A few words about Amartya Sen’s point of view from Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism Defended (Ashgate, 2006), pp. 269-274.

…As for Sen, he is prominent in the area of developmental economics as well as in his critique of neoclassical approaches to values. He has a massive book out (the most recent one he has written – he has written many, books), Rationality and Freedom* (2002), and it contains quite a few of his powerful criticisms of market economics. He was very respectful of Peter Bauer and they often agreed as to what developing countries need in order to emerge out of their underdeveloped state.
Sen is what may be called a meta-economist, very concerned with the underlying assumptions of the discipline. For example, he has advanced an interesting critique of the tendency on the part of many economists to write off all values as preferences. He argues that there are umpteen ways the word ‘preference’ can be used, not merely the one many economists focus on. His ideas in this and other areas are very challenging.
In particular, however, when it comes to the concept of freedom – political- economic freedom – Sen deploys both a version of the positive freedom theory – namely, freedom as ‘freedom to,’ meaning being free to attain certain ends by virtue of having the resources to do so – as well as the idea of freedom found in classical liberalism, that dubbed ‘negative liberty’ – which means being free from coercion by others. Indeed, somewhat problematically he often lumps the two sense of ‘freedom’ together without alerting us to which he has in mind. This may be due, in part, to his stress on the form of negative liberty that leaves people free, via the democratic process, to enact public policy measures that secure positive freedom. Yet Sen is quite explicit in rejecting libertarianism and its conception of freedom. ‘In terms of its informational basis, libertarianism as an approach is just too limited … it also neglects the most basic freedoms that we have reason to treasure and demand.’3
What basic freedoms does Sen have in mind? Those that are made possible by confiscating resources from those who own them and providing them to those who lack them but could make very good use of them. The example that is perhaps most pertinent is what is provided by way of Good Samaritan Laws – for example, medical assistance to an injured person whose freedom of movement, of getting ahead in life, is seriously impeded by way of some accident or mishap and who would lack the capability to carry on a normal life. Similar, more massive, examples that Sen focuses upon include famines, disasters, poverty, and lack of employment. The freedom involved is what has been dubbed ‘positive freedom’ and it involves a demand, as Sen recognizes, on the resources, labor and talents of others whether or not they choose to provide them.
One thing we discuss in political theory is just what kind of freedoms there are. In the last fifty years or so, but starting much earlier with such writers as Thomas Hill Green, there has been a discussion as to whether freedom is best understood as a condition of not being interfered with or rather as a power to achieve something. Is it freedom from other people’s interference or is it freedom to achieve a certain goal?
Many people who support the welfare state, or the larger than classical liberal role for the legal system and government, tend to accept the notion of freedom to as an enabling condition due to someone from others and to be secured by government. So that those, for example, who are poor (although nobody is interfering with them or contributing to their poverty by limiting their negative liberty via trade restrictions or property rights violations) and, therefore, unable to achieve certain goals it is deemed by many that they ought to be able to achieve, are not free in this positive sense of the term. Even though no one is preventing you from flying to Russia, if you can’t afford to fly to Russia but it would be good for you to fly there, then you are not free to fly to Russia and those who might enable you to do so are deemed to be depriving you of your freedom. More pertinently, even though no one has deprived you of economic liberties – for example, to produce goods and services, to enter into contracts with others – the valuable goal you might pursue of obtaining health care or old age retirement is unavailable to you, thus limiting your freedom to flourish in your life.
This sense of freedom is very often deployed by people within the modern liberal political tradition. Yet many of them have some affinity with the classical liberal school but they believe that classical liberals unjustifiably and thus unwisely neglect this important kind of freedom. They hold that this freedom is required in society – the freedom to achieve various goals that are good for people, such as education, health, insurance, or social security. Some even argue that unless classical liberals acknowledge that at least the poor and deprived have a right to such positive liberty, their own theory of individual negative rights is incomplete. For example, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor James P. Sterba argues that for those entirely unable to act to advance themselves while enjoying their negative right to freedom that right is utterly meaningless – it cannot, thus, be reasonable for them to abstain from some violations of other’s rights to such negative liberty, especially property rights. And they believe that once it is accepted that a government ought to protect our positive freedom or liberty, room will need to be made for a lot more interventionist public policy such as wealth redistribution and economic regulation than most classical liberals would favor.
Why does Sen think that this freedom is equally important – if not even more so – as the negative freedom requiring that people not intrude on one another? Part of the reason is the underlying conception of human nature. What that conception is makes a big difference to the sort of freedom one will champion. If one believes that, as a rule or for the most part, human beings who are not being interfered with by others have the capacity (with some help from intimates, of course) to secure for themselves what they need so as to flourish in their lives, then one is going to emphasize being free from interference because the central condition that an adult needs to flourish is not to be oppressed by other persons – that is to say, not to have others constrain them. In short, human beings in society require, first and foremost, their sovereignty.
Once oppression stops, normal adults can get innumerable tasks accomplished, various goals achieved – maybe not all at once, not all equally effectively, but nonetheless with considerable promise. The major obstacle to our advancing in life, based on this idea of human nature, is other peoples’ interference (as identified by a theory of rights violation or freedom abridgement). Once that is fended off, prohibited, or penalized by law, people will have the chance to exercise their initiative – their capacity to make the necessary moves to improve upon their lives – and flourish in life. Thus they don’t need to have others conscripted to serve them – they will find mutually acceptable ways to attain their peaceful goals.
That, certainly, is the main theme of classical liberalism, with some variations on the specifics depending which classical liberal is talking. Having barred coercion or initiated force, the human potential to get things done successfully is unleashed; therefore, the idea that people ought to be forced to support each other is opposed and taken as the main impediment to their flourishing in their community existence. Of course, even for classical liberals, there are some exceptional cases where people are incapacitated or in a state of emergency such that they will probably need help, but the classical liberal, who champions freedom from interference, tends to maintain that even in those emergency cases free men and women will come to the assistance of those in need. There, in short, will be voluntary organizations, service groups and so on, so there is no need or justification to get government to meddle in these affairs – society is enough, politics is not necessary, to cope with exceptional cases or emergencies.
Those, however, who believe that human beings are ill-equipped to get ahead on their own – that they are either too ignorant, too weak, too poor, or in some other way deficient to pursue a fruitful life – will hold that being free from interference by others is not enough for human flourishing. Sen is amongst those. When he uses the words ‘development as freedom’ – for example, in the title of one of his most prominent books – the word ‘freedom’ there means not just the classical liberal freedom of not interfering with people, but it means a condition of being enabled by the legal order – first via the negative right to freedom to vote and then the positive right to wealth redistribution – to escape their poverty, ignorance, or sickness, and to move ahead via such support from others. To make this possible, it is necessary to conscript others who are already well enough enabled to do work for those in need, ergo extensive systems of confiscatory taxation in systems of justice that characterize the welfare state or democratic socialism. Those so conscripted may not want to do contribute to this goal; they may want to something else – either productive or wasteful – with their lives. But it is taken to be a matter of justice that they must be made to yield to the conscription and expropriation that is required to secure these benefits for the needful.4
The matter may be discussed in terms of either freedom or rights. So there are then positive and negative freedom or rights advocates. The classical liberals tend to embrace the notion of negative freedom or rights whereas welfare statists and socialists are more sympathetic to the positive freedom or rights position. The idea for classical liberalism in either cases is that no one is justified to intrude on the lives, liberties and property of anyone else who hasn’t given permission for this to happen, which implies that there is a prohibition against others entering one’s sphere without one’s permission. (The exact specifications of such a sphere are to be established by various ethical and legal proceedings.)
On the other hand, those who accept the notion of positive freedom or rights – or the right to capability – tend to think that everyone in need must be provided by those able to do so with goods and services. That is to say, just for being a human being, especially in modern societies, one who is deprived is entitled to other people’s support, especially when one lacks such support relying only one one’s efforts and those who would voluntarily help out. In other words, if unable to support oneself, that ipso facto imposes a duty on capable others to provide the support….
———
*Since I wrote Libertarianism Defended Sen has also published a formidable volume, The Idea of Justice (Harvard UP, 2009).