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Amartya Sen and the ‘busted subject’

Amartya Sen | Updated on July 25, 2021

Th right course: At Cambridge, Amartya Sen was told to work on something more useful than welfare economics   -  SAMPATH KUMAR G P

The Nobel laureate found out that welfare economics was a non-subject at Cambridge

* It was soon clear to me that there was no way in which different economists could be neatly ordered in just one dimension from left to right

* Despite my own left-wing inclinations, I realized soon after I arrived in Cambridge that the right-wing Bauer was not only the best teacher of development economics but also the most accomplished thinker on the subject in the university

* Joan Robinson told me the story that clever economists were all trying to do welfare economics, but ‘the cleverest of them all, Jan Graaff, showed that all this is nonsense’

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Even though there were a number of fine teachers in Cambridge who did not get very involved in these intense fights between different schools of thought (such as Richard Stone, Brian Reddaway, Robin Matthews, Kenneth Berrill, Harry Johnson, Aubrey Silberston, Robin Marris and Richard Goodwin), the political lines were, in general, very firmly — and rather bizarrely — drawn. The Keynesians were perceived to be to the left of the followers of neoclassical economics, but this was very much in the spirit of ‘thus far but no further’, since neo-Keynesians were firmly opposed to Marxists and other clearly left-wing schools of thought.

Home in the World: A Memoir / Amartya Sen / Penguin Random House/ Non-fiction /₹899

 

It was soon clear to me that there was no way in which different economists could be neatly ordered in just one dimension from left to right. Dobb, who was an astute Marxist economist, was often thought by Keynesians and neo-Keynesians to be ‘quite soft’ on neoclassical economics. Soft or not, my observations indicated that there was often more room for friendly relations between Marxists and neoclassical economists, than between neo-Keynesians and neoclassical economists. The Marxist Dobb, for example, one of the few economics lecturers in Cambridge at that time who was interested in welfare economics, was a close friend of Peter Bauer, the conservative neoclassical economist who would later be a nominated Tory member of the House of Lords — and economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

Despite my own left-wing inclinations, I realized soon after I arrived in Cambridge that the right-wing Bauer was not only the best teacher of development economics but also the most accomplished thinker on the subject in the university, by a wide margin. Indeed, he was one of the most original development economists in the world, and a lot of what I came to understand about ‘how development happens’ was the result of our regular conversations. I felt very privileged that Peter befriended me from the time I was a young student and joined me for coffee nearly every week — ‘to meet and argue’ as he used to put it, which was a source of great gain for me. My friendship with Bauer lasted for the rest of his life. The fact that the neo-Keynesians saw little in his work is not, I believe, to their credit.

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After arriving in England from India I tried to see whether I could make an intellectual connection between my principal academic concerns in economics while I was still in Calcutta and what I was hoping to concentrate on while studying in Cambridge. This proved to be hard. After reading Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values in Calcutta and looking at the newly emerging literature related to it (as well as thinking a fair amount about the new subject of social choice theory for myself), I could see that my interest in the field was becoming very strong. But I could not persuade any Cambridge faculty member to take an interest in social choice, or to encourage me to work on anything that related to it.

There could have been a way of using welfare economics to connect social choice theory and the more standard economic subjects recognized in Cambridge, but welfare economics was seen as a non-subject there. Not long before I arrived, the brilliant South African economist Johannes de Villiers Graaff (known as ‘Jan’) had shown in a captivating thesis that without assessing value judgements about social welfare there is not a lot that can be said in welfare economics. That could, of course, have been the beginning of a critical scrutiny of how social judgements can be linked to individual welfare assessments (or individual value judgements), just as Arrow had tried to do through the use of sensible axioms in social choice theory. Instead, Graaff’s analysis was seen as the end of the subject, particularly since the nature of Arrow’s impossibility theorem was not adequately understood by most economists in Cambridge. In fact Arrow’s conclusion was perceived as comprehensive devastation, rather than as an invitation to scrutinize the proposed axioms and their combinations. So, after Graaff, welfare economics was typically seen as a hopeless ditch rather than as a field which could be fruitfully tilled.

When I told Joan Robinson that I wanted to work on welfare economics, she said, ‘Don’t you know that this is a busted subject?’ She told me the story that clever economists were all trying to do welfare economics, but ‘the cleverest of them all, Jan Graaff, showed that all this is nonsense’. I told Joan she might be mistaken in her interpretation of Graaff’s work: first, Graaff didn’t in fact show that welfare economics was nonsense; second, he himself never claimed that he had. Joan was not only unpersuaded, she had no interest in listening to my thoughts on the subject. She told me that I had better work on something more useful.

I did try to recruit one or two of the other teachers in Cambridge to join me in taking an interest in social choice theory, but had no success. No one could find a reason to encourage me. Richard Kahn, like Joan, was hostile. Nicholas Kaldor did what he normally tended to do, namely encourage you on the grounds that a certain amount of folly in one’s life is necessary for character-building. The only member of the Cambridge economics faculty who lectured on welfare economics was Maurice Dobb. A number of his fellow left-wingers regarded this as a great mistake on Maurice’s part (‘a sell-out to the right’ was often their confused summary of what he did). Dobb was rather allergic to mathematical reasoning, like many other members of the economics faculty at that time, but he wanted me to explain to him the substance of Arrow’s theorem and why it was interesting. He listened to me quite attentively, but then told me that the subject was too mathematical for us to work together on it. However, he was willing — indeed, eager — to chat with me about the parts of social choice theory he understood. ‘This will be a nice excursion for me,’ he said.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Home in the World: A Memoir’ by Amartya Sen published by Penguin Random House

Published on July 25, 2021

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