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What Can You Do? What Can You Be?

In the 1990s in grad school, a friend of mine was working on a project to develop a non-monetary based measure for a nation’s well being. Many had long questioned GDP as an adequate measure of economic progress or quality of life. I lost touch with my friend, but retained my interest in hers and similar projects. There have been a number of efforts by government bodies, researchers, and nations to find a better way. In a previous book review in this column, I discussed the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a measure used by the government of Bhutan to assess the state of its union.

Among the number of other measures that exist, one that values freedom of choice, human dignity, justice, and equality as important indicators is the Human Development Approach developed by Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen and others. In Creating Capabilities, Nussbaum presents a structure and some guidelines for this approach, as well as its implications for human beings.

It begins with a story. Nussbaum introduces Vasanti, a woman from Ahmedabad, India whom life has given a pretty raw deal. Though some of the particulars stem from life in a developing nation, Vasanti could be any woman – indeed, any person, from anywhere. Imagine a Hopi woman in Sunnyside whose husband has gambled away their earnings, or a newborn from Kachina Village whose young mom is heavy into Spice. The conditions of their lives have consequences that impact their participation in economic life, now or in the future, which in turn has an effect on the overall state of our nation. According to Nussbaum, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom in the United States, your ability to choose what you will be, what job you will have, where you will live, and many other things depend on whether or not you can actually exercise those choices.

Assessing how well your country is doing using only GDP, according to Nussbaum, covers up a lot of problems. While it’s true that she is concerned with things like justice and equal treatment – items that might color her “too liberal” in some people’s views – she provides ample justification that even the least progressive, hard-ball, economic bottom-line types among us ought to take a harder look at these measures. She notes, for example, that “increased economic growth of a country does not automatically improve quality of life in important areas such as health and education.” Consider the present concern in the U.S. that other countries (India and China, for example) outpace us in the Three Rs. Increased GDP also doesn’t correlate “with the emergence and stability of political liberty.”

The Human Capability Approach sees human beings as the essential resource of a country. Nussbaum quotes from the Human Development Reports of the United Nations. “The real wealth of a nation is its people.” Since the goal of development “is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives,” it makes good sense to invest in and be concerned with that essential resource. The core of Nussbaum’s approach is “capabilities,” framed in terms of the question: What is this person able to do and to be? Addressing it on an individual level is key because lives are lived on an individual level. It is possible to provide benefits to groups that don’t reach every member.

Precisely how the human capabilities approach works and why it is better than competing approaches is well detailed by Nussbaum. She provides a list of ten Central Capabilities that “a decent political order must secure to all citizens.” They include things like life, health, and the rights and ability to affiliate with others. Nussbaum also applies the approach to other important concerns such as diversity, care of the aged, and even animal rights – something with the potential to resonate deeply in Coconino County.

Creating Capabilities provides a richly argued reassessment of our standard approach to economic development. Whether you are on the bandwagon for a complete overhaul of our present economic system, a champion of status quo capitalism, lover of small kittens, or don’t give two cents for your fellow human being, Nussbaum’s perspective suggests implications worth consideration. FBN


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One Response to What Can You Do? What Can You Be?

  1. Elizabeth Hellstern September 20, 2011 at 12:08 AM #

    Constance, thank you for your thoughtful review of Nussbaum’s work! I have ordered the book, and am looking forward to hearing her speak on Nov. 3 at NAU!

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