Thursday, March 5, 2009

Positive and Negative Democracy: An Essay on Human Freedom

Starvation, says 1998 Nobel Laureate for Economics Amartya Sen, “is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat”, not the fact of “there being not enough food to eat” . Consequently, he says that poverty is not the case of people’s “lack of income”, but rather, is “a matter of capabilities deprivation” . Income and other social primary goods are only suggestive of what people have or do not have – not of who they really are or of what they are capable of doing. Income, therefore, should not be suggestive of the kind of life a person is to live.

Social justice, unarguably, should favor the poor, women, and the vulnerable, or to use John Rawls, the “worst off”, for whom, Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, the mechanisms of the basic structure must respond to. This requires, undoubtedly, an understanding of the causes of social inequality. Democracy, in theory, is meant for the realization of the good life, not only in terms of a higher “standard of living”, but also in terms of the quality of that life, however scarce economic resources may be. In this regard, the Capability Approach, a framework developed by Sen, is a good theoretical starting point.

Sen says that primary social goods, which he explains are “general purpose means that help anyone to promote his or her ends” , cannot be an adequate informational basis for evaluating well-being. He asserts that human capability or the extent of people’s freedom has a direct role, the most important indeed, in the achievement of well-being. His basic argument is anchored on the idea that freedom has a foundational importance and he proposes the paradigm-shifting distinction between equality in terms of “primary social goods” and equality in terms of “capabilities”. For Sen, evaluations regarding equality “should not solely be based on people’s command of resources, sense of happiness or desire fulfillment, but should include features of the way people actually live” , because “equal benefits to people with unequal needs will not produce equal well-being” .

In addressing poverty, economic managers look at how economic growth alleviates the lowness of income of the poor, and thus, statistics based on aggregate national income are utilized to measure the “trickle down” effect of economic expansion. This cascading effect to the poor assumes that such will improve the poor’s “standard of living”. Des Gasper explains that this process, known as the “economics of welfare”, follows from the fact that “economic production creates wealth which is distributed as income. Income is used for consumption which results to personal utility on the part of the earner. In economic terms, utility is judged as economic well-being” . This means that economic well-being is construed as the product of income generated from higher production inputs in the economy. Higher input to the process means more labor is needed, thus resulting to employment. People earn their income from this, enabling them to consume commodities, thereby satisfying personal utility.

But welfare economics views poverty in a narrow way. This concept of poverty, proceeding from what is theoretically called economism, is ill-equipped as basis for knowing “why people are deprived of their well-being”. It does not tell the extent or the kind of deprivation that people suffer, whether it is so grave or unimaginable, say for instance in the case of children who scavenge in the city, a result of the informal garbage economy one usually finds in the third world. Sen argues that the real extent of deprivation, as a matter of fact, may be underestimated if we concentrate only on the size of incomes .

Equality in the amount of income people earn or the social primary goods they possess is not a real guarantee to well-being achievement since there are difficulties that a person (i.e., a pregnant woman, a child, or a person with a physical handicap), may have to hurdle owing to his or her specific condition. A person with a physical handicap may have to overcome disadvantages in living comfortably that another at the same age need not have, even when both of them exactly are allocated the same amount of primary goods.

The reason for the above is the correlation between functionings and capabilities. The former refers to “what a person actually does”, whereas the latter means “the ability to achieve certain things” . Functionings correspond to “an individual’s physical state of being”, for instance, whether he or she has enough food to eat; “a mental state of being”, say whether she enjoys herself doing creative work which she finds fulfilling, or “a social state of being”, like whether for instance he or she is free to do certain things like taking part in social gatherings . Functionings, therefore, are “the various things a person may choose to attain in his or her life and thereby value doing” . Functionings imply the different aspects of living conditions of people and thus, in a huge way, these tell us about the kind of life people live. The concept of capability intends to “reflect the person’s freedom to lead one type of life or another” , thus it implies the capacity to achieve real opportunities for well-being. Simply put, it means one’s “freedom to be”. In other words, capability concerns what makes a person realize what he can do or to put it basically, the freedom to achieve the kind of life one wants to live and impliedly, the freedom to avoid the kind of life one does not want to be in.

To illustrate the above, Sen makes the example of “a destitute who is starving due to famine and an affluent person who chooses to fast” . Although both individuals are deprived of the “the functioning of being well-nourished, the freedom they possess is crucially distinct” . The destitute clearly lacks the capability or positive freedom to achieve nourishment whereas the affluent has that option; he has the resource to buy food but refuses to do so for a reason, i.e. to dramatize his protest.

The idea of negative freedom, as opposed to the notion of capability, corresponds to what can be considered as non-intrusion rights or the freedom from abuse or coercion. For instance, a fisherman can feel secure and contented in his simple home, with no threat of violence from anyone. It can be said that in this case, his negative freedom may not have been violated. Yet, it can also be argued that his negative freedom has no value to him. Why? Poor, and sick, it can be said that he has a life that he does not really want. Given his condition, he is not really free.

The above, however, should not be taken as something that undermines the value of negative freedom. We can say that negative freedom is also very important in securing and protecting our democratic rights which may be violated in the absence of such freedom. Our negative freedom is also of great value if seen from the context of society as a whole since without it, regimes can become abusive. While positive freedom enhances the individual’s ability to be the person she desires herself to be, our negative rights protect us from the excesses and manipulative tendencies of other people.

Ensuring the elementary capabilities of people as a matter of public policy is to secure the very basis for their well-being. If the government commits itself to each child born in Basilan, the poorest province in the Philippines, seeing to it that each child is well-nourished, gets provisions for health care, enjoys good education and is also given the chance to participate in the affairs of governance later in life, then there is no reason for these children to become bandits or rebels someday. But in the absence of the above, it can be said, human life is hopelessly diminished.

My argument is this - the power of democracy to effect change in the well-being of people depends on what people do in their lives. If democracy is to become a key to real human well-being, then people should be an integral part to its vital existence. But as a counter-argument to this, one can cite the benevolent dictatorship of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew or China’s rise. In response, Jeffrey Sachs notes that China’s economy awoke after it opened its markets to the world . Sen also points out that there is little evidence that it is the authoritarian style of Lee Kuan Yew that has made Singapore a prosperous state . If any, Sen points to “helpful policies” which includes “open competition, provision for education and high literacy rates, the use of capital markets, and incentives for investments” , factors which can make a country globally competitive.

Democracy can be theoretically construed and empirically practiced as “positive” or “negative”. The emphasis on people’s positive capabilities, for instance, “the role of freedom concerning the way different kinds of rights, opportunities, and entitlements” , can be seen as instrumental to national development. The above includes economic opportunities, education, health, transparency in government, and protective security in terms of safety nets (i.e., farm subsidies during food or economic crises), as the things that are necessary to make democracy work. These rights can be considered as “positive entitlements” which empower people, and as such, they contribute to human well-being in the same manner as one’s positive freedom does to one’s life.

In arguing for people’s democratic rights, Sen emphasizes the argument that no famine has ever occurred under a democratic regime. The reason for this is that any famine is unthinkable if the government provides enough provisions to farmers in terms of farm inputs. A government that is in solidarity with its people can immediately address any need for food basically because transparency in the disbursement of funds and the participation of farmers in the planning process will help ensure food stability. The crucial point is that people owe to each other the moral and political duty to articulate their concerns and press their government for immediate, effective and efficient action. This requires, however, the “capability” to “speak out”, and the “positive empowerment” to argue for one’s rights in public. Sen notes that, “the people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved – given the opportunity – in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs” . Positive democracy means people are real contributors to human well-being and not “passive recipients” of dole-outs and grants. For example, famines, Sen argues, are not natural calamities but human disasters, and he theorizes that “famines are policy failures” , and not a real shortage of food. The same holds true for the country’s rice crisis. Neglect of agriculture is simply a failure of governance.

Transparency laws, from the point of view of positive democracy, are useless if people are not knowledgeable of the mechanisms which ensure transparent government transactions. Any government can easily abuse its people if people are bereft of the tools or knowledge which will secure for them their welfare. A hungry man, for example, will simply say that he has no time to think about corruption in government. It can also be said that “anti-corruption drives” and the “right of suffrage” are only seen by the poor in a negative way as means of protecting one’s negative freedom, and not as positive opportunities to really empower one’s self in public. Positive democracy, it should be noted, entails the active participation of people, of “people power” in a very positive way because it results to real change in the way people act in the public sphere. For Sen, “the achievement of democracy depends not only on the rules and procedures of democratic processes but also on the way certain opportunities are used by citizens” .

Basically, it can also be argued that the importance of democracy lies in the fact that it secures and protects the political freedoms of people. Negative freedom implies freedom from oppression. Simply put, it is the “right to protest”. We can explain this by pointing out that democracy makes, or at least puts “pressure” on government leaders, to be responsive to the needs of the people because the people hold them accountable. But the weakness of Philippine democracy is something that I see in the inconsistent image of a corrupt politician who endorses an anti-corruption book. Protests can effect some change in the public lives of people, but unless people become real contributors to their well-being, change is but a dream, “difficult” and “impossible”.

For instance, libraries are almost non-existent in many public schools. This should not mean that a student mustn’t read books. For a student to really learn, he or she has to find these books somewhere. It will not be enough to wait for the results of mass actions denouncing the government’s neglect of education. A student needs to realize that the life he or she has to live is something that is “fully” and “truly” his or her own responsibility. Opportunities don’t just come. These are things that we create.

In conclusion, my analysis is that responsible citizens, guided by their “duty of civility”, will work to ensure that development becomes the priority of their national and local leaders. The streets can be the battle ground for such. But beyond such and in a very positive way, the academe, research institutions, and private corporations can contribute to advance the welfare of people more than the parliamentary of the streets. The EDSA People Power of 1986 is a classic case for negative democracy. After two decades, it has become apparent that the event has not translated to a “highly industrialized” Philippines, President Corazon Aquino’s goal while in office. Of course, negative democracy makes people vigilant even in intense economic situations. People value their political freedoms. But people can also resign to the fact that their kind of government is perpetually corrupt. Negative democracy does not necessarily empower them to seek real well-being, and thus, negative democracy may not place a country on the map to human development. People should realize, as Mahbub Ul Haq suggested, that they are the “real wealth of the nation”. This means that development is not the mere “by-product” but is in itself the reflection of the “kind of people” a country has. Of course, we deserve a better government. But on the other hand, to demand such from our leaders, right now, may not be enough.

Selected Bibliography

Alkire, Sabina, 2002. Valuing Freedoms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crocker, David, 1991. Toward Development Ethics. World Development 19 (5): 457-483.

Gasper, Des, 2004. The Ethics of Development. Edinburg: Edinburg University Press.

Giri, Ananta, 2000. Rethinking Human Well-being: A Dialogue with Amartya Sen. Journal of International Development 12 (7): 1003-1018.

Rawls, John, 1999. A theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Robeyns, Ingrid, 2000. An unworkable idea or a promising alternative: Sen’s Capability Approach Re-examined. Discussion Paper. Center for Economic Studies, University of Leuven.

Sachs, Jeffrey, 2005. The End of Poverty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Sen, Amartya, 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

___________, 1992. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

___________, 1981. Poverty and Famines. Oxford: Oxford University Press.