Social Service Futures: The productivity of what?

Dr. Elise Klein: Lecturer in Development Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.

In 1979 Amartya Sen addressed scholars and students at Stanford University, giving the coveted annual Tanner Lecture on Human Value. The title of the lecture was, Inequality of what? Here, Sen laid out the basis of his scholarly corpus which would lead to his Nobel Laureate, the Human Development Index and subsequent books and articles that which have underpinned the revival of human development.

In response to the works of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel and Thomas Scanlon, Sen outlined how normative theories of justice, human advancement and inequality always required the equality of something—equality of liberty, resources or utility. Sen’s argument was that focusing on equality in this way overlooked the heterogeneity and diversity of people; the many different ways in which equality can be judged. For example, by just focusing on particular resources (e.g. liberty or economic resources) it was not clear that all people, given differing abilities, would be able to convert such resources into personal gain (Sen 1995).

Sen instead proposed that social arrangements should be assessed as human freedoms, where human freedoms are not just the achievement of things people value or have reason to value but also the ability of people to pursue them in the first place. So instead of policy focusing just on things people may do or be—for example, being nourished, riding a bike, being educated and being healthy, Sen proposed also to include the real ability or freedom to achieve these things—for example, the ability to be nourished, the ability to be educated and the ability to be healthy.

Put another way, Sen finds that development, wellbeing and progress should be understood as capabilities; the freedoms people ‘value and have reason to value’ (Sen 2009: 276). Consequently, economic and social policy should exist as a process of expanding the diverse capabilities that people value or have reason to value (Sen 1999) In this sense, economic advancement is only pursued as a means to the end of human wellbeing. This approach stands in contrast to other normative development approaches that see human beings as ends to economic growth and market efficiency. The capability approach also stands in contrast that view human capabilities are human capital, best illustrated through the integration of competition and marketization to explain human agency.

This basic revisionist account Sen’s capability approach is not new to Australian Federal Government agencies and departments. For example, the Australian Treasury used Sen’s work in the development of the Treasury’s Wellbeing Framework in 2012 stating, “in undertaking its mission Treasury takes a broad view of wellbeing as primarily reflecting a person’s substantive freedom to lead a life they have reason to value” (Gorecki and Kelly 2012). The Productivity Commission regularly draws on trends coming out from the OECD, which in 2013-14 incorporated the recommendation, that human wellbeing and progress is analysed as capabilities not economic growth or efficiency. This recommendation stemmed from the high -profile Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress commissioned by once French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

So it comes as a surprise that the Productivity Commission would shift from conceptualising wellbeing and related social policies as capabilities, back to economic logic, efficiency and marketization. The capability approach is useful in highlighting three specific limits of economic logic, efficiency and marketization in social policy.

Firstly, the logic of competition and efficiency overlooks the premise that wellbeing, development and advancement limits the vast possibility of human capabilities. Secondly, the logic of competition and efficiency tends to conflate human capabilities to human capital. Sen himself argues that ‘human beings are not merely means of production, but also the end of the exercise’ (Sen 1999:295–296). Thus, capabilities cannot be restricted to what is necessary to feed capitalism. Instead, what is most vital to human flourishing are capabilities that people value and have reason to value, which may or may not be capitalist in function. Instead, development is freedom; the freedom to live valued lives. Thirdly, competition and marketization overlooks the intrinsic, instrumental and constructive value of democratic processes such as democratic deliberation, public reasoning and collective movements. Sen calls for participatory public deliberation as being fundamental to all social policy where institutions and structures need to be procedurally just, and not solely outcome focused (see Sen 1995, Nussbaum 2011, Alkire 2002).

So how could the Productivity Commission and other agencies go about valuing plurality and agency as per the capability approach?

One way forward would be rebalancing the relationship between the means and ends of policy. Currently, policy is outcome focused (ends) and the process of getting to such outcomes is overlooked and undervalued. This is a concern because, the agency of citizens is overlooked and undervalued, resulting in what many would argue as top-down, paternalistic policies. Instead, the capability approach places agency (means) at the centre of the development process, where public deliberation and involvement in the policy-making process is paramount. Ingrid Robeyns (2003) sets out basic criteria for selection of capabilities. Firstly, to compile an explicit list that is then publically deliberated and defended. Secondly, the methods used in drawing up a list must be scrutinised and justified. Thirdly, the capabilities must be sensitive to the context, making clear the abstraction at which the list is pitched. Fourthly, lists are checked to ensure that the capabilities listed cannot be reduced to other elements/misinterpretations.  

Notwithstanding, pluralism in the capability approach rests heavily on democracy, deliberative processes and the ability of groups and institutions to fairly compile lists. The risk of course is that already marginalised voices again will be isolated in such a process. This is because unjust relations of power and social structures can be reproduced through collective process freedoms without a full account and theorisation of societal structures, hegemony and power in the shaping of agency and society (Otto and Ziegler 2006, Zheng and Stahl 2011). To put it differently, the racialized, liberal and economic constitution of society tends to structure agents’ options and hegemony acts to exclude other options (Gramsci 1971, Laclau and Mouffe 2001). Critical social theories could remedy such a dilemma and complement the capability approach as they specifically focus on the structural conditions of, and dialectic with, individual and collective agency. Without such critical social theory, the pluralism and flexibility built into the capability approach ‘creates scope for more casual and indeed opportunistic appropriations and interpretations’ (Sayer 2012: 582).

Shifting the paradigm back to one of competition and marketization would undo many gains already accomplished in social policy. The capability approach provides a helpful normative framework to guide social policy to support human flourishing and productivity in its fullest sense. 

This piece has been written as part of the Power to Persuade Social Service Futures Dialogue


Gorecki, Stephanie, and James Kelly. 2012. "Treasury's Wellbeing Framework."  Economic Roundup (3): [Date Accessed 27th May 2016].

Sen, Amartya. 1979. "Equality of What?" Tanner Lecture on Human Value, Stanford University.

Sen, Amartya. 1995. Inequality Reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 2009. The idea of Justice: Allen Lane of Penguin Books.