The Causes of Poverty (18): Amartya Sen, Famines, and Democracy

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have. Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen argues that democracy (which is a subset of human rights) is the best way to avoid famines. Of course, a well-functioning democracy is not a sufficient condition for the absence of famines. Other mechanisms also contribute to famine prevention, so it’s not impossible to see famines in democracies.

What is a famine?

G. B. Masefield states:

On balance it seems clear that any satisfactory definition of famine must provide that the food shortage is either widespread or extreme, if not both, and that the degree of extremity is best measured by human mortality from starvation. (source)

A famine occurs when there is a sudden collapse of the level of food availability and consumption (measured in terms of calorie intake). Sen’s argument is that a focus on lack of availability isn’t enough. Actual consumption is what counts. And consumption can drop when availability doesn’t (this was the case in the Bengal famine of 1943 for instance). Famines occur not only from a lack of food, caused by drought, crop failures or floods, but also from a lack of information. Rumors of a famine, even false rumors, are often enough for people to start hoarding and panic buying, which pushes up the price of goods, and which makes it impossible for poor people to get enough food. As a result, they may starve in the midst of abundance. A war may have the same effect or make it worse. And so can ineffective food distribution mechanisms.

Inequality

An important point about famines is therefore inequality:

While Famines involve fairly widespread acute starvation, there is no reason to think that it will affect all groups in the famine-affected nation. Indeed, it is by no means clear that there has ever occurred a famine in which all groups in a country have suffered from starvation, since different groups typically do have very different commanding powers over food, and an over-all shortage brings out the contrasting powers in stark clarity. Amartya Sen (source)

Information

Free information can counter these risks. It can debunk myths and rumors about food availability. It can inform accountable governments of certain risks and force them to act in order to remedy the food distribution, to impose price controls etc.

Price controls, however, are a risky business. Higher food prices may lead to a larger volume of food production because food producers will be encouraged to produce. Hence, higher prices may increase the overall availability of food and reduce the risk of famine. However, as we have seen, availability is not enough to stop famines. Distribution and equality of availability is just as important, and higher prices may result in very unequal availability and may put poor people at risk. But then, again, these poor people may find a better paying job in food production if food prices are higher… This is all very complicated indeed.

Limiting Free Speech (1): Introduction

I’m a strong defender of human rights in general and of free speech in particular. But I’m also convinced that the system of human rights is not a harmonious whole and that some rights can conflict; some rights may harm other rights, in which case one right has to be limited for the sake of the other. If you feel the urge of yelling “Fire!” in an overcrowded room, this expression of yours will cause panic and will therefore harm the right to life and bodily integrity of the people in the crowd.

This example is taken from a famous quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. (source)

I don’t claim that the choice for one right over the other is always as clearcut as in this example. Indeed, it can be a difficult and controversial choice, better left to impartial judges. But those choices have to be made. Here’s a previous post on the limits of human rights. NO OTHER LIMITS on rights are acceptable. Rights can only be limited by and because of other rights, not because of prudishness, political correctness, insult, humiliation or whatever.

This blog series examines some of the existing or proposed limits on the right to free speech, such blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, holocaust denial laws, pornography, derogatory speech laws, libel laws etc.

Free speech is an extremely important human right. You can check out this post on the importance of free speech for thinking and correct thinking according to Kant. In the same post you can find the argument by John Stuart Mill in which he correctly states that permitting the expression of errors or even lies encourages us to revisit the grounds of our own beliefs and thus strengthening those beliefs.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. John Stuart Mill

When we are confronted with opposing and controversial views, we benefit from having to justify our own views.

Given all this, any proposed or existing limitations on free speech should be strongly argued and the benefits of limitations should clearly and not marginally outweigh the harm. Any limit should also be very specific and not general. He or she who proposes a limit should prove that no other measures short of limiting rights can provide the same result. Limits can only be necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others. No other reasons are valid.

When two rights come into conflict, and a decision has to be made to limit one or the other right, one can look at the value that is being protected by either right. A journalist’s right to free speech can conflict with a politician’s right to privacy. If the expression by the journalist does not serve any important value, such as accountability, exposure of corruption etc. then the decision will be in favor of the right to privacy. If, on the other hand, the politician is corrupt, his privacy will be outweighed by the public interest of having a political class that does not engage in corruption.

When proposing a limit on rights, one should also be aware of the fact that this will probably not be enough to solve the problem that one is facing. Making the use of a right in a certain way a criminal act is not always enough to make that use go away. Racism, for example, will not disappear by making racists who engage in hate speech shut up. The underdog effect may even make them stronger. One should also try to do something about the causes of racism (poverty, education, etc.). The suppression of those who use rights against rights must be combined with the identification and elimination of the reasons why these people use rights against rights. Healing the symptoms but not the disease is inefficient, but some symptoms are so bad that something must be done, without losing sight of the causes of the symptoms.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (7): From Democracy to Prosperity

In a previous post I commented on the beneficial influence of prosperity on democracy – democracy being one human right among many. Here are some reasons why democracy is good for prosperity. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. Only in a democratic society in which human rights are protected, can an economic injustice be exposed and can claims for its abolition be heard and implemented. People can use human rights to call on the government or the international community to fulfill its duties and to implement certain economic measures. Most governments, including democratic governments, act only when they are put under pressure. The freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly and association (associations such as pressure groups, labor unions or political parties) and the right to choose your own representatives are instruments in the hands of the economically disadvantaged. They can use their rights and the democratic procedures to influence economic and social policy. Poverty must have a voice.

It is true that without a minimum degree of prosperity, human rights and democracy lose a lot of their value. If you have to struggle to survive, then you do not have the time to form an opinion, let alone express it. “Primum vivere, deinde philosophari”; first you make sure you live, and only then can you philosophize. However, life is more than just living. In a situation of poverty, it is indeed difficult to use rights and democracy, but without rights and democracy it is much more difficult to fight poverty.

If there are no free flows of information, no accountable government that needs to justify its actions in order to be re-elected, and no free press, then you are likely to have more corruption, more embezzlement of public funds and more people who acquire an unfair advantage from the proceeds of natural resources and other sources of prosperity. The rule of law and the openness of government, which are typical of democracy, limit not only corruption but also the ineffective management or outright squandering of natural or other resources by untouchable governments.

Economic development is supported by free flows of information and freedom of movement, both typical of democracies. A free press encourages the economy because it allows entrepreneurs to make informed decisions.

Democracy also guarantees the rule of law, which means legal security and predictability. The number of investments – foreign and local – will grow when investors are certain that their contracts are guaranteed by the law and enforceable by a judge, when oppression does not cause violent revolt and when investors are relatively certain that their property will not be stolen without punishment or will not be nationalized by some new revolutionary government.

The rule of law creates a limited state and a society that is relatively free and independent of the state. This means that economic activity is also relatively independent. A certain limit on state interference in the economy is traditionally considered as beneficial for economic development. In a free civil society, everybody can be economically active. In many authoritarian states, only a handful of privileged persons can be economically active, and these persons are not always the ones most suitable for this kind of activity (for example: large landowners, members of the official “nomenclatura” etc.). A free civil society, guaranteed by the rule of law, which in turn is guaranteed by democracy (although not only by democracy), allows everybody to be creative, to cooperate and to exchange on a relatively level playing field. This increases the chances that the best man is in the best place, which in turn encourages economic development. Furthermore, by pumping in as many people as possible in the economy and by letting them move and communicate freely, the economically most efficient and profitable transactions can take place.