.
By Pulin B Nayak | Hindustan times
UPDATED ON NOV 27, 2020 07:53 PM IST
192pp, Rs 499; Penguin Random House
192pp, Rs 499; Penguin Random House

Amartya Sen was voted president of the American Economic Association in early January, 1994. He was 60 years of age, Lamont University Professor at Harvard, and holder of an Indian passport. This was a signal honour and in an appreciative tribute, Robert Solow of MIT, an earlier President of the AEA and a Nobel laureate, told an interviewer of the New York Times that Sen is “the conscience of our profession”.

Four years on, in 1998, Amartya Sen himself became a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize for his contributions to welfare economics. The citation mentioned his contributions to the axiomatic theory of social choice, poverty indices and empirical studies of famine. Consistently writing and publishing since the 1950s, Sen was already into the fifth decade of his extraordinary oeuvre.

More than two decades after the Nobel, the pace and scope of 87-year-old Sen’s work does not seem to have slowed down. He even continues to teach his graduate course at Harvard. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most prominent world intellectuals today and that his has been one of the most consistent and best-known voices for the poor and the downtrodden.

The book under review offers a comprehensive introduction to Sen’s essential ideas. A former student of the Nobel laureate, the author Lawrence Hamilton, is now professor of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. This reviewer believes it is a great advantage to have a political scientist, and not an economist, put together Sen’s extraordinary range of ideas into a unified narrative. The latter are often too fond of using obscure jargon.

A quintessential blend of economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen was a brilliant student of economics at Presidency College, Kolkata, after which he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed his doctorate under Joan Robinson. Even in those early days at Cambridge in the 1950s, he was deeply engaged with philosophical issues. If one were to mention one intellectual mentor of Amartya Sen, it would have to be Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, and one of the finest representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Sen is most associated with social choice theory. This is an abstract terrain which caught the interest of 18th century French mathematician, Nicolas de Condorcet, and later, of English author, Lewis Carroll. The problem was one of consistently aggregating the preferences of a group of individuals over alternative social states. In a world where differences in tastes and preferences are the norm, this was clearly a non-trivial problem.

Author Lawrence Hamilton (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Lawrence Hamilton (Courtesy the publisher)

In 1951, Kenneth Arrow, possibly the greatest theoretical economist of the 20th century, completed his doctoral dissertation, Social Choice and Individual Values, at Columbia University. In this ground breaking work, he demonstrated, using tools of mathematical logic, that there is no democratic way of aggregating the preferences of individuals into a social preference ordering if the rules of aggregation are to abide by certain ‘reasonable’ postulates.

Amartya Sen’s work systematically builds on this work of Arrow’s, and demonstrates how, and under what conditions, we may expect a collective or a group to arrive at reasonable decisions. Perhaps his greatest contribution has been to establish that it is often not necessary to identify the best alternative from a list of options but to be satisfied with comparing the available imperfect alternatives against one another. He has mounted possibly the strongest critique to the dominant school of utilitarianism, which is centred on human beings deriving utility from the consumption of commodities, and then proceeding to choose that option which maximizes the summation of individual utilities. Sen argues that, instead, the purpose of public policy should be to enhance the ‘capabilities’ of individuals to enable them to reach their full potential. Enhancing capabilities is also synonymous with enlarging the freedoms that individuals may enjoy. It is also integral to enhancing justice and the quality of democratic engagement in the political arena.

Lest it be concluded that Sen only indulges in high philosophical abstractions, it needs to be emphasized that he is very focused on practical issues. One of his greatest insights is to assure us that a democratic polity and a free press are the best antidote to famines. For anyone interested in the exciting cerebral world of Amartya Sen, this book is an invaluable companion.

Pulin B Nayak taught Economics at the Delhi School of Economics

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