Amartya Sen is better known as an economist than as a philosopher, but he is both and more, like Adam Smith – someone he admires and who happens to share his initials. It is, quite often, his grounding in philosophy that enables him to question the received ideas of economics and turn them around. He was already famous for his ability to put old issues on a new plane when I read some of his work for the first time in the early 1980s. Forty years later, Amartya Sen’s monumental work has exercised a profound influence on scholarship, policy and action in a wide range of fields.

This concise, lucid and lively book is an excellent introduction to Sen’s essential ideas. Before reading it, I had serious doubts whether anyone would ever have a sufficient command of Sen’s prolific writings for this purpose. Lawrence Hamilton’s book, of course, does not cover all aspects of Sen’s thinking. Large portions of it, in fact, are left out, explicitly or implicitly. But the book does a wonderful job of presenting and discussing the essential ideas that have informed most of Sen’s work.

Some readers may find the ideas discussed in this book a little abstract. This may seem to jar with the fact that Amartya Sen is known not only as a great mind but also as someone who is keen to bring about practical change in the world. Indeed, he is, ultimately, a man of action, even if his preferred tool of action is not climbing barricades or shooting petitions but public reasoning – “arguments for a better world”, to borrow the evocative title of a festschrift (edited by Kaushik Basu and Ravi Kanbur) published in his honour. Amartya Sen is the argumentative Indian par excellence. Abstract as they may seem, his essential ideas are, in fact, a springboard for public action.

There is an important but overlooked connection between Amartya Sen’s ideas and the role of public action in development. As Hamilton aptly discusses in his introduction to this book, one of Sen’s profound contributions is the idea of development as an expansion of human freedoms or “capabilities”.

In contrast with the standard framework of neo-classical economics, where “utility” is derived from commodities, capabilities are not just a matter of commodities. Friendship, for instance, can enhance our capabilities (in particular, our freedom to engage in a range of valued activities), aside from being valuable in itself, but it is not a commodity.

From a common sense point of view, of course, the fact that human freedom is not just a matter of commodities may sound like a “no-brainer”. But economists are so influenced by models where utility (conflated with well-being) is a function of commodities that this simple insight has quite a cutting edge. In particular, it vastly enlarges the legitimate domain of public action.

Let me explain. In the standard framework of welfare economics, there are two broad justifications for “intervention” in a competitive market economy: market failures and distributional concerns. This view derives from the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics, which states that, under certain conditions, competitive markets ensure a limited form of social optimality known as Pareto optimality or rather Pareto efficiency – no one can be made better off without someone else being made worse off.

Market failures refer to a situation where some of these conditions are violated, due for instance to externalities or asymmetric information. In the real world, market failures are pervasive (perhaps more the rule than the exception), but identifying them is still regarded as a useful way of thinking about where, when and how intervention may be required. Aside from market failures, distributional concerns may justify intervention, since Pareto efficiency is compatible with gross inequalities.

This entire reasoning, however, builds on the assumption that human well-being derives from commodities – the objects of production and exchange. In fact, as Amartya Sen has argued, it builds on a particular view of the relation between commodities and well-being, which involves multiple confusions between choice, preferences, utility and well-being. The capability approach clears this confusion, as Hamilton explains in some detail, but it also takes our understanding of well-being beyond the realm of commodities.

That, in turn, implies that the legitimate domain of public action is not limited to market failures and distributional concerns. To illustrate with an example that is likely to resonate with Amartya Sen, communalism is not a market failure. Nothing in economic theory tells us that if markets functioned well, communalism would be avoided. Communalism is a pathology of our relations with each other as human beings, including but not restricted to market transactions. And preventing it calls for public action beyond correcting market failures.

Committed neo-classical economists might respond that communalism is not an economic issue, and that the fundamental theorems of welfare economics are concerned specifically with the economy. It is understood, they would argue, that social life also exists outside economic activity. That, however, would be an artificial distinction, because economic activity and social life are inextricably intertwined. It may be wiser to admit that there is something misleading about the fundamental theorems of welfare economics.

Seen in this light, the potential domain of public action is very wide. It includes not only dealing with distributional concerns and market failures (especially in fields where these are particularly glaring, such as health and education), but also constructive initiatives in matters where even flawless markets would not serve the purpose – ensuring communal harmony, building participatory democracy, pursuing social justice, preventing armed conflicts, annihilating caste, abolishing patriarchy, improving the environment, promoting civil liberties, fostering better social norms, to mention a few. These matters, and the corresponding capabilities, are indeed fundamental to the quality of life.

All this may seem like a digression, but I hope that it helps to connect the theoretical ideas discussed in this book with the more practical implications of Sen’s work. The book focuses primarily on foundational concepts such as objectivity, rationality, well-being, freedom, justice and democracy. This conceptual work may seem a little removed from Sen’s urgent concern with real-life deprivations and inequities, but the two are integrally connected.

It is on the strength of this groundwork that Sen has developed more practical ideas such as the role of democracy in famine prevention and the fundamental importance of health and education in development.

In a subtle way, Amartya Sen’s own life shows the value of building the quality of life on capabilities rather than commodities per se. Amartya likes basic comforts (sometimes a little more), but he is not materialistic by any means. If he stays in a fancy hotel from time to time, it is more for the sake of a hassle-free stopover than for the love of luxury (for one thing, he hates air conditioning). It is in his ancestral house in Shantiniketan, which looks much the same today as it would have looked in his childhood, that he feels really at home.

His breakfast there consists of the same simple jhalmuri (puffed rice with assorted condiments) he has been eating in Shantiniketan for as long as I have known him. Amartya is absorbed in the life of the mind – reading, thinking, writing, arguing, and of course, adda (extended conversation), the favourite pastime of Bengali intellectuals. To that I should add the life of the heart: much like Marx (another scholar he admires), who was not always sitting quietly at the British Museum, Sen has made ample space in his busy life for love, friendship and family.

In short, he did not seek fulfilment in commodity consumption but in the good use of commodities and other means to pursue the freedoms he values.

Lawrence Hamilton, a former student of Amartya Sen, is an admirer of his, and his account of Sen’s ideas is mostly appreciative. However, it is not uncritical: the author has also shared valuable thoughts on what he regards as loose ends in Sen’s thinking. For instance, he aptly questions the adequacy of “government by discussion” as an understanding of democracy (inspired by John Stuart Mill), especially when power relations prevent free, fair and equal participation in the discussion.

It is, of course, not surprising that the notion of democracy as government by discussion (“an academic seminar writ large” in Hamilton’s caricature) appeals to an argumentative intellectual who excels at public reasoning, but discussion on its own does not always move mountains. A discussion, say, between a ruthless landlord and landless labourers may not be particularly fruitful if all the power is with the landlord.

Sen might respond that in such situations, the term “discussion” must encompass assertive means of expression such as agitation and strikes. Or he might argue that creating the conditions that make discussion effective, including relatively egalitarian power relations, must be part and parcel of “government by discussion” as an ideal. A characteristic feature of Sen’s ideas is that they have grown constructively over time (for instance, moving from entitlements to capabilities, and then extending the capability approach to multiple domains), rarely disowning earlier ideas but often modifying and sharpening them. We are yet to hear the last word on democracy, a critical issue for India where democratic institutions and principles are now going to the dogs at speed.

I am delighted that Penguin Random House India has brought out this edition of Lawrence Hamilton’s book, making it more accessible to the Indian audience. It is a sad irony that while Amartya Sen’s towering intellectual contributions have been widely appreciated around the world, they have been devalued a little in India in recent years due to the vilification campaign that followed his criticisms of Hindu nationalism.

Even a certain prime minister indulged in a dig at him when he drew a sarcastic contrast between “Harvard and hard work” (little does he seem to know that few people work harder than Amartya Sen). This book, therefore, will be of special value to the multitude of critics who have disparaged his work without reading much of it. But more importantly, it is a book addressed to the reading public at large, like Amartya’s own work. And if the book motivates you to read Sen’s writings (or more of them) in the original, nothing like it.

How To Read Amartya Sen

Excerpted with permission from How To Read Amartya Sen, Lawrence Hamilton, foreward by Jean Drèze, Penguin Books.