Posts Tagged ‘Amartya Sen’

Amartya Sen on democracy and famine

June 2, 2015

I was taught as a boy that famines in countries such as India and China were caused by overpopulation.  But there are more than twice as many people in both countries now than there were then, and yet they are better fed—perhaps I should say less malnourished.

I learned from Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, that the true cause of famine in modern times is poverty and autocracy.

No rich person in India or China ever starved to death, nor did any governmental official.  People went hungry because they lacked the means to buy food, and they lacked a political voice to make government respond to their distress.

Here’s how Amartya Sen put it in a 2011 interview.

… Famines have actually not occurred in functioning democracies and … … there was a good reason for it. My first book on the subject, Poverty and Famines, came out in 1981, and by then I understood something about how famines operate and how easy it is to prevent them. You can’’t prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort.  Then the question was why don’t the governments stop them?

The first answer is that the government servants and the leaders are upper class.  They never starve.  They never suffer from famine, and therefore they don’’t have a personal incentive to stop it. 

Second, if the government is vulnerable to public opinion, then famines are a dreadfully bad thing to have.  You can’’t win many elections after a famine, and you don’t like being criticized by newspapers, opposition parties in parliament, and so on.  Democracy gives the government an immediate political incentive to act.

Famines occur under a colonial administration, like the British Raj in India or for that matter in Ireland, or under military dictators in one country after another, like Somalia and Ethiopia, or in one-party states like the Soviet Union and China.


Why I am not a population bomber

May 11, 2015

In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:

The_Population_BombThe battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

via Wikipedia.

Ehrlich argued that the world’s fundamental problem was that there were too many people in the world, and that the only solution was by means of birth control if possible, but not by relief of poverty or increase of food supply.

At the time he wrote, there were 3.5 billion people in the world.  Now there are 7.2 billion, but there is less hunger and starvation in the world than there is today.

Nowadays Ehrlich admits he exaggerated for dramatic effect, but he says it was for a good purpose, which was to alert people to the danger of overpopulation.

I don’t agree it served a good purpose.  I think Ehrlich put obstacles in the way of people such as Norman Borlaug who sought to increase food production and relieve famine.  What good was it, people asked, if it results in more people being born who eventually would starve to death anyway?

Mathusianism has long been used as an excuse to let people starve.  The British government used this excuse for failing to relieve famine in Ireland in the 1840s and in India in the 1940s.   It is still used as an excuse for failing to relieve famine in Africa.

The great economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that there never has been a famine in a democracy, because in a democracy, public opinion will not permit allowing a large percentage of the population to starve.

In modern times, the problem has never been that there was not enough food to go around, he wrote.  The problem was people who were too poor to buy the food that was available.

Yet Ehrlich’s ideas still have wider circulation than Sen’s, at least among people I hang out with.  I still hear people say, when we’re talking about some social problem, that the basic underlying problem is that there are too many people in the world.

And sometimes this is followed—and this makes my blood run cold—by the remark, “We’ve got to thin the herd.”

The best thing I can say for people who talk like this is that they don’t realize the genocidal implications of what they’re saying.