The Nobel Prize-winning economist delivered the Prospect/Joseph Rowntree Foundation anti-poverty lecture in front of an audience of several hundred peopleby Jonathan Derbyshire / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Professor Amartya Sen with Prospect‘s editor Bronwen Maddox ©Sophia Schorr-Kon
Last night, Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, delivered the Prospect/Joseph Rowntree Foundation anti-poverty lecture in front of an audience of several hundred people at the London School of Economics, with many more watching the live stream online and following #LSEpoverty on Twitter.
Sen took as his title “Poverty and the Tolerance of the Intolerable”. No country in the world, he declared, is “free from poverty”, though in India, the country of his birth, where there is a “massive disparity between the privileged and the rest”, extreme deprivation is particularly deeply entrenched. India, he said, is an example of a country with a large middle class which is able to tolerate, with something approaching equanimity, the serious poverty in its midst. (Although the situation in India is extreme—Sen referred to the “special nature of the neglect of its poor” —there is no reason for those of us elsewhere in the world, especially the developed world, to be complacent. “Blaming the victims” of poverty, he observed, is as common today as it was in the era of the Poor Law.)
How is it, Sen asked, that a society is able to avert its gaze from, or else accept as a “fact of life”, the kind of deprivation that robs human beings of the very “social qualities” that make us the sort of creatures we are? To illustrate the damage that poverty does, Sen recalled his own experience, as a child of almost ten, of the Bengal famine of 1943. He remembered giving a banana to a malnourished woman and child. The woman burst into tears as she instinctively started to feed herself before offering the fruit to her child. “We are no longer human beings,” she cried.
Tolerance of destitution on a mass scale is a phenomenon that “demands explanation”, though none of the frequently canvassed explanations that Sen went on to consider is, he thought, at all satisfactory.
In the first of these explanations, tolerance of the intolerable is said simply to be a matter of “ignorance”. In the second, it is asserted that poverty is ineluctable and irremediable; as the Gospel According to St Matthew puts it, “Ye have the poor always with you.” Proponents of this explanation, said Sen, tend to present themselves as hard-nosed “realists” about poverty. The third explanation turns on an account of human nature: human beings are self-centred creatures who do not, and perhaps should not, care about the fate of others. This argument invokes a “moral contingency that makes poverty tolerable to those of us who do not suffer from it”. In other words, there is no duty on the non-poor to relieve the suffering of the poor.
Examining the first explanation, Sen suggested that, in the Indian case at least, tolerance of the intolerable was a consequence not so much of ignorance as of skewed priorites. The interests of India’s growing middle class have a “huge hold”, he argued, over the priorities of the national media. The result is a “crowding out of discussion of the nature, extent and remediability” of poverty and deprivation.
What about the ineluctability argument and the belief that the poor will always be with us? These are hard to defend on purely empirical grounds, Sen said. After all, there have been many successful large-scale attempts elsewhere in the world to significantly reduce poverty—not least in China, with which India compares unfavourably. And as for the final explanation—the claim that there is a “moral disconnect” between the privileged and the destitute—Sen noted that it is often wrongly attributed to the putative father of free-market economics, Adam Smith. Smith, he reminded the audience, was the author not only of The Wealth of Nations, but also of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, the first sentence of which reads as follows: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
If, as Sen insisted, none of these arguments is sufficient, on its own, to explain tolerance of extreme poverty, how are we to account for their enduring appeal? (They form part, he said, of a hard-to-dislodge “theory of poverty”.) The blame, he concluded, must lie with “fallacious reasoning”. And remedying the prevalence of that requires renovating the “practice of democracy” itself.
Download a free copy of the landmark essay collection Poverty in the UK: Can it be eradicated?, published by Prospect and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation