‘The Pursuit of Justice’: Sen Event Calls for New Economic Policy Rethink

A panel of policy makers, academics and senior MPs James Purnell and Peter Lilley took advantage of Professor Amartya Sen’s visit to the University of Oxford this week to discuss with the Nobel prize winner how economics should change in light of his new book The Idea of Justice.

The roundtable event was organised by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), a research centre within the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development. This initiative draws on Professor Sen’s work to define and apply new ways to measure poverty, human development and welfare.

Amartya Sen urged politicians and citizens to unite against the injustices they can all agree upon, rather than obsessing about the ways in which their ultimate ideals of justice may differ.

MP James Purnell felt that the capability approach outlined by Sen is a very good starting point for this new ideological framework and went onto outline the role of the state in maximising capabilities: ‘Governments should empower people and protect them. That is their core mission. At a time of fiscal tightening, everything else is a lower priority. That is where the cuts should fall. But that’s not the end of the story. To have capable individuals, we need a capable society. As Amartya Sen argues in The Theory of Justice, there is nothing inherently atomistic about liberalism.’

MP Peter Lilley largely endorsed this approach but warned against ideological distortions of Sen’s message: ‘Development economics is the last remaining playground on which ideologues of both the left and right can play.’ He was concerned that these might distract from the key role of the West, from ‘doing the one thing we can do – offering the poorest people opportunities to trade out of poverty’.

Dr Sabina Alkire, who leads OPHI called for a new economic framework: ‘Economics is poised to change – within the decade it will be different. Economists working in public economics and policy have a moment of opportunity to draw into our analysis behavioural economics and game theory, institutional economics, theories of justice and political economy.’ She ended by saying that economists should consider coordinating research, like scientists work together on gene mapping, to put Sen’s proposals into practise.

Professor Sen went on to deliver a distinguished public lecture entitled ‘The Pursuit of Justice’ at the invitation of the Faculty of Philosophy to an overflowing Sheldonian Theatre, where the Chancellor, the Rt. Hon. Lord Patten of Barnes presided.

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