Amartya Sen and the “exploded subject”
* It soon became clear to me that there was no way to neatly order different economists into a single dimension from left to right
* Despite my own left-leaning leanings, I realized soon after arriving at Cambridge that the right-wing Bauer was not only the best professor of developmental economics, but also the most accomplished thinker on the subject at the university.
* Joan Robinson told me the story that smart economists all tried to make welfare economics, but “the smartest of all, Jan Graaff, showed this to be all nonsense”
Even though there were a number of good professors at Cambridge who didn’t really get involved in these intense fights between different schools of thought (like 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 oddly – drawn. The Keynesians were seen to be on the left of the followers of neoclassical economics, but this was very much in the spirit of “so far but not further”, since the neo-Keynesians were firmly opposed to the Marxists and to other schools of thought.
It soon became clear to me that there was no way to neatly order different economists into a single dimension from left to right. Dobb, who was a shrewd Marxist economist, was often viewed by Keynesians and New Keynesians as “soft enough” towards neoclassical economics. Sweet 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. Marxist Dobb, for example, one of the few economics professors at Cambridge at the time interested in welfare economics, was a close friend of Peter Bauer, the conservative neoclassical economist who would later become later a Conservative member of the House of Lords. – and economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher.
Despite my own leftist leanings, I realized soon after arriving in Cambridge that right-wing Bauer was not only the best professor of development economics, but also the most accomplished thinker on the subject at university, from afar. Indeed, he was one of the world’s most original development economists, and much 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 since I was a young student and joined me for coffee almost every week – “to meet and chat” as he does. said, which was a source of great gain for me. My friendship with Bauer lasted his entire life. The fact that the neo-Keynesians saw little in his work is not, I believe, to their credit.
After arriving in England from India, I tried to see if I could make an intellectual connection between my main academic concerns in economics while I was still in Calcutta and what I hoped to focus on during my studies. in Cambridge. It turned out to be difficult. After reading Arrow’s book on Social Choice and Individual Values in Calcutta and reviewing the emerging literature related to it (as well as a lot of thought on the new topic of Social Choice Theory for myself) , I could see that my interest in the field was growing very strong. But I couldn’t persuade any Cambridge faculty member to take an interest in social choice, or encourage me to work on anything related to it.
There might have been a way to use welfare economics to link social choice theory and the more standard economics topics recognized at Cambridge, but welfare economics was seen as a non-subject there. . Shortly before my arrival, the brilliant South African economist Johannes de Villiers Graaff (known as “Jan”) had shown in a captivating thesis that without evaluating value judgments on social welfare, he would not. there is not much to say in welfare economics. This could, of course, have been the start of a critical examination of how social judgments can relate to assessments of individual well-being (or individual value judgments), just as Arrow had tried to do in using sane axioms in social choice theory. Instead, Graaff’s analysis was seen as the end of the topic, especially since the nature of Arrow’s impossibility theorem was not sufficiently understood by most Cambridge economists. In fact, Arrow’s conclusion was seen as an overall devastation, rather than an invitation to scrutinize the proposed axioms and their combinations. So, after Graaff, the welfare economy was generally seen as a hopeless ditch rather than a field that could be fruitfully cultivated.
When I told Joan Robinson that I wanted to work on wellness economics, she said, “Don’t you know this is a failed topic? She told me the story that smart economists all tried to do welfare economics, but “the smartest of them all, Jan Graaff, showed this to be nonsense.” I told Joan that she could be wrong in her interpretation of Graaff’s work: First, Graaff did not actually show that welfare economics was nonsense; second, he himself never claimed he had. Joan wasn’t just persuaded, 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 tried to recruit one or two of the other Cambridge teachers to join me in exploring social choice theory, but to no avail. No one could find a reason to encourage me. Richard Kahn, like Joan, was hostile. Nicholas Kaldor has done what he used to do, which is to encourage you on the grounds that a certain madness in life is necessary to build character. The only member of Cambridge’s Faculty of Economics to have taught welfare economics was Maurice Dobb. A number of his comrades on the left saw this as a serious mistake on Maurice’s part (“a sale to the right” was often their confused summary of what he had done). Dobb was quite allergic to mathematical reasoning, like many other members of the economics school at the time, but he wanted me to explain the substance of Arrow’s Theorem and why it was interesting. He listened to me carefully enough, but then told me that the topic was too mathematical for us to work on together. However, he was willing – indeed, eager – to discuss with me those parts of social choice theory that he understood. “It will be a great excursion for me,” he said.
Excerpt with permission from “Home in the World: A Memoir” by Amartya Sen published by Penguin Random House