Politics can be overflowing with gurus at times. And it’s sometimes hard to tell who might be a flash in the pan rather than the next Beatrice Webb.
So it’s worth reflecting on those who have genuinely changed the political landscape, both its narrative and the practical politics that flows from the story they are telling. I would argue that if you’re not aware of the work of Amartya Sen, and you are interested in politics, then you’ve missed out over the past 10 years or so. I was lucky enough to hear him speak on Adam Smith in 2010, and again recently, and his thoughts caused me to reflect on the politics around us.
Sen, very broadly, has sought to shift the debate on moral value from a conception of the good as amounting to ‘wellbeing’ to an idea of the good as ‘agency’. Listening as I did to Professor Sen lecture on women (and the challenges they face), I realised that not only have these ideas been quietly pervasive in recent times, but they have never been more important. It is not enough for us to just ‘provide services’ for people, or protect their autonomy. We should also work out how to help people be and do the things they wish for: to make them their own agents. We see this in the campaigns around the world – notably in Sen’s native India, but also in Britain – where women are saying that they will not wait for others to provide education, health care or justice, but they will campaign for it themselves.
Sen’s work is deeply important as it occurs at the intersection where philosophy, politics and economics meet. He became most famous (and won his Nobel prize in 1998) for his work in economics But in the field of philosophy too, he challenges John Rawls for the title of greatest contemporary political philosopher. Sen writes about economics: the question of who gets what But he also analyses what economic answers are for: what moral ends are economic answers for?
However, while there is a place for philosophical debate about our values, what really interests me is the practical application of what he has pointed us towards. We can make commentary about a politics of empowerment, but are we really ready to change the state to reflect our values.
In his 1999 book Development as Freedom, Sen discussed what we are trying to achieve with state intervention. Government should attempt to build up the stock of capabilities people have. Government should, if you like, help people be more. As Sen said in an interview with Liam Byrne in 2009, “Human life consists of doing certain things…to take part in the life of the community; to be able to talk about subjects that interest me…In all kinds of ways there are different freedoms that effect our lives and you can assess what our lives are like by looking at the various freedoms that we have. And these freedoms, in terms of relations if you like, are the human capabilities that we’re looking at.”
In trying to remove barriers to all the things people may want to be, or may want to do, I think the state needs to change. The extent to which government organisations can really help depends greatly on their ability to listen to the individuals they serve, and take a person-centred, rather than process-centred approach. For example, the coalition government’s Work Programme is driven – across huge geographic areas – by a price on each person’s head to help those who are closest to the labour market already. They are not offering a specific, person-centred programme of help for those who need to get back to work.
Sen’s insight is that each person’s freedom is made up of their real ability to develop themselves in the way they choose. The state’s role is to remove those barriers. Liam Byrne’s response to the failed Work Programme has been to point us in the direction of a more localised back-to-work effort. In opposition he has put power in the hands of cities like Liverpool, that I know well, to lead Labour’s policy. This matters. When I visit social enterprises in Merseyside, I see support for unemployed people that is genuinely empowering. By this I mean that the help is given be people who are respectful of those they are trying to help – not without tough messages at times – but who know people well enough to personalise the support.
I think that this shows Sen’s influence. When growth returns to our economy, it will not be enough to hope that it will spread a sense of wellbeing. Whatever the headline figure, people need a sense of power over their own destiny.Not freedom as a libertarian would idealise, but rather a real freedom to live up to their hopes, wherever they start from.