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Amartya Sen as new New Labour orthodoxy?

06.28.09 | 10 Comments

There are signs that Amartya Sen’s‘capabilities’ model is becoming the new orthodoxy of New Labour, now that communitarianism has been deemed past its sell by date. 

First, there’s New Labour loyalists Richard Reeves and Philip Collins referencing the model in a Progress Magazine article:

First, power lies with people, not institutions or groups. Conservatives on left and right prefer power to be exercised by institutions, rather than people. They want order. And they fear that, in the end, people do not know what is good for them. But as the liberal philosopher Amartya Sen argues: ‘Responsible adults must be in charge of their own wellbeing; it is for them to decide how to use their capabilities.’

And now there’s Liam Byrne in the Guardian, taking care to have noted that he, just like the Prime Minister, is a Sen aficionado:

‘Responsible adults must be in charge of their own well-being; it is for them to decide how to use their capabilities,’ Sen wrote. ‘But the capabilities that a person does actually have (and not merely theoretically enjoys) depend on the nature of social arrangements, which can be crucial for individual freedoms. There the state and the society cannot escape responsibility.’

What, then, are we to make of this new found love of a model first developed by Sen in the late 1970s, and set out briefly in his seminal 1979 Tanner Lecture ‘Equality of What’?

At first sight, Byrne chosen interpretation is refreshingly honest and welcome, in that it acknowledges the power that our state institutions wield, how this leads to embedded inequality, and how the only way forward is to challenge the institutions to do better.  

This is a very different approach from Tom Harris, for example, who is happy to ignore the way institutional and material circumstances restrict choices for people in deprived areas, in his call for moral outrage against those who then fail his test of decency.

And if Sen is taking over from the pernicious essentialist nonsenses of Etzioni and Putnamand co, and the ‘rights and responsibilities’ agenda of Hazel Blears and her colleagues, then that is probably a welcome step.

And yet, like Sunny in his piece on the Liam Byrne interview, I’m worried by this new rhetoric.

I’m not worried simply because New Labour has a patchy record, to say the least, on equalities and the distribution of power (or ‘capabilities’), but because there is a real danger of Sen being deliberately misinterpreted and misused as a further means of cutting back on public services aimed at the poorer in our society.

The danger is, quite simply, that as the Sen-isms are rolled out, the bits about the need for people to be able take control of their own life will be highlighted, while bits about the need for the state to take pro-active steps towards ensuring that everyone in society necessary functional ‘capabilities’, often related to economic circumstance, will be quietly set to one side.  

Indeed, in the quote that the aforementioned Reeves and Collins have selected, this is already happening.

The risk is that Sen’s work will be corrupted and used as a basis for drastic cuts to welfare state, for example, on the basis that people should be capable of looking after themselves.

Certainly, that is how the Guardian sees it in its coverage, as it talks of the end of ‘target culture’ in  the face of these new economic planning norms.  The end of equality targets – targets for closing the gap between rich and poor – are being justified because there’s a new  theory of basic entitlement and capability in town.

Yet, this is decidedly NOT what Sen argues.  In his aforementioned Tanner lecture he is quite categorical about the relative importance of his then new capabilities model:




It is not my contention that basic capability equality can be the sole guide to the moral good. For one thing morality is not concerned only with equality. 


For another, while it is my contention that basic capability equality has certain clear advantages over other types of equality, I did not argue that the others were morally irrelevant.

Basic capability equality is a partial guide to the part of moral goodness that is associated with the idea of equality. I have tried to argue that as apartial guide it has virtues that the other characterisations of equality do not possess.

In the end, I would hope that ministers and their side-kicks, as they devour their bed-time Sen reading, will remember that he is primarily a development economist, and that his major contributions have not been in political philosophy so much as his work in the 1970s and 1980s on famine and disaster relief and rehabilitation.

In fact it is here that I first knew of Sen, though not through his primary work; rather it was through the disaster and famine relief/development planning manuals then coming on stream from Oxfam and others which were heavily influenced by Sen’s analysis of the importance, even in the first days after a disaster (the type of which I was on hand for in 1991), of planning for the longer term survival of people by making provision, EVEN at the cost of immediate relief, for future income generation and livehlihood schemes.

Valuable as this work was, and interesting as his work on capabilities is, I am not for one convinced that adopting him as the saviour of domestic welfare and treasury policy –  picking out the bits the government thinks we should hear, and leaving out the more socialist bits about the continuing validity of the struggle for material equality – is anything other than a clever ruse.

But at least I’ll be reading up on my Sen in preparation.  At least he makes more sense than Etzioni ever did.


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