Amartya Sen on tolerating poverty

I pressed home yesterday in good time to watch Amartya Sen’s LSE lecture on “Poverty and the tolerance of the intolerable“.  The lecture is now available in audio format here.

After a moving introduction, Sen identified three main reasons why people (and particularly people in India) accept the existence of poverty:  ignorance, supposed ‘realism’, and a self-centred denial of responsibility.

There are two others he might have mentioned.  One is the argument that poverty is in some way necessary, functional or advantageous to the development of the economy – a position put by Herbert Spencer, and implicitly accepted by Rawls.  Sen didn’t address that argument directly, but he gave an effective response to the point nevertheless:   that the existence of public services, including education, health, social security and housing, is complementary to economic development and growth.

The other argument may be less important in India, but it’s crucial in Britain and the USA.  It’s possible to deny moral responsibility if there is some other moral judgment that runs counter to it – if the poor somehow  deserve their poverty.  The moral condemnation of poor people is central to current debates.  The strident attacks on people who are unemployed or disabled or caring for children are not new, but they have clearly tapped into a well of poison that has been there for centuries.  The founders of the Welfare State thought they had broken away from the past; they were wrong.  We may never be free of this.

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