EXACTLY 200 years after Thomas Malthus predicted starvation caused by overpopulation and scarce food, Amartya Sen has won a Nobel prize for economics partly for proving that Malthus was wrong. The Indian economist, who this year became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was officially awarded the prize for his work on welfare economics. Called “the conscience of the profession” by another Nobel laureate, Robert Solow, Mr Sen has merged philosophy with economics.
在马尔萨斯预测了由过剩人口和稀缺食物引发饥荒整整200年后，阿马蒂亚·森（Amartya Sen）因为部分地证明马尔萨斯是错误的而获得了诺贝尔经济学奖。这位今年成为剑桥三一学院院长的印度经济学家已经因为对福利经济学的研究而被正式授予了这个奖项。被另一位诺奖得主罗伯特·索洛（Robert Solow）称为“学界良心”的森融合了经济学和哲学。
In his 1981 book “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation”, Mr Sen challenged the prevailing wisdom that declining food supply is the most important cause of famine. Why, Mr Sen asked, has famine often occurred in countries where the supply of food per head is no lower than in previous years? He concluded that there are social and economic factors at work that limit the economic opportunities of certain groups and so cause starvation.
在他1981年的著作《贫困与饥荒：论权利与剥夺》（Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation）中，森挑战了日趋减少的食物供应是饥荒的最重要原因的主流观念。森问道：为什么饥荒经常发生在人均食物供应不再低于之前年份的国家？他的结论是：这是因为存在着限制特定人群机会的社会和经济因素在起作用，因而才引起饥荒。
In addition to his work in development economics, Mr Sen earned a reputation in the 1970s for significantly advancing the field of social-choice theory. Building on work done previously by another economist, Kenneth Arrow (who won the Nobel Prize in 1972), Mr Sen argued that inequality ought to be a fundamental consideration in collective action. To this end, he developed several indices with which to measure the welfare of individuals in society. His “poverty index” took into account not only the proportion of a society living below the poverty line, but also the degree of poverty among the most destitute. Mr Sen's work has been used by other economists not only to compare the welfare of individuals across society, but also of countries around the world.
除了发展经济学方面的研究，森还因为显著推进社会选择理论而在70年代名声大振。基于另一位经济学家（1972年获得诺贝尔奖的）肯尼斯·阿罗（Kenneth Arrow ）之前的研究，森指出，不平等应当成为集体行动中的一个根本关切。为此，他提出了多个用以衡量个人在社会中的福利的指数。他的“贫困指数”不仅加入了生活在贫困线下的社会比例，还将最贫困人群的贫困程度纳入其中。森的研究不仅一直被其他经济学家用来比较跨社会的个人福利，而且还被用来比较世界各国的个人福利。
The choice of Mr Sen is ironic. Last year's laureates, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, won their prize for work on the pricing of risk. As partners in Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that nearly collapsed, their work has recently made a lot of rich people poorer—themselves included. Mr Sen's work, in contrast, was aimed at making the poor better off. And Mr Sen himself is now $1m the richer.
From the print edition: Finance and economics 》》》
Amartya Sen on justice
How to do it better
In his study on how to create justice in a globalised world, Amartya Sen expounds on human aspiration and deprivation—and takes a swipe at John Rawls
The Idea of Justice. By Amartya Sen. Belknap Press; 496 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £25.
AT THE disputed crossroads where economics and ethics meet stands Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prize-winning economist who thinks like a philosopher. In a dauntingly impressive flow of books and papers over 40 years he has done much to change both disciplines for the better, humanising the one, bringing content from the real world to the other. His work is technical, however, and the fine detail has sometimes hidden the shape of the whole. Mr Sen's latest book answers both difficulties in magisterial style.
In the courtliest of tones, Mr Sen charges John Rawls, an American philosopher who died in 2002, with sending political thinkers up a tortuous blind alley. The Rawlsian project of trying to describe ideally just institutions is a distracting and ultimately fruitless way to think about social injustice, Mr Sen complains. Such a spirited attack against possibly the most influential English-speaking political philosopher of the past 100 years will alone excite attention.
“The Idea of Justice” serves also as a commanding summation of Mr Sen's own work on economic reasoning and on the elements and measurement of human well-being. It is often intricate but never worthy. Conceptual subtleties flank blunt accounts of famine's causes or physical handicap's economic effects. A conviction that economists and philosophers are in business to improve the world burns on almost every page.
Mr Sen writes with dry wit, a feel for history and a relaxed cosmopolitanism. He presumes that the values in play are of global, not purely Western, import. Earlier thinkers he cites on justice and toleration come less from fourth-century Athens or 17th-century England than from India, where he was born 75 years ago. Growing up in Bengal, he learned about poverty and equality directly, not from books.
Two themes predominate: economic rationality and social injustice. Mr Sen approaches them alike. He can, when he wants, theorise without oxygen at any height. But he believes that theory, to be of use, must keep its feet on the ground. Modern theorists in his view have drifted too far from the actual world.
Economists have tended to content themselves with a laughably simple picture of human motivation, rationality and well-being. People are not purely self-interested. They care for others and observe social norms. They do not always reason “instrumentally”, seeking least-cost means to given ends. They question the point of their aims and the worth of their wants. Well-being, finally, has no single measure and is not inscrutable to others. Its elements are many and do not boil down to “utility” or some cash-value equivalent.
Complexity, though, need not breed mystery. Well-being's diverse elements (freedom from hunger, disease, indignity and discrimination, to name four) are generally observable and, he believes, measurable. They are, to put it crudely, matters of fact, not taste, even if his philosophical story—that what underpins the several elements of well-being is that they all extend people's “capabilities”—is still argued over.
Rawls held that social justice depended on having just institutions, whereas Mr Sen thinks that good social outcomes are what matter. Strictly both could be right. The practical brunt of Mr Sen's criticism, however, is that just institutions do not ensure social justice. You can, in addition, recognise social injustices without knowing how a perfectly fair society would arrange or justify itself. Rawlsianism, though laudable in spirit, is too theoretical, and has distracted political philosophers from corrigible ills in the actual world.
Other arguments feed Mr Sen's main themes. For example, that social-choice theory (how to gauge a society's welfare from that of its members) permits good-enough, albeit incomplete, social comparisons. Also that the inevitable fact that moral judgments are made from a viewpoint does not make moral values local or subjective; that when talking of equality, you must always ask “equality of what?”; that rights carry extra weight without necessarily outweighing every concern; that justice's demands outrun countries' borders.
Tying the whole together is Mr Sen's confidence that, though values are complex, economics provides tools for thinking clearly about complexity. “The Idea of Justice” is a feast, though perhaps not one to be consumed at a single sitting.
Virtually every claim Mr Sen makes will be objected to by someone. Right-wingers who follow Friedrich Hayek or James Buchanan will treat “social justice” and “social choice” as nonsenses. Mr Sen wants to humanise canons of “maximising” rationality; behavioural economists, much in fashion, aim to ditch them altogether. Rawlsian liberals will rally to the defence of their hero. Nobody, however, can reasonably complain any longer that they do not see how the parts of Mr Sen's grand enterprise fit together.
His hero is Adam Smith: not the Smith of free-market legend, but the father of political economy who grasped the force of moral constraint and the value of sociability. To encapsulate the shift in attitude that Mr Sen has sought to bring about, ethics and economics are to be seen as Smith saw them: not two subjects, but one.
Mr Sen ends, suitably, with democracy. It can take many institutional forms, he says. But none succeeds without open debate about values and principles. To that vital element in public reason, as he calls it, “The Idea of Justice” is a contribution of the highest rank.