An Occasion of Sen

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Out here in Houston, a friend decided it would be nice to take me to hear a lecture given by 1998 Nobel Prizewinner and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Amartya Sen, on the topic of "Democracy and Globalization."

Oh dear! I thought, but, not wishing to offend, I accepted graciously and was ready — suited and booted — when the time arrived for him to pick me up.

The address was to be given at one of those vanity projects for retired public "servants," the Rice University’s "James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy" — grandiose slogan: "A bridge between the world of ideas and the world of action"; cost: $60 million and counting — the Carlyle Group, Kenneth Lay, and numerous Arab gentlemen, among many others, our thanks.

Sen’s speech, it turned out, contained little enough about "globalization," apart from a few platitudes about how both its opponents and proponents had it all wrong, in the professor’s humble opinion, while his insights on "Democracy" (suitably and reverentially capitalized) were of the order that that we were all guilty of intellectual "racism" to think we Europeans had been largely responsible for spreading the worship of that great secular god around the globe, since — quote — "the Visigoths who gave rise to the Germans’ knew nothing at all of 5th century BC Athens….!"

Pots and kettles sprang to mind on that score, especially since his charge that we Westerners routinely ignore the rich history of the East was mirrored in his own myopic focus only on the world of Greece and Rome, as if our Antiquity was confined to a bunch of olive-eating imperialists huddled around the shores of the Mediterranean!

Incidentally, the Celts were at least as democratic as anything seen in Socrates’ Athens. Though chosen from among the more eminent families, their leaders were only primus inter pares and had to reflect the views of those qualified to express one in the polity, or risk instant expulsion — a fact which drove Caesar to distraction when the free peoples of Gaul and Britain routinely refused to do the pro-Roman bidding of the Chalabis and Karzais he tried to install at their head, as even a cursory reading of his Commentaries will reveal.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Though Sen himself seemed personable enough, it did worry me slightly when the speech was introduced by one of the University’s Cultural Marxists, the editor of some hotbed of facile polylogism called "the Journal of Feminist Economics" [sic!] and when it was prefaced by the proud announcement that the school was setting up a Department of Culturally-Sensitive Gender Studies (not much call for my repertoire of jokes about Welsh mothers-in-law there, I fear!)…

Among Sen’s few memorable words — ones which give a flavour of the woolly-headed leftism on offer — was the idea that when Ambedkar wrote the constitution for his native India, a passage saying something to the effect that "we have a schizophrenic nation where all are politically equal, but economically unequal, and it behooves us to address the latter," meant they were certainly not Socialists, merely good Democrats!

Entering into the spirit of the thing, I passed a written question to the good professor along the lines of:

"When democracy is so often antithetical to property rights, how can you say it is a prerequisite for progress? Will you not admit that only capital brings progress, not populist confiscation?"

Since I sat near the front and had scribbled on the back of the card on which my question was written, I could plainly see that Ms Marx, the editor of the Wimmin’s thingumybob — who chose and read out the questions — had conveniently shuffled it to the bottom of the (fairly slim) pile she held, right where it could not possibly have been asked in the time allotted.

Why was I not surprised? Hmmmm… YOU work it out!

(Incidentally, my host, John, bought me a Margarita afterwards. So, yes, he IS still a friend!)

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] writes from London on the financial markets, and edits the daily Capital Letter and the Website Capital Insight. He is co-manager of the Bermuda-based Edelweiss Fund.

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