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October 16, 1998


Sen's Nobel Prize evokes mixed response from US media

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Arthur J Pais in New York

The Wall Street Journal wrote a blistering piece attacking Amartya Sen's Nobel Prize award, but for over a dozen leftist and liberal Indian social scientists across America, it was much more than an occasion for celebration.

It was, as the Stanford University anthropologist Akhil Gupta might say, a morale booster. Many Indian leftist scholars -- not to forget their peers from America and elsewhere -- have been under attack by the increasing clout of conservative administrators.

Gupta was denied tenure last year, presumably because his left-of-centre views do not sit well with the governing body of the university, but following wide support for his cause from academics from Columbia University to Harvard, and prolonged student protests at Stanford, he was finally given the tenure, six months after the rejection.

The reaction of the American media has been interesting. The New York Times announced the award on the front page but ran a well-written story in its business section. Newsday, among the top 15 American newspapers, ran a good story on page 3.

But The Wall Street Journal decided to question Sen's brilliance and his reputation.

Under the title 'The Wrong Economist Won', Journal's Robert Pollock noted: ''We've grown used to seeing the Nobel Peace Prize go to terrorists (like Yasser Arafat) and the Nobel Prize in literature to Marxists (seemingly every winner).

''But the committee that picks the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science (established in 1968 by Sweden's central bank in memory of Alfred Nobel) has been pretty sensible over the years, recognising Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other original thinkers for their contributions to the field.

''If they were looking for such a figure in the world of development economics (the study of how economies grow), they might have picked Peter Bauer, who for decades stood courageously and nearly alone against the misguided belief that government aid has the primary role to play.

''Instead, they picked Amartya Sen, master of Cambridge University's Trinity College, who was remarkable (even before winning the Nobel yesterday) only for the extent to which his renown outstripped the quality of his work. Throughout his long career and voluminous writings, he has done little but give voice to the muddleheaded views of the Establishment leftists who dominate his world of academics and nongovernmental organisations.

''Where Mr Sen's insights have been accurate -- such as the observation that famines don't necessarily arise from a lack of food -- they have been unremarkable. Famine usually has political causes, as anybody who watched the Ethiopian government deliberately starving its people in the 1980s could have figured out.

''Elsewhere, Mr Sen has just been wrong. When it comes to development economics, he focused on the importance of governments in promoting growth and bringing about a more equitable distribution of resources. But it has become clear over the years that those countries that interfered least with their markets have done best, both in absolute terms and in providing for the worst-off.

''Perhaps it was the increasing amount of such evidence that eventually pushed Mr. Sen into the field of philosophy in an attempt to give moral foundations to political theories that economics would not support. He bases his 1992 book, Inequality Reexamined, on the observation that theories of justice that are not 'egalitarian' in some sense will be seen as arbitrarily discriminatory and thus hard to defend. Then, through conflation and obfuscation, he attempts to put forward a theory of 'freedom'; of which Orwell's Big Brother would have been proud.

''Instead of trying to cut a middle path between left and right, Mr Sen tries to reconcile left and left -- that is, those welfare liberals who emphasise equality of 'opportunity' (and thus favour limited redistribution schemes) and those radicals who believe nothing less than equality of 'capability' will do (something that, as Kurt Vonnegut recognised in the story Harrison Bergeron, would require the deliberate handicapping of talented people).

''Mr Sen, being an expert in the kind of quibbling or 'problematising' on which far too many students base doctoral dissertations, makes it hard to pin down his view, though he seems to lean toward the latter position.''

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