An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution

An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution

An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution

An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution


An interdisciplinary book by one of the most respected scholars in what is broadly development economics but encompasses the most recent insights from philosophical research and empirical work on resource allocation, nutrition science, and anthropology. It has been widely recognized as a seminal work presenting a wide-ranging description of the causes and remedies of poverty and undernourishment, and addressing the current debate over methods of estimating their incidence.


Technical economists, like people in other disciplines, write mainly for one another. They communicate their findings in journals without indulging much in the way of preliminaries about the motivation behind their inquiry and their chosen line of analysis. in part it is to save resources; but in part it reflects something larger and common to all human interchange. I still find it revelatory that all communication is predicated on something like a common conception of the world. It presumes a background of shared experience. What is uttered makes no sense unless we have an understanding of what has not been spoken.

Something of this shared experience would seem to be missing in economics. Consider, for example, the widely held belief that the subject is in a crisis, at a time when anyone who works in the field knows that it has for quite some while been enjoying a supremely productive phase, during which any number of social phenomena that earlier made no sense have come within its orbit. in any event, evaluating a subject by its weaknesses is not very useful (none would pass the test by this criterion). It seems to me far more fruitful to judge it by its successes.

This absence of shared experience has been costly. It has retarded progress in the subject because people misunderstand what others try to say, and this prolongs debates that should have, for the time being, been put to rest. the debating style of discourse continues to hold an attraction among economists. in places it has its merits (for example, it is effective in economic journalism); but I have come to believe increasingly that on the whole it is a hindrance. At its worst, it blunts our capacity to distinguish explanation from description; at its least bad, it dulls our ability to recognize the difference between deep and shallow explanations, and between vital and inessential distinctions.

I say this with feeling. As an economic theorist, I have from time to time worked on the economics of poor countries, and have read a good bit of what has been written. It is a field in which the style I speak of is often practised in its most unbridled form. It is also a field in which some of the deepest advances in the social sciences have occurred over the past dozen years or so. the subject resembles the streets of my home town of Varanasi, where pedestrians, animals, and half a dozen forms of transport all compete for room at their respective cruising speeds. It is an unfortunate state of affairs.

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