This chapter covers three empirical issues relating to democracy: 1) the connection between democracy (or public reasoning—Sen seems to use these terms interchangeably) and famine, 2) the connection between democracy and economic development and 3) the promotion of tolerance toward minorities. In what follows, I will first restate Sen’s account of democracy (given in the previous chapter), as this is relevant to his interpretation of the data he provides in chapter 16. Second, I will outline his discussions of each of the three topics he takes up, and, third, I will raise a few questions about the causal connections he proposes in the discussion of famine.
Sen views democracy as not merely the presence of elections and ballots, but as “government by discussion,” which includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction (326).” He believes that an unrestrained media is especially important to the functioning of democratic societies, for a number of reasons, one of which plays a central role in his discussion of famines: a free press, Sen tells us, contributes to human security by giving a voice to the vulnerable and disadvantaged and by subjecting the government to criticism. (More on this
Democracy and Famine
In 1982, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Sen made the observation that “no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation) (342).” Further, while India was under autocratic British rule, famines were regular occurrences; once India achieved democratic self-rule famines ceased. (Apparently, Sen’s observation about democracy and absence of famine was initially met with a fair amount of skepticism. Now it is widely accepted.) Sen infers from the observed correlation that democracy prevents famine. He offers two reasons in support of this inference. First, democratic governments are accountable to their citizens and subject to uncensored criticism from the media. So, in order to maintain power, democratic governments have a strong incentive to eradicate famines. (Indeed Sen argues later in the chapter that the famine case is really an instance of a broader phenomenon whereby democracy advances human security by giving political incentive to rulers to respond to vulnerable citizens.) Second, because of the informational role of the free press, democratic governments are likely to know about the plight of citizens and therefore about the need for amelioration. By contrast, authoritarian regimes, which suppress public discussion, may be simply uninformed about the severity or extent of a famine and fail to provide assistance for that reason.
Democracy and Development
There is a received view, held by both defenders and critics of democracy, which says that democracy is inimical to economic development whereas authoritarianism is not. Sen rejects the received view, arguing that under the proper understanding of “democracy” and “development” there is little evidence to support it. First, Sen views political liberties and democratic rights as constitutive of development—development, in his view, should not be understood narrowly in terms of e.g., economic growth. In this case, of course, democracy guarantees development. Second, even if we emphasize the economic growth aspect of development, it turns out that the received view is based upon “selected cross-country comparisons,” specifically between East Asian countries on the one hand, and India on the other. More comprehensive cross-country comparisons, Sen says, do not support the received view. (We are not given any details, here, as to which additional countries should be included in the comparisons.)
Minority Rights and Toleration
Democracy understood as public reasoning, Sen argues, can accommodate the problem minority rights that arises under a regime of majority rule. He notes that the formation of tolerant values is essential to democracy so that those in the majority have a desire that their society guarantee minority rights. At the same time, however, the formation of tolerant values is partly achieved through democracy by means of open discussion of the various affiliations citizens have. That is, “democracy can…assist in bringing out a greater recognition of the plural
identities of human beings”—it can aid in citizens in seeing one another as something more than a member of the majority or minority.
Democracy and Famine Prevention
In his discussion of the Bengal famine of 1943, Sen notes that an official report of the British colonial government to the British parliament claimed the number of deaths per week to be about 1000, when in fact it was approximately (a staggering) 26,000 per week. According to Sen, this dissembling and/or misperception (which was accompanied by the gross failure of rulers to respond to the crisis) was enabled largely by severe restrictions placed by the British on Indian media and by the British-owned media’s self-imposed silence on the famine. This restriction of the press, Sen claims, greatly hindered public discussion about the famine in Britain and India. Therefore rulers were not subject to public pressure and so had no incentive to provide relief. (“The rulers,” Sen says, “never starve.”)
Sen’s account suggests that only if rulers either suffer themselves or experience political pressure, are they moved to respond. And, since they never suffer, they are moved to respond to famines only if they experience political pressure. This strikes me as over-simplified. Given the amount of suffering and death caused by the Bengal famine (which would be obvious to any statesman who deigned to pay the least bit of attention) the neglect of the British government seems almost diabolical. Can we explain the government’s indifference simply by appeal to the absence of a threat to its authority contrived by suppressing the media? It seems that there must have more going on. If thousands of British expats were dying of starvation in Calcutta, it seems likely that the government would have responded more appropriately even if the media were severely restrained and the information flow therefore minimal.
Moreover, Sen notes that in famines only a very small proportion of the population is affected—much less than 10%. Political pressure from this group alone would not be enough to force a democratic government to respond. It is the pressure from the non-suffering members of society that makes the difference. But if government officials in democracies don’t care about the
starving unless they are threatened with a loss of power, why do members of the population who are not starving care about the starving? It seems that if compassion or solidarity (or whatever) moves non-starving citizens to advocate for famine victims, it would move government officials to respond to the famine. This leads me to think that either 1) there is something else going on in democracies (besides “excellent political incentive to act supportively”) that explains their tendency to respond to famines or 2) there is something else altogether that explains the tendency for governments to respond to famines and this factor is somehow contingently connected to democracy.