‘Did you really deserve the Nobel prize?’ I ask Amartya Sen. ‘Why do you think you won?’ When you’re sitting opposite the world’s most respected living economist, at a time when the dismal science is under intense scrutiny, an opening question should be punchy.
Thankfully, Sen, an 83-year-old Harvard professor, has a sense of humour. ‘You can’t ask me that,’ he says while laughing warmly. ‘I have absolutely no idea why I won.’
Sen then composes himself. ‘Like any researcher, I’m happy if my work interests others,’ he says carefully. ‘But it would be a pretty bad way to conduct one’s life, thinking about how to win prizes, rather than being listened to.’
Sen has achieved both. Born in British India in the early 1930s — in Mankiganj, now part of Bangladesh — he witnessed famine and religious conflict as a boy, before coming to Cambridge to study economics. Fired by injustice, he has since used the subject to promote practical policies, mainly across the developing world, focused on poverty–alleviation, health, education and the functioning of democratic institutions.
Sen won his 1998 Nobel prize in economics, the judges’ committee said, for a body of academic work that ‘integrated economics and ethics … breaking new ground in social choice theory’. Beyond the ivory towers, he has advised countless governments.
Sen thinks his profession is overrated, though. ‘We economists are a rather self-confident bunch and that’s not entirely warranted,’ he says, pointing to the largely unpredicted 2008 financial crisis. Lest he slight colleagues, Sen then qualifies his remark. ‘Although economists tend to overestimate what we can offer the world, everyone else tends to underestimate.’
Sen’s reputation was built on his 1970 magnum opus Collective Choice and Social Welfare — a series of economic propositions, with mathematical proofs, designed to demonstrate that collective action can promote human welfare. This challenged then-fashionable ‘social choice’ arguments — including Kenneth Arrow’s famous ‘Impossibility Theorem’ — which asserted that individuals’ preferences and values are impossible to aggregate and that government action was therefore ineffective, even harmful.
Sen countered by stating the prerequisites needed — including education, freely disseminated ideas and universal voting rights — for collective action to make economic and moral sense. Taking on the free-marketeers, and bringing other social sciences into this work, he became ‘the conscience’ of economics. ‘I’ve always used political science, philosophy, some sociology — I’m not ashamed of that,’ he says. ‘These barriers are rather artificial.’
If the subcontinent of the 1930s and 1940s created Sen, then 1950s Cambridge shaped him. ‘Trinity was a wonderful college and, while Cambridge was wet and windy, the atmosphere was so exciting,’ he recalls. ‘I was a member of the Apostles — along with, we now know, several Soviet spies — and the strong discussion culture appealed to me enormously.’
The Cambridge economics faculty he joined was dominated by ‘Young Keynesians’ — including several former pupils of the late J.M. Keynes himself. They urged governments to adopt expansionary policies, designed to promote growth and social justice.
‘Like everyone, I was intensely interested in the example set by Keynes,’ says Sen. ‘He had reversed the gigantic policy mistakes of the 1930s — having been lucky to collaborate with President Franklin Roosevelt, who pushed through his ideas.’ Sen also cites the role Keynes played in creating the International Monetary Fund and the forerunner of today’s World Trade Organisation, post-war institutions which remain pivotal today.
Did Sen feel like an outsider in post-war Britain? ‘There was a lot of racial prejudice back then, but I can’t say I suffered,’ he says matter-of-factly. He dwells, instead, on taking tea with E.M. Forster — ‘Some days he was pleasant, some days not’ — who was then a fellow at King’s.
Sen’s seminal 1970s volume was fuelled by the same desire Keynes had to influence policy. ‘There was an unjustified pessimism about democracy and collective action, which I wanted to tackle,’ he says. Republished now, with 11 new chapters, the volume that launched Sen as a public intellectual could, once again, catch an intellectual wave.
Despite his soft voice and academic demeanour, Sen is not afraid to speak his mind. As the discussion turns inevitably to Europe, he reveals he was ‘very opposed’ to the formation of the single currency in the late 1990s. ‘I believe in the idea of European unity but to begin with a currency union is completely crazy,’ he says. ‘Britain was very wise not to join.’ He is concerned, though, that the UK is now ‘opting out’ of the European Union. ‘Britain tried to reform Europe, but didn’t try hard enough,’ he says. ‘The EU has made mistakes, but lots of things have gone well — membership gives you the right and duty to speak up, which appeals more than an exasperated exit.’
If he is worried about the UK, Sen is ‘a great deal more worried’ about President Trump. ‘He is certainly protectionist — and he won the election in a very contentious way.’ Sen warns America against the abolition of Obamacare. ‘Millions suffering from diseases now would lose their health cover — it would be a disaster.’
He acknowledges that Trump’s victory reflects ‘America’s upset psyche’, but doesn’t have much sympathy with those looking to shore up US influence. ‘There is no reason one country should be so dominant in the world,’ he says, railing against his adopted nation’s ‘disastrous’ foreign policy.
‘Many non-Americans feel their interests are not always safeguarded by America — for good reason,’ he says. ‘China’s growing economic and military strength mean we must recognise the world now has different poles of power.’
We talk about India, where Prime Minister Modi is ‘taking the country in the wrong direction’. But Sen remains optimistic about his native land, while discouraging western interference. ‘I don’t think regime-fixing is the job of the international community,’ he says.
He keeps bringing the discussion back to Brexit. ‘It is legitimate and appropriate to say that Britain wants to question how the EU works, but it is slightly frivolous to say “Britain has decided”,’ he argues. ‘Democracy demands debate and much more public reasoning than we are getting,’ he goes on, with a patient grin. ‘This EU referendum should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end.