Authoritarian Success Stories? Evaluating Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” in the Unfree World

iStock photo by imaginima (2021)

By: Claire Chen

Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” examines a provocative question posed by authoritarian governments and their sympathizers: does economic development truly necessitate liberal political values, especially in today’s developing world?

Such a question becomes especially interesting in the context of Asia’s rapidly industrializing economies. While it is true that some wealthy nations have stable democratic governments, most notably post-WWII Japan, the relationship between prosperity and liberalism is not always clear-cut. South Korea and Taiwan are relatively affluent democracies today, but their authoritarian stints, which both lasted until 1987, could be compatible with economic development. In fact, their most rapid period of industrialization – the Miracle on the Han River and the Taiwan Miracle, respectively – were designed and implemented by an authoritarian state.

In fact, the de facto one-party states of Singapore and China undeniably modernized under the auspices of an unfree state. In 1999, at the time of the book’s publication, both countries had limited political freedom and a difficult human rights record per the 1999–2000 “Freedom in the World” report – yet they were able to adapt their economies to the 21st century world. 

“China’s one-party meritocracy can advertise itself … as a successor to democratic capitalism, an alternative model for the developing world.”

Ross Douthat, New York Times

The context of this development matters. As Ross Douthat of the New York Times explains, “China offers a somewhat coherent ideological alternative to the liberal-democratic order. The Putin regime is a parody of Western democracy, and Iran’s mixture of theocracy and pseudodemocracy holds little broad appeal. But China’s one-party meritocracy can advertise itself — maybe less effectively since Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power but still with some degree of plausibility — as a successor to democratic capitalism, an alternative model for the developing world.”

And there are echoes of this 2023 argument in the 1999 “Development as Freedom,” in which Sen takes aim at the premise that freedom is an acceptable sacrifice for development. He first establishes his ideological framework in which freedom – defined as the right of people to make decisions about their own lives and the affairs of the community (Sen p. 16) – is an essential component of economic prosperity. He then demonstrates that rapidly developing but authoritarian nations such as China actually need freedom for successful social development. Finally, he explains how his interpretation of freedom may actually transcend the current Western consensus of market capitalism, confirming his core belief in human dignity as the central tenet of his approach to economics.

First, it is necessary to understand why Sen interprets freedom as an essential component of prosperity. He provides a variety of reasons that he explores later in the book, noting that freedom provides value as a means unto itself (Ch. 6), economic stability in times of crisis (Ch. 7), and even long-term global sustainability (Ch. 9). But he is not just throwing out justifications for democracy, and to a lesser extent, market economies, into the void. Sen positions his arguments such that he takes an active, combative approach to the critics who believe that it is possible to create economic prosperity without freedom. 

Specifically, he argues that the ability to use material wealth depends on various “contingent circumstances” that can either support or stymie the ability to improve one’s own livelihood (70). Therefore, he views poverty chiefly through the lens of “capability deprivation,” which accounts for non-income factors contributing to hardship. The Chronic Poverty Research Center identifies capability deprivation as “[p]overty defined in relation to the failure to achieve basic capabilities such as being adequately nourished, leading a healthy life or taking part in the life of the community.”

Sen’s approach to poverty is fundamentally a perspective centered on inequality. As he puts it, those with different traits have variable abilities to participate meaningfully in society (p. 88). And it is not just individual circumstance, but also broader societal structures such as nationality (p. 94), race (p. 96), or even geography (p. 101) that contribute to differences in deprivation.

Sen believes that it is with these non-income capability deprivations and inevitable inequalities that authoritarian governments struggle. The reason why is partly definitional: Sen unsurprisingly views freedoms like political participation as a requisite component of capability, arguing, “the intensity of economic needs adds to—rather than subtracts from—the urgency of political freedoms” (p. 148). However, authoritarian governments are also structurally ineffective at responding to capability deprivations. One such example is with the government response to famine and other acute crises, whose effects become especially pernicious in authoritarian societies (Ch. 7). Sen argues that famines never occurred in democracies “because famines are extremely easy to prevent if the government tries to prevent them, and a government in a multiparty democracy with elections and free media has strong political incentives to undertake famine prevention” (p. 51–52).

In fact, this discussion of crises ties the conceptual framework that Sen develops into the authoritarian case studies previously mentioned. He is particularly preoccupied with contrasting China with India.

Obviously, these countries have changed since 1999. Sen’s characterization of India as “an ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences” that nevertheless “survives and functions remarkably well as a political unit with a democratic system” (p. 157) is challenged by the recent ascent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist platform and what critics label as its “persecution” of the country’s Muslim minority.

Nevertheless, Sen’s endeavor to capture the differences between the two largest developing economies presents a compelling thought exercise. He argues that democratic freedoms in India, however flawed they are as the modern reader understands them, are responsible for the country’s “flexibility of economic policy and the responsiveness of public action to social crisis,” and that it is the “protective power of democracy” that has prevented India from experiencing any famines since independence (p. 43). In contrast, Sen attributes China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward to its lack of free press and opposition politics, which may draw attention to its clear failure in government policy (pp. 43, 181).

Sen also dismantles the claim that authoritarian coercion can achieve a greater good. Unsustainable population growth, and its unfortunate implications, had remained a particular concern of the two governments at the time. Sen contrasts China’s one-child policy not only as violation of personal reproductive freedom (p. 220) but also as less effective than the natural measures adopted by Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which are the result of advances in female education, stronger female labor force participation, and better healthcare (p. 221–222).

This case study of effectiveness lends itself naturally to the broader question of whether authoritarianism, setting aside the fact that political freedom itself is a critical component of economic welfare, can ever be effective. Here it is worth examining another authoritarian state known for its prosperity: Singapore.

Sen briefly touches on Singapore’s authoritarian practices. In fact, he ascribes the argument that authoritarian states are more effective at promoting economic development to Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (p. 15). Lee was well-known as a “benevolent dictator,” and Singapore is known as safe and orderly, making it a more compelling case study than China, whose international reputation receives much more negative attention.

Singapore also lends itself more easily to a comparison with India. This is because Singapore’s own version of cultural pluralism even apportions minority representation in its de facto one-party government. And despite major difficulties with civil and political liberties, Singapore nevertheless made strides in improving these liberties over the years.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore has many vocal proponents of its system. The ruling party still enjoys broad public support even in light of the recent COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, the government’s position on highly controversial subjects such as the death penalty continues to have some level of support from the public. 

Singapore even has its fair share of Western admirers from across the political spectrum for issues ranging from public healthcare to drug trafficking. As journalist Farah Stockman writes for the New York Times, “Anyone who has visited the city-state of nearly six million people has seen how much cleaner and safer and more orderly it feels than the United States. Its airport doubles as a high-end mall. Public gardens bloom free of the litter, pickpockets or homeless encampments that have become familiar sights in U.S. cities. Robberies are so rare — and surveillance so pervasive — that some high-end bars don’t even lock their doors at night.”

But Singapore’s paradise is for some, not all. Migrant workers constitute 38 percent of Singapore’s labor force but have limited legal protection. Unsurprisingly, they are also the most vulnerable to crises: Catherine James of Nikkei Asia notes that during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, 86% of those infected in the city were migrant workers, who lack accessible healthcare and safe living conditions.

In fact, Stockman also observes the inequality lurking beneath the surface, noting, “Singapore is a place where forklift operators can face jail time for taking one-dollar bribes but executives from the Singaporean conglomerate Keppel — who paid millions in bribes, according to the U.S. Justice Department — got off with ‘stern warnings.’”

Such a characterization aligns neatly with Sen’s description of capability deprivation and inequality. A majority of Singaporeans believe that migrant workers “threaten [Singaporean] culture and heritage,” while significant minorities believe that migrant workers “commit a high number of crimes,” “have a poor work ethic and cannot be trusted,” and more. In short, Singapore’s economic miracle is sustained by the broader exclusion of migrant workers in public life.

This critique of Singapore’s economic system leads to the final and most interesting implication of Sen’s theory: whether Western democracies, traditionally touted as the antidote to authoritarianism, are compatible with his understanding of freedom. To be clear, Sen truly believes in the value of democracy, arguing that it is “an essential component of the process of development” (p. 157). At the same time, he is frank about how Western democracies grapple with their own inequalities, such as in the differential mortality rates between black and white Americans (p. 97), a problem that persists to this day.

Sen even ponders what democratic freedoms look like in societies without a Western cultural background. He notes, “Western promoters of personal and political liberty in the non-Western world often see this as bringing Occidental values to Asia and Africa. The world is invited to join the club of ‘Western democracy’ and to admire and endorse traditional ‘Western values’” (p. 233). 

In fact, authoritarian states often use this relationship to criticize the value of freedom itself. Kenneth Roth, who led the American NGO Human Rights Watch until 2022, writes in an article for Foreign Policy that international legitimacy for the Russian government derives from multiple sources given that “many governments benefit from Russian arms or military support, remember past Soviet support for their anticolonial fights, or embrace the Kremlin’s view that the defense of human rights is Western imperial imposition.”

It is this third point that acknowledges the importance of rhetoric in shaping policy. Recharacterizing basic freedoms as a Western construct undermines the real value that political liberties bring to communities regardless of preexisting cultural norms. For example, the right to criticize the state, far from being an “imperial imposition,” actually forces it to take effective action in times of crisis, such as in Sen’s famine example. In fact, Sen is highly critical of what he describes as the “Asian values” defense, correctly calling out its propagation not by “independent historians” but instead by authoritarian states seeking to justify their rule (p. 231).

Moreover, Sen turns the traditional philosophical justification of democracy on its head by examining the manifestation of democratic freedoms in other great philosophical traditions. Drawing upon religious traditions ranging from Buddhism to Confucianism, and from leaders such as Ashoka and Saladin, Sen not only embraces the diversity of non-Western traditions but also establishes the basis for an alternative approach to democratization that does not assume the supremacy of a Western world order (Ch. 10).

In short, Sen successfully justifies the universal importance of defending human freedoms from the perspective of a theorist. He does not act as a policymaker, nor has he advocated for specific human rights policy decisions (p. 286). However, his critical examination of the egregious breaches of freedom in the unfree world, and the unfreedoms found even in Western democracies, sufficiently demonstrates the argument that freedom must be at the center of any conversation about economic development. The reader is left with the sense that it is only through prioritizing freedom that economic development can truly enhance the community it seeks to improve.

By Claire Chen

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