Sunday, March 12, 2006

Amartya Sen meets Vicky Pollard

Simon Mollan has closed his blog InnerWest with a post about the underclass and middle-class self-loathing.

I find the latter intensely patronising which is why the Grauniad makes me spew. The 'underclass' are doubtless insulted by well-meaning members of the intelligentsia sympathising with the pain of being brought up on a Grimsby council estate. It doesn't achieve anything useful and it breeds paternalist politics like this tosh.

But I'm starting to realise that it's middle-class self-loathing that leads to the idea of 'middle-class politics' in the first place; that issues like ID cards and civil liberties are 'middle-class' - luxuries that 'the underclass' are too deprived to be interested in. This is the rhetoric that politicians such as Peter Hain have deployed to justify authoritarian policies, especially those on crime.

I've started to question this since I've been reading Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. He's mostly talking about overseas 'development' but some of his ideas can be applied to the UK. His crucial argument is that poverty is often seen as being about economic needs. But poverty is wider than income and it should be seen as being about functionings and capabilities. Functionings are things people want to do and capabilities are their ability to do them. Development shouldn't just be about throwing money at people because the ability to develop is dependent on capability, which includes things like public services, political and social freedoms as well as wealth. Countries with well functioning democracies, free speech and a free press tend not to have famines because the poor are better able to articulate their urgent and immediate needs. Countries with high standards of education and healthcare but low levels of GDP will develop faster under promising economic conditions than richer countries with poorer public services because the people are better equipped to respond. Non-economic freedoms are not a luxury poor countries cannot afford. Sen also gives examples to show that the poorest value non-economic freedoms as highly as the rich [it's worth mentioning all this is blatantly obvious and really didn't require 3-4 chapters...]

Many of labour's policies on poverty have been about throwing money at the problem or trying to tell people how to live their lives. The latter decreases non-economic capability. The underclass suffer most from an authoritarian government because it is they who are most dependent on the state and who encounter government officials, sometimes on a daily basis. I have very little faith that the new Minister for Social Exclusion will take a broader approach to exclusion - I expect they will focus exclusively on training, housing, employment (all facets of economic freedom) and lifestyle issues (moulding Vicky Pollard into a Daily Mail respectable middle-class poster-child).

Perhaps it's time for a more liberal narrative on exclusion...

2 Comments:

  • At 9:19 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Are you speaking of Amartya Sen? He isn't as liberal as many people tend to think, actually he has many populist/socialist thoughts. If you are interested in the problems of the developing countries, I'd like to recommend Jagdish Bhagwati, Hernando De Soto, or Jeremy Sachs.

     
  • At 3:39 pm , Anonymous gareth said...

    I went to university with Simon Mollan and he comes from a wealthy Surrey family. He was an asshole

     

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