Amartya Sen and basic income

Sometimes referred to as the « Nobel of the Poor » [1], Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, is today one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. His writings are recognized for their major contribution to the analysis of inequalities and reflections on justice. Deeply marked by the famine that affected Bengal in 1943, he turned his research to the issues of inequality, misery and ethics in economics. He also led a long reflection on the measurement of the level of development of the countries [2]. He stands out from the other « liberal-egalitarian » thinkers, especially John Rawls, on the one hand, considering that social justice is less a matter of principles and rules, ideal procedures for achieving a reduction of inequalities, that a concrete and pragmatic approach to fight against inequalities and, secondly, that the granting of formal rights is wholly insufficient to ensure social justice, which requires taking into account « capabilities » [3] of individuals.

The purpose of this article is to present this thinker’s approach to social justice as well as his positioning in relation to basic income, and to show how he can justify it.

A less idealized than pragmatic approach to social justice …

In a book published in 2010, « The Idea of ​​Justice [4] », Sen summarizes five decades of work and reflection. He raises his appreciation of justice issues by telling the following small parable :

« Imagine three children and a flute. Anne asserts that the flute comes back to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it; Bob because he is so poor that he has no toys; Carla because she spent months making it.  » How to decide between these three claims, because all equally legitimate?

According to him, no institution, no procedure can help us resolve this dispute in a way that would be universally accepted as just. Indeed, depending on whether one favors one or the other dimension of justice, each of the three children can obtain the flute. The utilitarians would give it to Anne, the egalitarians to Bob and the libertarians to Clara. To solve the problem, one must not only take into account the particular circumstances, but also involve moral and political preferences.

Amartya Sen thus resolutely and definitively departs from the theories of justice that want to define the rules and principles that govern just institutions in an ideal world in the tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and Kant, and, in our time, of the leading thinker of political philosophy, John Rawls. Sen is part of another tradition of Enlightenment, carried by Smith, Condorcet, Bentham, Marx and Mill : one that compares different social situations to fight real injustices.

In an interview with Le Point newspaper [5], Amartya Sen states that although he considers Rawls to be « the greatest contemporary theorist of justice », he disagrees with his approach. As he seeks to define the philosophical underpinnings of a perfectly just society, Rawls’s response focuses on institutions, whereas Sen believes that, of course, we need good institutions, but « when people are mistreated, we can improve their lot without necessarily changing the institutions « .

Sen also criticizes Rawls that he thinks of ways to achieve justice on the basis of the first social goods, without thinking of the use that individuals can make of them, thus not allowing for a minimum equalization of resources so to live equitably in a liberal society.

… that goes beyond the principles of justice and the only distribution of resources …

Thus, Sen considers that what is necessary to equalize is not the goods as such, but rather the capabilities, which are the basic capabilities that allow individuals to function in a certain way in the democratic space. and therefore to give an effective content to their freedom.

According to him, it is necessary to equalize the « capacity » of people to choose and combine different actions to carry out their projects. In this perspective, the redistribution of resources is only one means among others. It is therefore important for him in social justice to choose policies that broaden the possibilities of action, in other words, the freedom of everyone.

But the idea that poverty is a deprivation of liberty is not self-evident. It can be understood by comparing, as it does, the situation of two people : one who is fasting and the other malnourished. From the point of view of resources and malaise, the two find themselves in an identical situation. But what makes the difference is that one chose not to eat and the other did not have a choice. The idea of ​​Amartya Sen is therefore that comparing the possibilities of action available to individuals, their capabilities, is a better way to understand inequalities than to compare their level of resources or satisfaction.

Unlike most « liberal-egalitarian » thinkers, Amartya Sen, in principle, refuses to ask and answer the question « What is a just society? « .

« As a result, he can not, a priori, decide whether the basic income should be part of a just social arrangement. But he considers that the introduction of a basic income could make a society more just. The measurement system it proposes is that of basic capabilities, such as access to adequate food, housing, clothing, health and education. If, under given circumstances, the introduction of a basic income could extend some of these capabilities in a sustainable manner to a larger part of the population, his conception of justice would support him. But there may be circumstances in which, by choice, another policy, such as the guarantee of employment, would be preferable to a basic income « [6].

… and that makes Amartya Sen an influential advocate of a basic income that his capability approach could justify.

Amartya Sen, spoke about basic income in an interview with an Indian television channel [7]. Asked whether India should implement a universal basic income, Sen responds in a critical way, arguing that basic income is not the best way to fight poverty today in India, where funding for health care, education and other public services is deficient. He says that it is not enough to « give money to people » and that it would be an « abdication of responsibility » on the part of the government if it were to give money to individuals rather than to provide more efficient public services.

However, he added that, as far as India is concerned, it would be different in the case of basic income if his country had reached the level of prosperity that Europe is experiencing. And he says, « If that were the case, I think basic income would be a good thing, » and then added, « but I do not think at all [for India] we’re yet there. « 

Amartya Sen also spoke about the basic income, on the occasion of the publication in 2017 of the book by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income, by writing on the back cover: « In this important introduction to the Basic Income Initiative – an economic proposition that can radically transform the nature of the modern economy and society – two leading social scientists examine the ethics and economics of the proposition. This is essential for anyone interested in the problems of deprivation and lack of freedom that are known even in the richest countries of the world. The corrective reasoning presented by Van Parijs and Vanderborght is powerful as well as very engaging – a brilliant book. « 

Thus, certainly with the proviso that the country concerned has reached a certain level of economic development, there is no doubt that this immense intellectual Amartya Sen is in favor of a basic income which, in this case, could be justified. by its approach of capabilities.

Robert Cauneau, basic income activist, member of MFRB


[1] Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998.

[2] Amartya Sen inspired the Human Development Index (HDI) which has been used since 1990 by the United Nations Program (UNDP). For Sen, as for UNDP, development is, in the final analysis, more a process of expanding people’s choice than a simple increase in national income. The previously used indicator, GDP per capita, did not provide information on individual or collective well-being, only evaluating economic output.

[3] This is the opportunity for individuals to make choices among the goods they deem estimable and to actually achieve them.

[4] A. Sen, The idea of ​​justice, Flammarion, 2010

[5] Interview granted on January 14, 2010: 413630

[6] P. Van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght, Basic Income, Harvard University Press, 2017, p117



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