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16 June 2010

Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 16, ‘The Practice of Democracy’

via Public Reason by Cynthia Stark on 6/15/10

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.


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