The Tuesday Politics Thread Talks About Freedom

Hello everyone! Owen here, substituting for SheleetaHam on this fine Matrix Eve. Current events are awful and terrible, so I’m going to use this time to talk about freedom! Not the Toby Keith/Lee Greenwood kind, but the Amartya Sen type.

In his 1999 book Development as Freedom, parts of which I read recently, Sen argues that development economics, the concept of how we (rich Western countries) think about “underdeveloped” or “exploited” countries, needs to change significantly. Currently, structural adjustment policies, commonly known as neoliberal, support the free market and economic development above all, and stresses that privatization, reduced government regulations of the market, and welcoming foreign investment are the most important ways to measure the health of their citizens and ensure political and democratic development. Neoliberal policies leave very little room for class equality, relying on the argument that overall economic development benefits everybody, and leaves no room for increased gender/racial equality or environmental protection. While real-life neoliberal policies can be modified from the extreme, and often are by IMF and World Bank propositions, the theory behind them is still out of whack and definitely worth rethinking.

Sen believes that instead of solely focusing on economics, a country should be considered underdeveloped if it lacks a certain amount of freedom. Development is a process of expanding freedoms in five realms: political, economic, social, transparency guarantees (it is required to see what actions other actors are taking), and protective security (fixed institutional safety nets). A lack of freedom is known as an unfreedom, so a country is underdeveloped if it has too many unfreedoms. Instead of a direct line from economic development to political development, development begets development: it is the main objective of development to cause more development, in all sectors (including social ones).

Sen is not against the concepts of the free market and democracy: to the extent which they can remove unfreedoms, thus creating more freedom, they are worthwhile things for countries to help impose on others. As long as strong social safety nets are provided to alleviate poverty, creating economic choice can help legitimize other sources of freedom, such as a free press. Unlike neoliberalism, the theory of freedoms may also support direct aid in perpetuating a free press, rather than letting the economy work out whether it needs one. The necessity of strong safety nets suggests collectivism, but Sen is a firm individualist: more social, political, and economic equality as part of this more inclusive view of development allows for people to make more individual choices, the key tenet of freedom. Sen considers his theory distinct from neoliberalism because of the process aspect (different processes must be done in order to count different outcomes as development) and the opportunity aspect (more developed countries under this theory give people a wider range of opportunity, both in terms of making individual choices and ensuring that all populations have opportunity).

A specific development program that follows the theory of freedoms would be one to support women’s literacy rates. Studies have shown that targeting aid directly at women helps the women’s families and communities benefit, much more so than targeting aid directly at men. The free market and global capitalism has no time for supporting one sex specifically, but when considering the gender gap as an unfreedom, a country can contribute to multiple types of freedom at once by helping remove it.

When applying this “theory of freedoms,” it is worthwhile to discuss what you think an unfreedom is. For example, Sen posits that poverty is an unfreedom: with the United States’ staggering class inequality and poverty rates, does that mean it is an “underdeveloped” country? Neoliberals would typically say no, because a certain degree of poverty would be assumed in a country that can make its own economic free-market choices, but Sen might say that the United States has a significant enough number of unfreedom. It may be best to remove the binary classification between “developed” and “underdeveloped/developing” in order to more accurately talk about countries in terms of freedom. How much do you think the IMF, World Bank, and other global policy institutions need to shift away from neoliberalism and towards this theory? Do UN development policies that may be modeled after something akin to the theory of freedoms go far enough to justify true freedom, or are they too far on what I would call either extreme (self-determination without political development, or economic development without social development)?

I have not done a close read of Sen’s book (I am hoping to over winter break), but the content in it is generally well-presented, worthy of debate, and sounds better than the current “Washington Consensus:” the policies regarding how to intervene in other countries, that typically are geared towards great profit toward Western countries. I hope you find something to discuss or think about in this very brief summary that I typed up at one in the morning before this thread is due to go up, as I’m nothing if not punctual. To read some of the book for free, check out the website link in my profile. Get your booster and enjoy your holiday break! This thread has been brought to you by this specific Carvel Ice Cream Cake commercial.