Amartya Sen is a great economist and social philosopher whose willingness to recognise a central role for market institutions in securing economic development and individual freedom shows considerable commonality with the classical liberal tradition. Sen’s commitment to the values that underpin a free society is, however, equivocal and indeed often points towards what classical liberals would see as a dangerous form of paternalism. This tendency is particularly evident in the discussion of ‘adaptive preferences’ and their relationship to freedom.
Sen questions the traditional liberal view that we should accept that the choices people make in their lives are a reasonable indicator of the subjective value they attach to the choices concerned. The notion of adaptive preference emphasises how the values that people express can be conditioned by the social environment and more specifically by oppressive structures – such as, for example, those that emphasise asymmetric gender relationships within the household. According to Sen, we cannot always trust in the revealed preferences of individual agents as reflecting their ‘true’ best interests because faced with structures that narrow their range of options people may ‘adapt’ to their environment by ‘accepting’ their lot and lowering expectations of what life has to offer. Just as ‘libertarian paternalists’ attribute the difference between the ‘revealed preferences’ of people for fatty foods or a low savings rate and their ‘real’ preferences to various cognitive biases, so Sen focuses on the role of ‘adaptation’ in accounting for the difference between the subjectively expressed beliefs of actors and their underlying ‘objective’ interests. The assumption in both of these cases is that these biases can be addressed via appropriate policy interventions either in the form of ’nudges’ a la Sunstein and Thaler or via public education in the case of Sen.