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Interview with Amartya Sen

This week, I published my argument for Labour’s approach to creating a country of ‘powerful people’. I mentioned that over the last ten years, I have been much influenced by the way I thought about this, by my practical experience trying to regenerate Hodge Hill, and philosophically, by Amartya Sen. Sen’s book, An Idea of Justice, was published this summer, and a few weeks ago I interviewed Prof Sen about his work. You can access an excerpt of the interview below…

LB: Rawls talks about equality of opportunity as a starting point, but you went further than that and you started talking about an argument that centred on a degree of equality and capability

AS: The opportunities for him are certain external features, and the opportunities – there’s a deep ambiguity about it. If many things are open to me I have opportunity to do them if only I could, but if I’m illiterate and education has been neglected [then] I might not be able to use that opportunity, but that wouldn’t be picked up in the Rawls metric because my opportunities are still the same. On the other hand it will be picked up on my deprivation of capabilities that in fact without the help of the state and the society, which allows me to acquire the education, which allows me to use the opportunity, I won’t have any great use of that opportunity. I think that’s where the distinction is and I think he, Nozick, wouldn’t move that way.

LB: And so for you, equality of opportunity was simply not a concept that was meaningful enough?

AS: Well opportunity could be defined in so many ways. There’s one way of defining it, equality of opportunity, which is in fact the equality of capability, but the libertarians got there first and they have – like the Americans getting onto the moon, naming every crater after something like an astronaut – they have got there and named “opportunity” in a way that we cannot get ownership of now. Some people even tend to think that’s how John Rawls used it, which is not the case at all.

LB: The second thing though that I was struck by was your take on whether you see capabilities as a static concept or do you think capabilities begin to change over time? Do we need to establish different capabilities as society advances? Or is there a threshold test – once we reach it, we’re done?

AS: No I don’t think so. Capability is just a concept of what is it we’re looking at. Now how far we can go along that and what new capabilities become possible is something we have to judge. The steps are like this.

Step 1 depends on the income we’re looking at and we’re looking at what it does to human life. Human life depends not only on income but also on social opportunities, libertarian opportunities which Nozick would emphasise, and so on, but also depends on what the state does for educating.

At the moment I’ve just finished writing an introduction to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment and 250 years ago we were already talking about the role of the state in expanding the opportunities that the workers have, arguing the difference between the working class human being and those born in rank and privilege, as he called them. He is actually dogmatic on the nurture side against the nature side. This is where the role of the state is, to change that picture. When people don’t read, it depends on what the state does to help us.

Here we’re looking at what it does to human life. Human life consists of doing certain things … to take part in the life of the community; to be able to talk about subjects that interest me and there freedom of speech comes into it.

In all kinds of ways there are different freedoms that effect our lives and you can assess what our lives are like by looking at the various freedoms that we have. And these freedoms, in terms of relations if you like, are the human capabilities that we’re looking at. There’s no mystery about that.

The opportunities, income, schools facilities, the basic income support that the government provides or any of these things .. public transport arrangements we have.. all these are part of the way our lives and freedoms are effected. And capability is just looking, saying don’t try to assess a society in a way that is detached from the lives freedoms of the people.

It’s not that the capabilities in concept change, certain capabilities become achievable in a way that is not. For example when I was giving a lecture in India, the capabilities that I have to be concerned with there, namely the ability of people to go to a school, to be literate, to be able to have a basic health care everywhere, to be able to seek some kind of medical response to one’s ailment; these become central issues in the Indian context which they’re not in the UK, because you’re well beyond that.

So you’re obviously thinking about different concepts, some of them remain important; taking part in the life of the community is important in the UK as it is in India; on the other hand many things are at a much higher level of capabilities and then you know 100 years from now they will talk about many other capabilities.

But the basic idea of what it is doing to human life remains the central question anyway.

LB: So you would therefore think this is an argument that has application in high-income countries as well as in low-income countries?

AS: Ah yes totally, totally. In some high-income countries [there is a need for] elementary capabilities, like in the United States – getting medical attention.

One of the very important ones in the British context is … the kind of more sophisticated poverty relief issues. The fact that people’s income earning ability is less but on top of that people’s ability to convert income into freedom of living is also less for much the same reason for which your income earning capability is less, you’re less able to walk about quickly, you need athletic support…that makes it harder for you to get a job, it also makes it harder for you with the same amount of income to have the same kind of living that you could have had with that income if you were very young.

LB: You seem to come back to this argument about community. My weekend job is serving a very poor area in inner city Birmingham where I am an MP in East Birmingham, Hodge Hill, with the 4th highest unemployment in the country. Over the last 4 or 5 years that I have been an MP, a lot of my work has been about regenerating that community.

So I test the law of your arguments in practice, when I go back to my constituency. I’ve been very struck though, and this is not something I’ve expected, but I have learned the hard way; I’ve been very struck that the ground floor of renewal is creating a stronger community.

It is impossible to get people to work together without a stronger sense of social solidarity, which is harder to muster in modern Britain. But I just wondered to what extent you’ve thought about this question of social solidarity?

AS: I think it’s very important and the reason that I wanted to come back to it is that community – of solidarity, of let’s save the poor and deprived – that way of talking about community is enormously constructive.

LB: But why do you think that community and a stronger sense of social solidarity in the way that you define it is important?

AS: I think that so many of our abilities to do things depend on interaction with each other. Many of these require organisation, which is often difficult at a local level to do, without the help of local organisations and so forth. And that’s so important in a context like town living, inner city existence whether in Europe or America.


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