We’ve grown used to seeing the Nobel Peace Prize go to terrorists (like Yasser Arafat) and the Nobel Prize in literature to Marxists (seemingly every winner). But the committee that picks the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science (established in 1968 by Sweden’s central bank in memory of Alfred Nobel) has been pretty sensible over the years, recognizing Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other original thinkers for their contributions to the field.
If they were looking for such a figure in the world of development economics (the study of how economies grow), they might have picked Peter Bauer, who for decades stood courageously and nearly alone against the misguided belief that government aid has the primary role to play. Instead, they picked Amartya Sen, master of Cambridge University’s Trinity College, who was remarkable (even before winning the Nobel yesterday) only for the extent to which his renown outstripped the quality of his work. Throughout his long career and voluminous writings, he has done little but give voice to the muddleheaded views of the establishment leftists who dominate his world of academics and nongovernmental organizations.
Where Mr. Sen’s insights have been accurate–such as the observation that famines don’t necessarily arise from a lack of food–they have been unremarkable. Famine usually has political causes, as anybody who watched the Ethiopian government deliberately starving its people in the 1980s could have figured out. Elsewhere, Mr. Sen has just been wrong. When it comes to development economics, he focused on the importance of governments in promoting growth and bringing about a more equitable distribution of resources. But it has become clear over the years that those countries that interfered least with their markets have done best, both in absolute terms and in providing for the worst-off.
Perhaps it was the increasing amount of such evidence that eventually pushed Mr. Sen into the field of philosophy in an attempt to give moral foundations to political theories that economics wouldn’t support. He bases his 1992 book, “Inequality Reexamined,” on the observation that theories of justice that are not “egalitarian” in some sense will be seen as arbitrarily discriminatory and thus hard to defend. Then, through conflation and obfuscation, he attempts to put forward a theory of “freedom” of which Orwell’s Big Brother would have been proud.
Instead of trying to cut a middle path between left and right, Mr. Sen tries to reconcile left and left–that is, those welfare liberals who emphasize equality of “opportunity” (and thus favor limited redistribution schemes) and those radicals who believe nothing less than equality of “capability” will do (something that, as Kurt Vonnegut recognized in the story “Harrison Bergeron,” would require the deliberate handicapping of talented people). Mr. Sen, being an expert in the kind of quibbling or “problematizing” on which far too many students base doctoral dissertations, makes it hard to pin down his view, though he seems to lean toward the latter position.
Of course, no one can expect to agree with every award. (Hayek was famously unhappy about sharing his Nobel with Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal.) And the Nobel Prize in economics has attained such stature that it may be difficult to find a worthy recipient every year. But it would be nice to see the committee recognize that from time to time by refusing to give an award, rather than default to someone of such debatable merit.