Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Sharing the World
Interdependence and global justice - 2

its contents
  Vol V : issue 4& 5

  Amartya Sen

  Günter Grass
  Joseph E. Stiglitz
  Meghnad Desai
  Jug Suraiya
  Sunil Khilnani
Only in Print
  Current Issue


Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

Amartya Sen

The phantom chase

I can try to illustrate the point with an analogy. To argue that a particularly unequal and sexist family arrangement is unfair, it does not have to be shown that women would have done comparatively better had there been no families at all. That is not the issue: the bone of contention is whether the sharing of benefits within the family system is seriously unequal in the existing institutional arrangements. The consideration on which many of the debates on globalisation have concentrated, to wit, whether the poor too benefit from the established economic order, is inadequately probing —- indeed it is ultimately the wrong question to ask. What has to be asked instead is whether they can feasibly have a fairer deal, with a less unequal distribution of economic, social and political opportunities, and if so, through what international and domestic arrangements. That is where the real issues lie.

This is also why the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters, who seek a better deal for the underdogs of the world economy, cannot be sensibly seen — contrary to their own rhetoric — as being really anti-globalisation. Their search has to be for a fairer deal, a more just distribution of opportunities in a modified global order. And that is also why there is no real contradiction in the fact that the so-called ‘anti-globalisation protests’ are now among the most globalised events in the contemporary world. It is a global solution they must ultimately seek, not just local withdrawals.

Watercolour on paper by SHYAMAL DUTTA ROY

But can the deal that different groups get from globalised economic and social relations be changed without busting or undermining these relations altogether, and in particular without destroying the global market economy? The answer, I would argue, is entirely in the affirmative. Indeed, the use of the market economy is consistent with many different ownership patterns, resource availabilities, social opportunities, rules of operation (such as patent laws, anti-trust regulations, etc.). And depending on these conditions, the market economy itself would generate different prices, terms of trade, income distributions, and more generally diverse overall outcomes. The arrangements for social security and other public interventions can make further modifications to the outcomes of the market processes. Together, they can radically alter the prevailing levels of inequality and poverty. All this does not require a demolition of the market economy, but does demand alterations of the economic and social conditions that help to determine what market solutions would emerge.

The central question is not — indeed cannot be — whether or not to use the market economy. That shallow question is easy to answer, since it is impossible to achieve much economic prosperity without making extensive use of the opportunities of exchange and specialisation that market relations offer. Even though the operation of the market economy can be significantly defective (for example because of asymmetric — and more generally imperfect — information), which must be taken into account in making public policy, nevertheless there is no way of dispensing with the institution of markets in general as an engine of economic progress. Using markets is like speaking prose — much depends on what prose we choose to speak.

The market economy does not work alone in globalised relations — indeed it cannot operate alone even within a given country. It is not only the case that a market-inclusive overall system can generate very distinct and different results depending on various enabling conditions (such as how physical resources are distributed, how human resources are developed, what rules of business relations prevail, what social security arrangements are in place, and so on), but also these enabling conditions themselves depend critically on economic, social and political institutions that operate nationally and globally. As has been amply established in empirical studies, the nature of market outcomes is massively influenced by public policies in education, epidemiology, land reform, micro-credit facilities, appropriate legal protections, etc., and in each of these fields there are things to be done through public action that can radically alter the outcome of local and global economic relations. It is this class of interdependencies which we have to invoke and utilise to achieve greater prosperity, more equity and fuller security.

Indeed, there can be a very positive role for the critical voice that the protest movements provide, but the voice has to aim at real problems, not phantom ones. It is certainly true that global capitalism is typically much more concerned with expanding the domain of market relations than with, say, establishing democracy, or expanding elementary education, or enhancing social opportunities of the underdogs of society. Mere globalisation of markets, on its own, can be a very inadequate approach to world prosperity. In keeping that recognition constantly in focus, scrutiny and protest can play a constructive part.

Sharing global justice

The injustices that characterise the world are closely related to various omissions and commissions that need to be overcome, particularly in institutional arrangements. Global policies have a role here (for example in defending democracy, and supporting schooling and international health facilities), but there is a need also to re-examine the adequacy of global institutional arrangements. The distribution of the benefits in the global economy depends, among other things, on a variety of global institutional arrangements, including trade agreements, medical initiatives, educational exchanges, facilities for technological dissemination, ecological and environmental restraints and fair treatment of accumulated debts, often incurred by irresponsible military rulers of the past.

In addition to the momentous omissions that need to be rectified, there are also serious problems of commission that must be addressed for even elementary global justice. These include not only inefficient as well as inequitable trade restrictions that repress exports from the poorer countries, but also patent laws which can serve as counterproductive barriers to the use of life-saving drugs — vital for diseases like AIDS — and can provide inadequate incentive for medical research aimed at developing non-repeating medicine, such as vaccines.

Another global ‘commission’ that causes intense misery as well as lasting deprivation relates to the involvement of the world powers in the globalised trade in arms. This is a field in which a new global initiative is urgently required, going beyond the need — the very important need — to curb terrorism, on which the focus is so heavily concentrated right now. Local wars and military conflicts, which have very destructive consequences (not least on the economic prospects of poor countries), draw not only on regional tensions, but also on the global trade in arms and weapons. The world economic establishment is firmly entrenched in this business: the G-8 countries have been responsible for more than four-fifths of the international export of arms and armaments for many years. The United States alone is responsible for about half the world export of arms to other countries — nearly two-thirds of it to the developing countries. Indeed, the world leaders who express deep frustration at the irresponsibility of anti-globalisation protesters lead the countries that make the most money in this terrible trade.

If there is some difficulty in seeing that justice is being done in the global world, this is not just an optical illusion. The task of global justice is a shared responsibility. It is a constructive exercise that calls for political and social reforms as well as economic engagement. The market mechanism is as good as the company it keeps.

This essay is based on the author's address to the General Assembly of the United Nations
on October 29, 2004.
1. This is discussed more fully in Development as Freedon, Knopf, New York, 1999.
2. J.F. Nash, 'The Bargaining Problem', Econometrica, 18 (1950).

p. 1 p. 2

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor of Economics and Philosophy, Harvard University.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998