Social Scientist. v 25, no. 294-295 (Nov-Dec 1997) p. 71.


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The Fourth Indian Nobel—Amartya Sen and his 'Ethical Economies'

The award of the economics Nobel to an Indian who has consistently advocated the removal of deprivation and discrimination has produced jubilation in this country; but it has also evoked hate which has emanated from certain quarters which denigrate these social concerns. For this reason, the sociology of the award of the Nobel and the reactions it has evoked is perhaps as interesting as is the'discussion of the economic theories for which the award has been made.

To turn briefly to the economic theories: Amartya Sen's very early work of the late fifties related to the choice of techniques in a planned economy, where he developed further with great clarity an idea of his teacher Maurice Dobb, the eminent Marxist economist; subsequently Sen's work on the optimal savings problem was considered to be penetrating, showing how a rate of savings which is lower than is socially required, can result from individual decision making in a developing economy. An interesting foray into economic history was made by him in the context of the debate on the causes underlying the colonial state's encouraging (by a purchase guarantee among other measures) iron and steel production within India during the First War onwards, where the factor of competition from lower-cost producers versus the strategic importance to the Empire of a weapons-making facility east of Suez, were hotly debated. Subsequently Professor Sen participated in the early debate on the inverse relation between farm size and productivity thrown up by Farm Management Studies which showed that small sized farms produce higher output per acre than did large sized farms; he also wrote on the question of surplus labour and its mobilisation for costless capital formation an idea which was initiated by Ragnar Nurkse and Maurice Dobb which evoked much discussion by way of measuring the extent of labour surplus and exploring the conditions under which it could be mobilised. Both these concerns were integrated by Sen into a logically rigorous paper which discussed both the inverse relation and mobilisation of surplus labour in terms of the framework of the peasant weighing his subjective labour costs. Although this writer considers the use of the utility framework a misconceived one because of the necessarily tautological structure of arguments based on this framework, and has said so while presenting a critique of A.V. Chayanov and linking Sen's theory of the optimising peasant to that of Chayanov, there is no doubt that

Social Scientist, Vol. 25, Nos. 11-12, November-December 1997



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