Retributions | Sen Here and There

The role of public intellectual 

Writing on Milton Friedman—the great apostle of free markets—Paul Krugman argues,

What’s odd about Friedman’s absolutism on the virtues of markets and the vices of government is that in his work as an economist’s economist he was actually a model of restraint. As I pointed out earlier, he made great contributions to economic theory by emphasizing the role of individual rationality—but unlike some of his colleagues, he knew where to stop. Why didn’t he exhibit the same restraint in his role as a public intellectual?

The answer, I suspect, is that he got caught up in an essentially political role. Milton Friedman the great economist could and did acknowledge ambiguity. But Milton Friedman the great champion of free markets was expected to preach the true faith, not give voice to doubts. And he ended up playing the role his followers expected. As a result, over time the refreshing iconoclasm of his early career hardened into a rigid defense of what had become the new orthodoxy [link]

Krugman’s argument is fairly simple and yet important: Friedman was a great economist but  as a public intellectual, he often preached to the gallery sacrificing the rigor and restraint which characterized his academic work. Of course, Krugman’s views on Friedman are colored by his political persuasions and there is a case to be made that Krugman the public intellectual perhaps suffers from the same afflictions of dogma and certitude.

What makes Krugman’s thesis relevant to the Indian context is the debate surrounding Amartya Sen. Professor Sen is a renowned economist and thinker—a Nobel laureate no less—and in recent years has intervened forcefully in public debates on the nature of India’s development. Or more precisely, he has argued for a Rights-based model stressing the ‘centrality’ of entitlements to the India story.  It would be fair to say that no one has more influenced the UPA government’s economic thinking than Professor Sen; he has provided the intellectual cover for its statist programs and the various entitlements it has enacted. Indeed, Dr. Sen has hardly offered any policy innovations arguing for the same prescriptions which have failed India for decades. For instance, NREGA is little different from work-to-food programs which have existed  since 1950s and were eviscerated memorably by V.S. Naipaul in India: An Area of Darkness.

But Dr. Sen’s critics often run into an argument which can be crudely summarized thusly: Have you won a Nobel prize? Dr. Sen’s status as an eminent economic thinker is juxtaposed with the inability of most of his critics to furnish similar credentials to make the case that they have no business questioning the policy prescriptions of a Nobel laureate.

It is important to draw the distinction—as Krugman does in the case of Friedman—between Sen the economist and Sen the public intellectual. Dr. Sen is undoubtedly a great economist but should his advocacy of statist and failed policies not questioned because of that? Has Dr. Sen treated his policy interventions with the same degree of restraint as in the case of his academic work. For instance, it is hard to imagine that if Dr. Sen was writing in the American Economic Review, he would have held the critics of the Food Security Bill responsible for causing deaths by the virtue of their opposition.

Dr. Sen’s defenders make another point: That he has been widely misunderstood by the economically illiterate who have reduced his sophisticated arguments to a straw man they vilify endlessly. There is an element of truth in this; it is hard to imagine that an economist of his stature is unaware of the importance of growth in poverty alleviation. However, here is a simple test: when was the last time Dr. Sen argued in favor of growth-oriented policies or expressed concern over the derailing of India’s story? Dr. Sen is perhaps (unfairly) perceived as anti-growth because that is the argument he has advanced in his more accessible writing. Unfortunately, this is the bane of public intellectuals who choose to sacrifice analytical inquiry in favor of advancing only a particular set of policy prescriptions (For instance, how many people who have only read Krugman’s columns know that he is an avowed free trader?) To paraphrase Krugman, Sen as the great champion of government programs is expected to preach the true faith, not give voice to doubts.

More broadly speaking, we live in a world where the traditional lines between academic work and popular writing have substantially blurred. This is mostly a positive development. Public debate in India would certainly benefit from the voice of academic experts. However, when professors intervene in policy debate—especially ones which directly affect the future of India and its billion-plus population—their ideas must stand or fail on their own. Their academic credentials cannot be used to shut down critics or used to ramrod bad policies. To put it bluntly, Dr. Sen’s storied career perhaps affords him the privilege of being heard; and not the authority to demand unquestioning faith.


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.