Continuing Conversation... Martha Nussbaum on Creating Capabilities and GDP

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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This week's episode was a conversation with University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum. She and EconTalk host Russ Roberts discussed her work on the capabilities approach, the limits of GDP, stoicism, and the value of philosophy.

We'd like to hear your reaction to their conversation. As always, our goal is to broaden the conversation, so share the results with us, using the prompts below. We love to hear from you.

Capabilities2.jpg

Check Your Knowledge:

1. What is the "capabilities approach," according to Nussbaum, and how would it compare (favorably or not) to GDP as a measure of well-being?

2. About halfway through the episode, Nussbaum alludes to "reasonable pluralism." What does she mean by this, and how does this principle guide Nussbaum in determining the purview of the state?


Going Deeper:

3. In discussing her differences with Amartya Sen, Nussbaum poses an interesting question. Is capability always good, but can be used badly, or are there bad capabilities distinct from the good? How would you answer this question?

4. At about the forty minute mark, Roberts says he is making a philosophical, not an practical point, when he asserts that the government doesn't truly represent the individual. To what extent do you agree with Roberts's assertion, and what kind of point is it- practical or philosophical? Explain.


Extra Credit:

5. Nussbaum notes her admiration for development economics, in part because it involves "working with real people and their lives." Roberts has interviewed several development economists in previous episodes. Describe how you think Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly would feel about using the capabilities approach to measure the effectiveness of international aid.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Kurt Hanish writes:

Great interview. I thought Ms. Nussbaum did a fantastic job of communicating and defending the idea that capabilities is a better way to measure than GDP, and then poking holes in some of the idealism of the libertarian view of the world. I don't agree with Russ on many things, but I respect his opinions, and I trust him as being thoughtful and well intended. I very much appreciate him for bringing on alternative views.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

Regarding Question 4:

The phrase “the government” is overly broad to my taste. “Government”, as an institution, has had a very wide range of attributes (most of them reprehensible) over the ages and across the globe. Not even Ms. Nussbuam or Monsieur Piketty would claim that the governments of Ghengis Khan, Julius Ceasar, or Louis XIV made even the slightest pretense about “truly representing the individual”. Would anyone seriously claim that the governments of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Chairman Mao had any interest whatsoever in “truly representing the individual”? These various Heads of State were quite forthright in their philosophical belief that the individual subject meant nothing, that the individual subject was a mere replaceable cog in the service of the “Machine of the State”. And as Louis XIV candidly put it, “l’etat c’est moi”, leaving no doubt who was to serve and who was to do the serving. Any individual who failed to do as he was told in such regimes, failed to serve the State when and how demanded, would be put to the sword, or would face the firing squad, or much, much worse. The individual subject of the State, and any whatever interest they may possess, were totally subordinate to the interests of the State, and therefore subordinate to the interests of the ruling class. In such a regime of government, the answer is a resounding “No!” both philosophically and practically.

I can only assume by “the government” what is meant here would be “representative democracy”. Even in this case, my answer would remain the same: a resounding “No!”. Again, in a “representative democracy” versus an “absolutist” regime, the methods imposed may differ but the philosophy is exactly the same. The individual remains subordinate to the interests of the State (see taxation, conscription, the pursuit of War and Empire etc.). The difference with a “representative democracy” is merely how the State is defined. Rather than explicitly defining the State as the Ruler (and the ruling class that supports him), the State is fashioned as a vague “Will of the People” or amorphous “Majority”. Once those are successfully conjured, the ruling class then directs, controls, or manipulates this “Will of the People” or “Majority” to have whatever interests the ruling classes wishes to pursue. Both the Left and Right are quite explicit that the individual should remain, however, subordinate to those easily politically manipulated abstractions.

Democracy represents a deceptive ploy by which the ruling elite provides “the individual” with a false choice between a set of so-called “representatives” that do not actually represent their interests, but which are actually employed by and represent the interests of the ruling elite. Heads they win, tails you lose. So, philosophically, both approaches are the same, the individual is still compelled to subordinate their interests to “the greater good” and whatever con the ruling elite has politically rigged up. The “individual” is really never “truly” to be “represented”. It is possible (and obviously quite common) for some voters to enjoy the choices made for them by the ruling class, but you are pretty much out of luck if you disagree with them.

In practical terms, the average voter today has no more say about how the society he/she lives in is operated than did a feudal serf in the Middle Ages. We are merely fortunate that today the ruling elite in the West gives us a little freedom, doesn’t take everything we have, and doesn’t make us into lampshades because they think, and I think correctly, that they can squeeze more out of us that way.

John Breslau writes:

I was somewhat surprised by Ms. Nussbaum's disparaging remarks concerning religious charity. In my many years of experience in various forms of Christian charity (feeding the poor, working at a local Christian relief/thrift "store", various mission trips, etc.), I've never known one to deny aide due to presupposed thoughts on the recipient's religious views, much less apply a religious test to qualify for such aid.

I wish Mr. Roberts would have pressed her on that claim by challenging her to identify a Christian organization that limited its services to those of the Christian faith. If the intent of a Christian charity is proselytization, then surely it would want those of differing faiths being exposed to such charity.

If Ms. Nussbaum subjected her views to a modicum of scrutiny, she might recall the recent doctor from Samaritan's Purse who contracted Ebola, and recently recovered. I doubt that in the capacity of his roles of helping Ebola patients, working the ER, and doing C-Sections (all of which he stated on NPR that he did) he asked as a pre-qualifier the current state of their religious beliefs.

Ms. Nussbaum's viewpoints are deep, and deeper than most I know who advocate for a large role of government. I respect her thoughts in the book "Libertarianism: for and against", which is a nice read. Still, her antiquated views of Christian Charity struck me as anachronistic. I highly wish Mr. Roberts would have challenged her on that view, at least a little.

I would similarly dispute her claim that churches are as corrupt as governments. After all, if your church is corrupt, you can leave it and go to a different one down the street at no cost originated by the church; that is, faith institutions are voluntary in their constituency. The same can't be said for government.

Michael M writes:

She's one of Thomas Sowell's "Annointed" suffering from Friedrich Hayek's "Fatal Conceit". Future economic adviser to Elisabeth Warren's Presidential campaign?

Brendan writes:

This is appropriate considering the protests in Hong Kong, I am prone to bring up China. China is a emerging market everyone takes about having an GDP boom with 7%; yet are the people actually prospering or as Prof Nassbaum says, flourishing? Or in others are the people actually free.

ted writes:
... in the sense that he thinks, other things equal, it's always better to have more freedom than less. Now, I guess I don't even know what that means. Any freedom is a freedom to do something, which requires constraint on other people, that they don't impede you from doing that thing. So I don't even think that his question is entirely intelligible to me.

I think that after this fragment I nearly zoned out. This person doesn't understand what freedom is, which is troubling.

Freedom is not reaching into people's wallets with impunity, through government, as Ms. Nussbaum seems to think.

In socialism, when I grew up, there was no freedom to live in whatever town or village you wanted. My parents were assigned by the government to jobs in a particular town and that was it. Unless you interpret "constraint" in the most general sense, of the mere presence of someone somewhere being objectionable and a constraint on other people - which is a nazi-style vision of the world - it should be pretty clear that freedom doesn't always imply constraint on other people. I can give many similar examples of freedoms that people didn't have, from the freedom of speech to freedom of simply owning foreign currency.

Regarding Roberts' position on political representation, I agree. You can live in a country where you have no political representation. If you're a libertarian or classical liberal in the UK you'll have no political representation: all the parliamentary parties subscribe to the high-tax/high-spend philosophy, all of them subscribe to the idea that the government is entitled to control and regulate all aspects of your life (absolutely nothing, from smoking in your car to the amount of sugar you can consume, to what you can Tweet is off the table), all of them subscribe to the idea that government services, such as health care or education, should be mandatory to pay for (irrespective of wanting or using them) etc.

It's entirely possible to live in a place and have nobody speaking for you. If I lived in the US I guess I'd feel that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent me.

Final thought: I didn't enjoy this interview. The guest states blithely that if you are a Marxist, well, you are going to have a lot of trouble I think in the United States while arguing that property is really theft, while living in the US and having a good life. Intellectual consistency is not her strongest part.

Amy Willis writes:

@John, Great comments...And your point re: right of exit is very significant!

Andrew McDowell writes:

It was suggested that democracy does not give individual people a voice because single votes do not count. This misses the large number of policies which are discarded by all the main parties because they would be political suicide - policies to which a large group of voters are strongly opposed, which democracy rules out. As well as eccentric suggestions (such as reversing the regrettable events of 1775-1783 :-)) this includes many policies beloved of professional economics but of which they have yet to convince the public, such as the more extreme forms of free trade and immigration reform. For better or worse, democracy is observably different from e.g. rule by a technocratic elite.

Yoni writes:

Very proud of you Russ for inviting people you differ with to the show and especially the way you allowed her to present her opinions, including some that were obviously not to your liking. I liked the arguments you brought against her, you did it with respect and after a few minutes of disagreement you allowed the conversation to continue. Great show.

James writes:

I appreciate hearing differing views, but I did not enjoy this episode. Could not understand what point she was trying to make. That we need 1000 different metrics to rank countries on? To what purpose? People are just going to cherry pick the one that suits their argument. We need agreement on a small number of key metrics.

Amy Willis writes:

@James, I shared some of your confusion. But I'm not clear on your point re: a small(er) number of key metrics. What do you propose? Would something like Australia's dashboard method (as discussed in the Diane Coyle episode) be preferable?

Greg G writes:

Regarding question #4:

This is an interesting question from the most interesting part of the interview.

This never happens but I lost interest in the first half of the podcast and didn't listen to the second half till today. I'm glad I returned because I thought the discussion really came to life in the second half.

The philosophical and the practical are not necessarily mutually exclusive but I can see why Russ would characterize his comment as more philosophical. Russ is raising an ethical objection to government as we know it and ethics is quite clearly a branch of philosophy. And since to live in this world is to live in a place where you have to deal with a government of some type, the fact that you don't like any of them lacks an immediate "practical" application.

Either way, I thought Russ's comment took the discussion in a productive direction. Of course it is true that no institution represents all Americans in the sense that they all voluntarily agree to be subject to it. I have never met any of these people who Russ seems to think believe that government has unanimous consent.

When people say that government "represents all Americans" that is just a common figure of speech that really means that we all have the opportunity to participate in the process by which we are represented in government. It is a statement about the process not the result. And yes, it is not true in its most literal sense. Like many figures of speech it is not meant in its most literal sense.

This would be a good time to remember that such linguistic conventions arise in the most bottom up emergent voluntary way possible. Each speaker and listener gets to decide what each word and phrase means for themselves. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Ditto for the uses of plural pronouns which Russ so often objects to in discussions of government.

Nation defense is most certainly NOT an exception where unanimous consent is available. Some are pacifists and the others disagree on which threats "we" need defending against. If you believe that government should do national defense then you believe in requiring at least a some people to participate in something they don't voluntarily agree to if I may make a "practical" point.

prakash writes:

When Nussbaum stressed that democratically elected government represented everyone, I think Russ missed an opportunity to ask her about secession. Or even other questions about political representation like alternatives to first past the post systems. After all she did say she didn't want a world state. So, she's not a totalitarian or a libertarian. What thought guides her ideal size of government?

jw writes:

I agree with Michael M and the majority of the posters above. I commend Russ for inviting people like Ms. Nussbaum on the show. I can never understand the liberal mindset (outside of Sowell's analysis) and having Russ interview them really helps (sort of how watching "Cops" lets one understand how different segments of society think and act...).

Besides the "you didn't earn that" and "religious tests" views that others touched on above, one of her campaign talking points for Rahm really got to me. I certainly hope that Daley DIDN'T get a good deal for the parking meter leases. In a free market, a bankrupt seller has little leverage to get the best deal. Daley got $1.2B in return for 75 years of parking revenue (run that present value discount model...).

The piper needed to be paid for years of Chicago's profligate spending (the kind that Ms. N advocates) and then she asserts that it was a bad deal. Sorry, beggars (and Chicago is certainly a beggar) can't be choosers for every cent of revenue that they can scare up in an (unfortunately) dying city.

Robert Swan writes:

Amy, I'll give my answer to the question you put to James i.e. the "smaller number of key metrics" -- I'll just add that as far as I'm concerned, that smaller number must be one.

An earlier Econtalk (Arnold Kling on the Three Languages of Politics, June 3, 2013) centred on how conservatives view better/worse along an imaginary number-line of "how civilised is it?". The Progressive ranks things along a line from more to less oppressive. The Libertarian's line runs from lesser to greater freedom. And Kling's point was that, until you can agree which axis you're looking along, you'll never understand a different tribe's views.

I happen to have had this view myself for quite some time, and it's pretty much reflex with me, when I hear "better", to ask (at least mentally) "along which axis?". E.g. who's the best footballer? Well, are we talking about as an after dinner speaker?

So, back to the Nussbaum talk, GDP defines an axis along which we can measure a country's prosperity, but GDP is contested. Fair enough, maybe we can find a better measure of "prosperity". But no matter what concept(s) (wellness, happiness, etc.) you incorporate, if your objective is to rank various policies, these concepts MUST be reduced to one number.

I think that's the sort of thing James had in mind.

Mind you, regardless of what number you reduce it to, it will be open to exactly the same objection that GDP receives: it's a massive (over)simplification.

On the Nussbaum interview, she seemed very guarded. The conversation flowed much better when she was less defensive and I thought Roberts's framing that question as a philosophical one defused things nicely and she relaxed for a while.

[link to Kling added--Econlib Ed.]

Ron Crossland writes:

Robert Swan

Reading your thoughts prompted me to reconsider Kling's three axes. First, they are not equally easy to measure. Second, civilization versus barbarism as the conservative axis has similar measurement problems as happiness. Third, oppression and freedom are often considered opposites, so the Progressive and Libertarian axis might be viewed as one axis with less freedom or more oppression being the starting point.

Kling's argument was that the political language of these three groups migrate to one of these axes, as a central issue, not the only issue.

Rather than axes, suppose these three measures were more of a dashboard look. Individuals might choose the maximum/minimum of all three. I want the most freedom, with the least oppression, and the most civilized. Am I a Conservative, Libertarian, or Progressive?

Several of Russ's shows have helped demonstrate the frailty of GDP as a meaningful number in isolation, yet the economics profession appears to use it out of habit rather than developing a new habit based on a more informed view.

I agree with your thoughts about being clear which dimension is under consideration. I also assert that multi-dimensional evaluations are hard to reduce to less than a handful of measures.

Robert Swan writes:

Ron Crossland,

I agree with nearly everything you say (with reservations on Kling's freedom and oppression being nearly the one axis), but had gone a step further: ranking. It is impossible to rank things unless they are reduced to a number.

As an example, you (and you're not alone) favour greater freedom, less oppression and more civilisation. Presumably, you would grade various administrations with F, O and C values, perhaps each on a scale from 1 to 10. This will look fine on a dashboard and you'll be able to rank countries along any of the three axes.

But how would you rank countries overall? It is easy to see that country A with (8,7,8) is better than country B with (3,4,7). But where do I put country C (4,3,6) in the list? The only way to do this is to somehow reduce those three dimensions to one.

This loses information and leads to arguments over whether the Swan index or the Crossland index is more correct (leaving out arguments about how a single number is derived for freedom or barbarism). Nevertheless, any statement "A is better than B" implies that all the dimensions that A and B occupy have been squeezed into one, whether consciously or not.

You might object that there is no need to rank countries overall. True enough. But a country that wants to decide policy needs to rank itself against its projected self under different policy decisions. To decide whether to spend an extra dollar on F, or O, or C, they need to decide which will give the greatest benefit which, once again, leaves it shoehorned into a single number.

Anthony Perry writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for making ad hominem remarks. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Anthony Perry writes:


Ms Nussbaum thinks our government a more legitimate source for social benefits than private organizations because it is democratically chosen and therefore is beholden to all of us whereas private organizations represent special interests. She admits that there may be winners and losers as a result of government action and too bad if you're one of the losers. It is surprising that as an economist she doesn't see that the benefit and the whole purpose of private organizations is that one can contribute to those whose activities we approve of, similar to the manner in which consumers decide which companies thrive and which go out of business. The government monopoly does not go out of business. Althought its policies generally track what the majority of voters want, you get nothing for your purchase if you're on the wrong side.
Ms Nussbaum's answer, which I assume was a bit facetious,is to choose to live in a smaller country where your vote would have more influence. I believe the whole point of the federalist oganization of our government is to place government decision-making as close to the local level as possible so that the individuals affected will have more influence. We in fact in a manner of speaking all do live in smaller countries, called States, which if you read Tocqueville's observations, used to have far more impact on the lives of our citizenry than the federal government. Even better he was astounded at how individuals banded together in private organizations to achieve social aims.
Ms Nussbaum's answer to the evident problems of the government approach, as in the education system, is that we have to try harder. In other words more taxes and more central control.

[opening sentence removed per commenter agreement, after touching base in email.--Econlib Ed.]

Mark writes:

Ted pointed out what I had the biggest problem with in this interview. Ms. Nussbaum in general seems to have some pretty radical notions that don't really seem to hold water. Particularly, her notion of freedom is quite ridiculous. The idea that freedom is a zero-sum transaction; that my freedom to breathe means someone else loses the freedom to prevent me from breathing (for example) is rather childish. There are no shortage of freedoms (like choosing which books I read to choosing my own meals) that in no way affect other people. Even the initial premise, that a freedom is only a freedom to do a thing, is faulty; freedom can also be the freedom NOT to do something. I just hope she's not teaching the logic courses over there at Chicago.

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