Amartya Sen

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Nov 22 08:53:36 MST 1999

The Nation, December 6, 1999

Sen's Sensibility


Some years ago, I had the good fortune to befriend an extended family who
lived in a poor shantytown in the southern reaches of Santiago, Chile. I
got to know the Gamboas through their oldest son, Luis, a bricklayer in his
20s who had invited me out to meet them within minutes of our acquaintance.
His mother, Señora Hortensia, was the titular head of the family, but its
de facto leader was the eldest unmarried daughter, an extraordinary woman
in her early 40s named Maria Eugenia, or Maru.

Maru worked seventy-two hours a week in a garment factory on the other side
of Santiago, sewing sleeves onto blouses. She earned $50 a month. She also
brought home extra piecework, and after helping to cook and clean she would
sit at her own sewing machine for a couple more hours each evening, talking
to the stream of younger siblings, nieces and nephews who lived nearby and
stopped by for visits.

Maru had been a full-time seamstress since she was 13 years old. She had
been doing well in school, but then Señor Gamboa was injured on his
construction job, so she was forced to work. Luis told me that ten years
earlier Maru had been saliendo, going out, with a young man. But her long
working hours interfered with the relationship. It gave Luis great pain to
realize that it had become too late for his sister to start a family of her

If you asked Maru Gamboa if she was "happy" she would answer yes. She would
look at the growing Gamboa clan, at her younger brothers and sisters, now
helping her to support the family, at the little nieces and nephews who
adore her, at her thankful mother, and she would feel that she was at the
center of a circle of love that many people here in the North, in our world
of far-flung and sometimes broken nuclear families, might envy.

How would economic philosophy interpret the life of Maru Gamboa? A
conventional "free market" economist (or an editorial writer at the Wall
Street Journal) would not be interested in her at all. Such people simply
want to know a couple of statistics: per capita income and the rate of
economic growth. The US press runs regular stories extolling what it
sometimes calls the Chilean economic miracle. These glowing accounts
disregard the two ferocious recessions in the first decade or so of Gen.
Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, after the 1973 coup in which he seized
power. But the reports also pay little attention to how Chile's economic
growth in the nineties has been distributed.

Economists in the utilitarian tradition would listen to Maru Gamboa but
mainly do a calculus of her mental satisfaction. They would take notice of
her worries about her low pay and the family's chronic debt (the Gamboas
still owed on a small shop their father set up after he was disabled and
before he died), but they would also note approvingly that she was content,
even happy, amid her large family.

By contrast, libertarians would not care about her subjective feelings.
They would want to know about the formal political and economic rules that
governed Maru's life. They would disapprove of the Pinochet dictatorship,
and the more honest among them would recognize that its undemocratic legacy
is still a big part of Chilean life today. But they would
approve--heartily--of the "free market" conditions they say now prevail in
the country.

None of these approaches come close to capturing the complexity of the life
of Maria Eugenia Gamboa. Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in
economics, has spent decades earnestly, vigorously and with increasing
success trying to challenge economists and others to come up with better
ways to analyze human welfare. Sen's work is indispensable to understanding
how to confront the number-one problem in the world today: glaring, and
increasing, global inequality. Development as Freedom is Sen's first
extended effort to reach a general audience. Its contents were originally
lectures and shorter essays, and it is consequently somewhat repetitive and
choppy, in places dry and dense. Another problem is that Sen has made so
many original contributions, from his theory of why famines happen to his
demographic discovery of "missing women" as a sign of gender inequality,
that attempting to stuff so many into a single book was probably unwise.
But despite the problems, his basic message--informed, insightful,
compassionate and optimistic--does shine through, a summary of the work
still very much in progress of one of the most important thinkers of our

(complete article at

Louis Proyect

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