Poverty and political freedom

Rajeev Bhargava
11 August 2003

The great Indian economist Amartya Sen has proposed the mind-opening idea that democracy is a protection against famine. Rajeev Bhargava takes up the theme. How can political freedom help the poor, he asks, not just in their material life but in expanding their sense of society and its horizon of possibility?

It is part of a conventional, commonsense worldview that freedom means little to those without shelter, clothing or food and that, for the poor, the fulfilment of basic needs has priority over political freedoms. In this view, a government that manages to satisfy the basic needs of everyone is better than a government that respects the political rights of its citizens but is unable to fulfil their basic material needs. Sadly, so this worldview concludes, an impoverished people may prefer a minimally welfare-oriented authoritarian government to a democratic government that fails to reduce poverty.

Ideas are frequently moved by powerful images. The picture propelling this view appears to be of a starving man on the verge of death. Give him a straightforward choice: a meal on the one hand and the liberty to be critical of the system that keeps him hungry. What would he choose? The answer is obvious. Surely, the emaciated, poverty-stricken beggar dying of excessive cold or heat, if not starvation, cannot console himself by the assurance that he has the constitutional guarantee to freely proclaim that his elementary needs remain unfulfilled.

Freedom in exchange for life?

This is one of the many points I was fortunate to discuss with Amartya Sen when he was present at a seminar in Delhi organised around his book Development as Freedom. The example Sen uses to point up this issue refers to the honey collectors of Sundarbans in West Bengal who must escape the wrath of tigers to earn their living.

The number of people killed on the job by tigers is much higher in some years than the fifty killed on average. Clearly, the urgency of their economic needs forces the poor to put their lives at enormous risk. If people are ready to do so just to earn their daily bread, why would they not readily give up their liberties and rights to keep their lives going?

This appears to be not merely the common sense of sheltered people alone, but the reflection of a more general fact that normal persons anywhere in the world would want food, water, and a helping hand if these are urgently needed to save their lives. Nor, in these circumstances, would they mind if the hand that helps also bites them occasionally. A desperate person cares very little about the moral character of his saviour. A scoundrel would do the job as well as a morally upright person.

Poverty, liberty and human need

So, does not authoritarianism have a strong, watertight case in poverty-stricken societies? There are three possible replies to this anti-democratic argument.

The first reply is given by Amartya Sen himself. The claim that the citizens of the ‘third world’ are indifferent to political and democratic rights can be verified, Sen says, only when there is a large sample available across countries on the importance of political rights, the freedom of expression and dissent and of free elections. But since large numbers of poorer countries do not permit precisely these things, it is very difficult to generate the sort of evidence required to test this claim.

It is no doubt true that the powerful elite in many such societies does not wish to extend these rights to all citizens. If so, it certainly downgrades the importance of political liberty for citizens. But it hardly follows that the citizens themselves do not value them. If elections held immediately after the 1975 ‘emergency’ in India are anything to go by, then the claim stands refuted. The post-emergency elections were fought almost entirely around the fundamental importance of political rights. By rejecting the emergency that suppressed these rights, the poor in India appear to have indicated a clear preference for them.

To this argument of Amartya Sen, let me add a second and third of my own. Second, then, the very framing of the issue contrasts liberty and basic needs too sharply. Is it really accurate to say that a person who lacks food or shelter is not concerned with freedom at all? It is of course true that the immediate concern of a person without a home will be to find shelter, rather than to worry about his right to free speech. But it is not true that he is not concerned with freedom.

As Jeremy Waldron reminds us, this person is bound to focus on a particular kind of freedom, namely, the freedom to move about freely in public places and, if possible to make a temporary home in whatever little public space he finds unoccupied. This is a very important freedom that can easily be restricted by legislation.

This concern with freedom implies that a person worried about the satisfaction of a very elementary need is preoccupied with an equally elementary freedom. The fulfilment of basic needs is very deeply connected with basic freedoms. People do not wish to choose between basic needs and basic freedoms. Rather, they are compelled to pay attention to one particular kind of needs–freedoms package.

Moreover, this is true of everyone, even of the rich. Civil liberties could hardly be on the mind of a wealthy scuba diver who has accidentally lost his supply of oxygen. None of us can exercise all our freedoms at once, nor satisfy all our needs. But it cannot be concluded from this that we live our life valuing one package over the other. The importance of each package depends on the context.

The third argument is that the case for authoritarianism appears to hinge on extreme examples taken in abstraction from the actual life-context of the poor in ‘third world’ societies and not on instances of commonplace, chronic but less dramatic deprivations. Sen’s argument, and my own, against the priority of economic needs over political liberty rests on entirely different, more routine examples from poor societies.

Consider a person who goes through a rough, daily grind to make two ends meet. He may feed himself and his family all right – but only with a Herculean effort that takes the very life out of him, day after day, month after month, year after year. Would he want to escape this crushing situation? Would he try to do something to change it? It depends entirely on the price he must pay for transformative action.

If the cost were bearable, then quite certainly he would. To begin with, he would speak up against his horrendous condition. Perhaps privately at first, and then in public. If there were someone to blame, he would apportion blame.

But I don’t think mere expression, or even communication would satisfy him. He would want to do more, if only he could. He would wish to earn a living by a less severe form of labour. If exploited, he would want to end it. And not just a temporary respite from exploitation but its permanent termination. He would yearn for it not to happen in the future. Since this is unlikely to happen instantly, he might wish to join a group with similar objectives. Perhaps, if a political party with such a promise exists already, he would, if he could, vote for it.

Now, give this man the choice between his daily grind and his right to speak out freely, to associate with others, and to vote. He would certainly not give up his daily grind, even if he wanted to. But nor would he give up his political freedom. He would simply not accept that he has to choose between the two. He would want his political freedom now in order to prevent the daily grind later. In short, he would want to transcend his current situation in order to both have political freedom and a life of less arduous labour.

Since this altered life-context can be secured only with the help of his political freedoms, he would put up with his daily grind so long as he could have his political freedoms. The need-freedom package desired by him would certainly include political freedoms. The thesis defending the priority of needs over political liberty has, therefore, presented us with an entirely false dichotomy.

Four justifications for political freedom

So political freedoms are important for the poor. The conventional, establishment view is more a rationalisation of authoritarian instinct rather than an authentic expression of priorities in the life of the poor. Political freedoms – which for Amartya Sen refer to real opportunities that people have to determine who should govern and on what principle, to scrutinise and criticise the authorities, and to participate in and deliberate on the life of one’s community – are important for four reasons.

First, political freedoms are intrinsically valuable because the opportunity to participate in the life of one’s community is fundamental to human existence, and valuable by itself.

Second, they have a constructive value because through dialogue, discussion and debate, we come to understand what our real needs really are.

Third, they have instrumental value, particularly in poor societies. They make governments accountable and responsive to ordinary citizens, prevent rulers from privately consuming a large share of resources or squandering them publicly, protect us from poor governance, help governments to take correct decisions, and by providing a space for people to come together and act publicly, they help ensure the provision of essential services and monitoring their functioning.

This instrumental value in poor societies extends also to prevention of catastrophes. Despite severe crop failure and massive loss of purchasing power, there has been no recurrence of famine in India since 1943. The contrast with China is instructive: between 1958 and 1961, 30 million people died over there in famines.

To the three justifications for political freedom offered by Sen, I would add a fourth. This can be called its reconstituting (or reconditioning) role in human life. Political freedoms help us to change the way we experience our current condition.

Let me explain. Every issue of basic material need such as hunger or poverty involves, as I mentioned above, not just freedom as such but also, I would claim, political freedom. A homeless person without political freedoms can do practically nothing about his homelessness. He can neither publicly complain nor act to change this condition. If so, he is not only homeless now but is likely to remain without shelter even in the future.

Such a person has no hope, no alternative future. The importance of political freedom is that it gives hope to the homeless and the hungry that they can do something about this condition. They can act on their own or get others to act on their behalf so that the issue of homelessness does not remain unheard and un-addressed.

This makes a qualitative difference to the manner in which they live with their misery now. Our perspective on our own future makes a profound difference to how we live our present. If so, people may live with their present pathetic condition a bit differently if they have the hope that they might, at some future date, be able to overcome it. Political freedoms help attack the sources of subjugation by changing our perspective on the current condition of restraint.

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