Thoughts on economics and liberty

Amartya Sen’s nonsensical conception about freedom

In my draft manuscript, DOF, I discuss the meaning of freedom in some detail (see chapter 2). After discussing what freedom is, I outline what it is not. The following extract, which discusses what freedom is not, shows clearly how ideas like those of Amartya Sen can harm societies.


Other meanings don’t concern us. For example, the one about the political independence of nations. When people talk about India’s ‘freedom’ movement, or a book is entitled, Freedom at Midnight, people mean national independence, which has little or nothing to do with freedom. Thus, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Nehru’s India were independent but their people were not free. 
    In another, irrelevant form, freedom can also mean ‘an exemption from unpleasant or onerous conditions’. Not only is this wrong, it is often used to mislead. Etymologically such usage is closer to the Latin apathia or Greek apatheia (referring to absence of suffering), and has nothing to do with the root meanings of freedom. Amartya Sen thinks of poverty as unfreedom, believing that ‘economic unfreedom, in the form of extreme poverty, can make a person a helpless prey in the violation of other kinds of freedom.’[1]
    But this is nonsense. Freedom never means ‘freedom from poverty’. Slavery is unfreedom; poverty, which is mostly a consequence of unfreedom, is not (see here how unfreedom causes poverty.) By no stretch of imagination can a cause of an event be the same as the event itself! A waterfall is caused by gravity; it is not the same as gravity. Indeed, we can test Amartya Sen’s concept by enslaving him and giving him food and shelter. That might make Sen feel ‘free’ and happy, but no one else will be bought out so easily!
Figure: Food and shelter without freedom denies our humanity.
Unlike some economists like Amartya Sen, we are not farm chicken.

[1] Amartya Sen’s autobiography at the Nobel Prize website.
DIRECTLY RELATED BLOG POST: Why Amartya Sen is not a classical liberal

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12 thoughts on “Amartya Sen’s nonsensical conception about freedom
  1. Ravi

    Amartya Sen probably is talking about freedom to choose once a person gets his food and sheltor. I think basic needs are quite important as people cannot be free when poverty holds them back.

    How can we be so sure of our argument that people feel less free in China compared to other countries. "China model" of state capitalism is becoming quite attractive to many poor nations specially in Africa etc. Chinese intellectuals seems to be having quite a lot of freedom of thought on most of the subject in the world, as long as they dont attack the party.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ravi

    Re: ” I think basic needs are quite important as people cannot be free when poverty holds them back.”

    Let’s never mix up freedom with the social minimum. I’ve explained the social minimum at length but let’s be clear: FREEDOM is NOT about food. It is the ultimate folly to talk like Amartya Sen talks.


  3. Rajdeep

    Oh, um… for the uninitiated who drops by this post… Freedom never means ‘freedom from poverty’. Why? Because Sanjeev Sabhlok says so. Period.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Rajdeep

    You ask a good question. The response is NOT what you’ve suggested, though.

    I insist that everyone understand reasons themselves and NEVER believe something merely because someone has said it is so.

    The reasons for why I say so are found in 100s of books on classical liberalism, but if you want a shorter summary, please read chapters 2 to 4 of my draft manuscript Discovery of Freedom. Happy to address your questions on the SUBSTANCE of the issues.

    You also wrote a very nasty email that attacked me personally. Avoid doing that. I’ve trashed that email. Ad hominem attacks display your personal ignorance, and destroy all debate. Please stick to ISSUES and I’ll be happy to explain things to you. Attack me personally and you’re emails will be converted into spam.


  5. Rajdeep

    Surely I will sir. I have just downloaded the draft of your manuscript and shall take the liberty in buying some time before I get back to you with questions and/or opinions comme pertinents.
    In keeping with this piece and post your response to my comment, I find myself rather curious as to what exactly might have occurred to you as being ‘nasty’ with my comments. Frankly, I was a bit taken aback by the promptness you showed in deleting my comment and yet persisting with your counter to it. I am one who possesses very scant, if at all any, regard for what others might come to think of me. Nevertheless, I’d have been delighted if you persisted with both my comment as well as your interpretation of the same so that more of your readers could identify the inherent nastiness of my comment.
    But then you see sir, when you say and I quote (how I wish I had the zeal in maintaining the same font preferences too for an entirely faithful reproduction of your text!) “Indeed, we can test Amartya Sen’s concept by enslaving him and giving him food and shelter.” – do you really think that it identifies with even the minimum standards of civilized methods of discourse? Going further, you say “That might make Sen feel ‘free’ and happy, but no one else will be bought out so easily!” I tried a lot in making a sense out of it but I am sorry to phrase it as a ‘cheap thrill’ at best. I did retaliate and I have absolutely no qualms in being very clear on that. But it was you who instigated it. You set the standard of debate and I followed it.
    To be precise, I wouldn’t even have bothered to comment on your piece if I were not left to be flabbergasted by the way you seemed to be screaming out your rants. (Emboldening or capitalizing letters or words does in fact in standard practices of effective communication represent an act of yelling which many alike consider to be extremely offensive. Incidentally but pertinently, of this, needless to mention, I see nothing in Sen’s presentations of his ideas at all – just as can be expected from a man of his stature.) By the way, do you really think that when Sen says economic unfreedom, in the form of extreme poverty, can make a person a helpless prey in the violation of other kinds of freedom.he is actually propagating ‘harmful’ ‘nonsense’? The only time that I know of and that Sen came closest in uttering the word ‘nonsense’ was when he was asked to comment on how he would react to being called as “The Mother Teresa of Economics”. His answer was simple – that ought to be the most ‘stupid’ (this was actually the word used by him) comparison that one can ever make of him and one that he had ever come across.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Rajeep

    There you go again, trying to read things into presentation of data (e.g. bold/coloured, etc.). If you can rise above these things and pay attention to the message that would help. I have a reason why I do these things – for convenience of the reader who is in a hurry. You don’t like it then that’s your choice. Don’t imagine things about me when you don’t know me. That is too presumptuous and unwarranted. Stick to the issues.

    Re: the points you make – if the concept of negative and positive liberty is not yet clear from reading chapter 2, then please read it again.

    Would you say that Aung San Sui Kyi was free though she had ALL THE FOOD she needed?

    What is liberty? I’ve given MANY examples to show what liberty means. It DEFINITELY does not mean freedom from hunger.

    You would do well to read more widely if my book is not clear enough (being a draft it will undergo many revisions before publication).

    And yes, Amartya Sen’s ideas are almost as dangerous as Nehru’s. Follow them if you wish, but at your peril.


  7. Rajdeep

    Very well!  Sir, your reasoning seems to be completely at loss in scaling dimensions of a problem. Further, the track you assume in attacking a problem is maddeningly singular.
    Would you say that Aung San Sui Kyi was free though she had ALL THE FOOD she needed?
    Of course, not! But please, also help yourself by considering this… Would you say that Aung San Suu Kyi was free if she had ALL THE ‘LIBERTY’ as in whatever you or the other classical liberalists perceive it to be and that of course includes her being free of her prolonged house arrest (as would anybody consider to be an indispensable case for freedom and not just the classical liberalists) and yet she suffered from chronic malnutrition or acute hunger, which as far as medical science suggests I know, drags one to the brink of survival? Would having a right to vote, having the freedom to move around in tropical streets freely, having a free market choice of shopping malls to choose from for a visit mean anything to her if all of her body was ridden with infectious diseases? Better, place yourself in that sort of a situation and then try espousing your ideas of LIBERTY. It’s fairly simple you see. You need not have a degree in economics to be able to reason. Human beings are moral agents and concrete reasoning is a necessity that our morality demands us of.
    I am afraid, sir, whatever understanding you might be having of theories of classical liberalism, you seem to have completely missed Sen’s point. And that is precisely what your reasoning reflects. Cherry picking cannot be a substitute in arguing for freedom in its entirety.
    About getting over my fixations on presentation techniques, yes I am happy to comply with your suggestion. But that has not been my major concern. Count the words yourself and make a percentage calculation as to how much of what I had to say was about presentation. What you still haven’t answered is the following… “Indeed, we can test Amartya Sen’s concept by enslaving him and giving him food and shelter.” – do you really think that it identifies with even the minimum standards of civilized methods of discourse? …This has been my major concern with your post. Plain and simple.

  8. Rajdeep

    Sen's has been a multi-pronged approach in attacking problems of economics, sociology and philosophy alike. And so to be able to fully comprehend the power of his arguments, is to be able to think creatively ourselves. That I feel is terribly lacking in your post as is reflected.

  9. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Rajdeep

    Your first three words in relation to Aung San Sui Kyi are sufficient. Freedom is purely that: the restriction of one’s movements and choices.

    I don’t think you’ve read DOF yet. You second question is also resolved clearly in DOF. By no means am I suggesting that we tolerate a starving Aung San Sui Kyi. A free society can insure for such eventualities. Do read about the concept of social insurance and social mimimum Do read about my extensive and direct solutions to poverty.

    The problem with positive liberty concepts is that they lead to redistribution of income and constant dabbling of the state into every activity of ours. That is pure theft. I do not condone state theft. That is what socialists want and that, I have explained at length, destroys incentives and wealth. By the way, socialist states like Burma and N.Korea (and China) DO imprison freedom fighters. Socialists have KILLED millions of people and are the most dangerous breed of thinkers ever born on earth.

    It is their clouded thinking about the fundamentals that leads them to this outcome. India is a good example, where CRORES of people have been killed by socialist misgovernance that led to starvation. Fortunately some of that socialism has now gone. India does not follow Amartya Sen. That’s good for India.

    I’ll leave off here. Do read BFN ( in full.

    And yes, I am entitled to hypothetically test the concept of freedom by making any kind of analogy I think is suitable for the discussion. To get Indians out of their Nehruvian way of thinking is quite a challenge.


  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Rajdeep

    I’ve explained clearly why Amartya Sen’s arguments are FUNDAMENTALLY flawed. What more can I say? Just like I don’t recommend John Rawls, I don’t recommend Amartya Sen. By all means read Amartya Sen. But why is my attack on problems economics, sociology and philosophy – based on SOUND principles – not relevant? Have an open mind if you want to be a critical thinker. Read everyone then decide for yourself.


  11. Siddhant

    Let me try and explain Sen’s concept of freedom as easily as possible.

    Let us consider a state of the world with two individuals A and B who have all the same set of social, political and legal choices, same health conditions etc. But A is poorer than B. His income does not allow him to choose which school his daughter goes to; but B can send her son to any school she wants because of her higher income. Will you say A and B have the same set of choices from which to choose? No. To quote you: “Freedom is purely that: the [abscence of] restriction of one’s movements and choices.” So A is less free than B.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    In the society I speak about the children would go to excellent schools.

    But regardless, it is NONSENSICAL to even imagine that one can “equalise” everything, including opportunities. What about the KEY factor you’ve ignored – the character of the child? The poor child with character will do 1000s of times better than the rich child without character. Can you equalise character?

    It is IMMORAL TO STEAL on any pretext.

    Sen’s idea is merely rationalisation for THEFT. Sen’s ideas are therefore criminal, just like Marx’s ideas were. Such rationalisations of theft (and even murder) on the pretext of “equalising” everyone must be condemned.


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