Sen on Markets and Democracy Notes for November 4

Main points

We had some trouble with the organization of chapter five. Each section was clear enough, but we weren’t always sure how they fit together into one chapter.

Anyway, Professor Brown liked the observations about the differences between universal programs and programs that are for the poor. The classic examples are programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are well funded and politically secure compared with programs for the poor, such as Medicaid, which are not as well supported.

However, as our discussion of public education financing in California revealed, universal access does not guarantee support for a program, much less success.

I pointed out some minor gaps in some of the arguments in favor of democracy. It may be true that discussion plays a role in constructing people’s preferences, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that democracy is necessary for discussion or that the discussions under democracy move people’s preferences in desirable directions. I should add that my point is not compelling until I come up with examples of discussion under non-democracies or the malign formation of preferences as a result of democratic discussion. So I should have thought longer about that.

I should have read page 150 more carefully. Fortunately, Max set me straight. And Zakaria’s argument (see the handout) is responsive to what Sen wrote there.

I think the upshot of our discussion of this point was that it isn’t clear how to frame the dispute between Zakaria and Sen. Bernice came the closest to a clean formulation. She said that Zakaria believes that growth has to precede democracy while Sen has it the other way around. There is enough wiggle room in Sen’s text that we weren’t sure whether he could be nailed down to that view. That’s a bit frustrating because it certainly seems as though those two are disagreeing with one another about something.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2008. It was posted November 4, 2008.
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