I have been reading Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom. (Sen is a Nobel laureate Harvard Economist.) His basic thesis is that developmental progress and freedom are intertwined: that freedom is both a key factor in promoting material progress – it makes people more productive – and also, freedom is itself part of development, being important to quality of life and human happiness. An unfree nation could never be considered fully advanced no matter how materially rich it was.
Sen demolishes the idea that democracy and human rights are some sort of “luxury” that a poor nation can’t afford, that may conflict with economic necessities. To the contrary, he shows how democratic culture makes a nation better able to grapple with economic challenges. He also rebuts the notion that poor people care less about democratic rights than “more pressing” needs. And he provides an antidote to the currently fashionable notion that free market economics are somehow tainted, arguing that markets not only improve economic outcomes, but give people a crucial element of personal autonomy as well. (Arguments along all these lines also appear in my own new book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)
Sen discusses at length the question of what happiness really means – i.e., what is the true objective? (This too is addressed in my book.) Thus, while wealth and GDP are unarguably key determinants of human welfare – you can buy a lot with money – they are ultimately just instrumentalities, valued not for their own sakes, but for enabling us to get other things we really want. Certainly wealth would be meaningless if there were nothing to buy – though this statement is perhaps silly, as of course production and sale of goods and services is how wealth is developed in the first place. (Yet some on the left imagine we could somehow have a wealthy society without anyone grubbing for profits.)
Sen’s point is that the goal should be empowering people to be proactive in fulfilling their desires – whatever those desires happen to be. A society in which this happens is a good society.
It strikes me that there are two kinds of mindsets. One is Sen’s apparent view – the essence of classical liberalism — that people should be left free to pursue their own desiderata. The other mindset is prescriptionist. Those having it often use language of freedom and human welfare and even diversity – yet really want people regimented to conform to certain prescribed virtues. This is mainly a characteristic of the political left, ever keen to compel people to behave the way they should — or the way one thinks they should (e.g., current proposals to force us to buy medical insurance, whether we want it or not, on pain of fines and, ultimately, jail.) But of course the right also falls into this trap, having its own assertedly moralistic agenda that it wants to see enforced upon the unwilling.
Political vocabulary gets muddied when certain coercive ideologies (communism, socialism) get tagged as “left” and others no less coercive (fascism) as “right.” The real divide is not between such lefts and rights, but coercion versus freedom, liberal versus illiberal (and again I’m talking about classical John Stuart Mill liberalism, not what is called “liberalism” in today’s America).
Amartya Sen is right that society’s true purpose should be not conforming people, but, rather, to give them maximum opportunities to be, and get, what they want.* That is what freedom means, and that is the ultimate goal of developmental progress.
* Lest someone nitpick this, I will add the proviso that no harm to others is done, of course.