Amartya Sen: Fear, Fact, and Freedom

Amartya SenOn September 22, 1994, the venerable New York Review of Books published economist Amartya Sen’s essay “Population: Delusion and Reality,” his response to the long history of worries about over-population, from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) to Garrett Hardin (Living Within Limits).  Addressing the “confrontation between apocalyptic pessimism, on the one hand, and a dismissive smugness, on the other,” Sen,  weaving between the two, masterfully dismantles both sides of the argument—especially the former.  It is classic Sen.  It remains essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the “Third World,” Developing World, Southern Hemisphere countries—whatever the day’s vogue term is.

Sen musters much empirical research, as usual, to bolster his view that though the world population is an important factor, it should not be approached with apocalyptic alarmism because “catastrophic images have encouraged a tendency to search for emergency solutions which treat the people involved not as reasonable beings, allies facing a common problem, but as impulsive and uncontrolled sources of great social harm, in need of strong discipline.”  His mastery of history is equally impressive.  Here it allows him to cut quickly to the racial tensions underlying the alarmism.  “It is easy to understand,” he writes, ”the fears of relatively well-off people at the thought of being surrounded by a fast growing and increasingly impoverished Southern population.”  Yet Europe went through similarly rapid population growth earlier, and, he continues, “the sense of a growing ‘imbalance’ in the world, based only on recent trends, ignores history and implicitly presumes that the expansion of Europeans earlier on was natural, whereas the same process happening now to other populations unnaturally disturbs the ‘balance.’”

With On Ethics and Economics (1987), Sen virtually invented a field of enquiry that seems to grow more important each day.  In 1998 he would receive the Nobel Prize.  Finally, as great an empiricist and historian as he is, perhaps the greatest facet of his work is in his ethics and his dedication to human dignity and, above all, human freedom.  ”Population: Delusion and Reality” ultimately argues against coercive measures to curb population growth—measures born out of alarmism and lack of trust in people—and for a collaborative model “that relies not on legal or economic restrictions but on rational decisions of women and men, based on expanded choices and enhanced security, and encouraged by open dialogue and extensive public discussions.”  Whether human beings actually deserve Sen’s faith in their rationality, their willingness to cooperate, their love of freedom is a knotty question, though the empirical evidence seems overwhelming that this kind of faith works better than unbelief.

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For my students I am making Sen’s essay available on this site. Click here.

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