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The Life-and-Death Significance of Democracy

Even among the micro-elite of economists who have won the Nobel Prize, Amartya Sen is a super-star, because once upon a time he proved something that actually matters.

Famines aren’t caused by lack of food.

This was about as much of a surprise as Jesus feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fishes, but verily "all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over," and likewise the starving residents of Bengal in 1943 and Bangladesh in 1974 and the Sahel in 1968 (and ongoing) could have been fed, if only a messed up system of economic entitlements hadn’t starved them.

And out of the background of his already astonishing analysis, Professor Sen extracted yet another discovery even more astonishing to anyone invested enough in the problem of hunger to be surprised by anything about it.

Famines never occur in democracies with a free press.

During the Bengal famine of 1943, for example, production of rice in Bengal was actually greater than in 1941, when there was no famine. But at that time Bengal was controlled by the United Kingdom, which continued to export rice from Bengal while 10,000,000 Bengalis died of starvation and diseases related to malnutrition.

While India was ruled by England, about 25 major famines ocurred, but after India became an independent democracy…


And meanwhile in nearby Bangladesh, where democratic institutions are weak and their otherwise impotent army dominates politics and society, famines continue to occur with depressing regularity.

Amartya Sen is as familiar to almost every post-secondary student in the Third World as almost every American is familiar with Mickey Mouse, and if you ever wonder why crowds in the Ukraine and Peru and elsewhere are willing to risk their lives to establish or protect democracy, although Americans run happily in and out of Wal-Mart while their Constitution is eviscerated, it may be because Third-World agitators understand that democracy is always a matter of life and death, and after we lose control of politics and the media, almost all of us will also almost inevitably lose everything else.

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Jacob Freeze

Jacob Freeze

I'm a painter and photographer who supplements his meager income by hurling rotten fruit and screaming "Welcome to the Bu!" at the Humvees of hedge-fund managers and their nightmare spawn who get stuck in the ridiculously narrow drive-through at McDonald's in Malibu. They inevitably poop their pants and abandon the vehicle, which I subsequently strip and sell for parts, and that is how I can afford to live in Malibu.