The Freedom to be Me


Freedom: what is it, and how does it link to happiness.

You started out life as a tiny microscopic cell, indiscernible to the naked eye, unless magnified one hundred times by a very powerful microscope. One eventful day, years ago, two gametes fused and formed a zygote, from which you emerged. In that one microscopic cell was contained an incredible lot about you: your future physical make-up, your genes, some traits you would later exhibit, you name it. That one cell almost immediately started splitting, in a geometric progression that would produce a population of over ten billion cells that would make up you. Each cell just as microscopic as its predecessor and just as self-sufficient: it could take in food, get rid of wastes, and grow. Most could reproduce. In other words, packed into each cell was the machinery it needed to carry out its many activities. The same all-important zygote was responsible for the organization of these billions of cells into a well coordinated and highly ordered human being that is you. And that's just for starters.


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Who am I? What am I doing here? And, who, actually, are you, over there? Or, as the Spanish would put it: ¿Qué pintas aqui? What is your role here? Literally, What scene are you painting (on your canvas)? Fundamental questions that have plagued us for as long as man has existed and continue to.

Like many, I was persuaded of the fundamental position of freedom in the life of the human person, but I was not on as sure a ground about its connection to economic affairs. (No, not the notions of free markets or freedom of enterprise; but the more profound philosophical concept from which those economic principles issue as corollaries.) Until one fortunate encounter that solved this problem for me, and led to my attempt to further explore and refine my understanding of the beauty – and inescapable hazard – of that powerful trait every person is born with and irrevocably possesses (yes, I am aware of the breadth of this claim and will touch on it in the course of this submission) until we die.

I had gone to this university professor friend of mine at 9 o’clock on a clear Monday morning, to arrange a certain matter before we went out to our different offices. He lived with his family in a beautiful colonial style house on the university’s sprawling campus, and this would be a sort of breakfast meeting. This is one of those rare luxuries you enjoy when you live out in the quiet provinces like I did at the time. In a short while my friend had digressed and ventured into an area we had been thrashing out for some time recently. Then he thrust into my hands the long-sought missing link. The book was called Development as Freedom and I gleaned its blurb. “Fascinating… The overall argument [is] eloquent and probing”, went The New York Times. “A new approach… refreshing, thoughtful, and human,” ventured BusinessWeek.

My friend didn’t realize he had solved a major puzzle and he probably put my broad smile down to the pleasant weather outside. His wife most likely thought it was just the usual mutual excitement at my sharing their company once again. I alone knew it was all about the book and its author, a man called Amartya Sen.

Professor Sen would describe his system as a person-centred understanding of economics. The central thesis of the book I held in my hands was that national progress ought to be evaluated less by material output and more by the capabilities and opportunities it enables people to enjoy. In other words, the freedom to do and to be. He laments that the discipline of economics “has tended to move away from focusing on the value of freedoms to that of utilities, incomes and wealth.” Not surprisingly, he disagrees with the so-called “Lee Thesis” (after Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore) which holds that authoritarian governments are able to promote faster growth than democratic ones. Just as he insists that a similar lack of orientation is not absent in the industrialised world. For example, he illustrates how, going by income per head, the relatively poor in America are rich by world standards, yet they are plagued by daunting socio-political factors that greatly diminish their quality of life and restrict their substantive freedoms. Such that some groups within that society actually do worse in terms of survival than the poorest people in some of the developing countries with reasonable arrangements for school education and health care. In some inner cities for example, life expectancy at birth is lower than that in India and Pakistan.

In essence, Sen holds that there isn’t development where growth does not enhance “the capabilities of persons to lead the kind of lives they value - and have reason to value”. Which means ridding them of what he calls “unfreedoms” such as poverty, ignorance, hunger, ill health, but also racial and gender discrimination, as well as political, social and economic oppression. Expansion of freedom becomes both the primary end and the primary means of development.

Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for especially his contributions to the field of development economics. He is currently professor of economics and Master of Trinity College at Cambridge, and has served as a full-time or visiting professor at a dozen of the world’s most prestigious universities (he was professor at Harvard). The Guardian of London described his reputation among academics as “almost unrivalled”, reckoning that he must hold the highest number of honorary degrees among his peers. The Economist, in its characteristic witty style, ran a headline that went “Sen-sational”. Professor Sen helped to create the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which has become the most authoritative international source of welfare comparisons between countries. (Apparently, among his many contributions to development economics are pioneering studies of gender inequality, so he always takes care to write “her” rather than “his” when referring to an abstract person. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to toe his line here, as it might confuse matters somewhat. And so, when I use “man”, I’ll be referring to the human being; just as when I say "he", “she",” her” or “him”. I shall switch at ease from one to the other and trust that you won’t make heavy weather of it.)

He is not creating anything novel, he contends; all he’s doing is returning economic thought to what its pioneers (Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and their like) had intended. “The idea that development consists just of an increase in GDP or some other commodity indicator like that is basically a vulgarisation of the vision that motivated the origin of the development of economics”, he says. The Royal Swedish Academy, on announcing the Nobel Prize, said that by combining tools from economics and philosophy Sen had restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.

It is the basis of this freedom that I wish us to explore in the next few pages by examining it as it subsists in the entity at the center of this all: man.

And so, I thought we should start, well, at the beginning – your beginning.


Once upon a time, in a zygote far, far, away…

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