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The Sen-Bhagwati Debate: In Retrospect

It is strange that the Sen-Bhagwati debate received wide media coverage in a country where virtually no one reads academic literature. What could have happened? Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati were probably born as leftists. Sen was more dishonest, and did not want to change much even in the face of great evidence to the contrary. Sen had a strategy because being liked and accepted were probably more important to him. After an age, Bhagwati admitted error, changed his positions, and had to accept that this meant less respectability, power and positions. When I became a libertarian more than a decade ago, the lay public had not heard of Bhagwati. He was probably burning in humiliation, waiting to expose Sen. He assembled all evidence he could accumulate to humiliate Sen. Now, after Bhagwati and Panagariya have picked many holes in the arguments of Sen, and after the Indian intellectual establishment has become far more capitalistic, the media is actively debating this.   

Sen still attracts far more attention because everything he did was subconsciously motivated by the desire to be liked and respected.To be successful in the academia, you have to be not just intelligent and industrious, you also have to love the welfare state and such inanities. Whatever their flaws, this is true of Sen and most other high profile academics. But, curiosity is very rare because it is a rare gift, to be born with great respect for the truth and reality.

Most people are born as leftists. It is hard to go against your innate tendencies. Sen and most high profile academics probably learned early in their lives that virtue does not pay—that truth does not pay. When you accept the truth, it is not just that you have to admit error, it will also make you less socially acceptable. The easiest path to being liked is to not notice the unpleasant truths, and not give it the grand importance it deserves when you notice them. When the evidence is too much to evade, they might, of course, agree with the unpleasant facts without changing their beliefs much. So, there will always be plenty of smart, dishonest people whose work is often boring and whose ideas are very wrong. 

Though politics and economics are considered more controversial than anything, such conflicts are there in every sphere of life. I think there is not much analysis on this because the reasons behind such conflicts are ugly. People cannot write about this without revealing too much of themselves. I think these are trade-offs. If you look at the people with socially unacceptable positions, you will see that even in person, they are often very eccentric, stubborn and do not care much for the social norms or niceties. Bibek Debroy said in an article that “Bhagwati is brusque, sharp with wit and repartee, not caring much for pleasantness and relationships”. I think it is not by accident that Manu Joseph called Sen an amiable man in the dismal science

“The battle of clever old professors is often fought behind the shield of values. They may even hint it is for the greater common good. But at the heart of it is usually a petty grouse. Naturally, they never mention the grouse, which points to where one may look to discover it. They say a lot, though, and employ bar diagrams. And much polite language. When an academic says “my good friend”, he usually means a body part. Indian-born American economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who used to be described until recently by several Indian commentators as a man who will one day win the Economics Nobel, and Amartya Sen, who has indeed won the prize, have been sparring for years, proclaiming that the other is a “good friend”. Bhagwati’s language has now turned savage, as Sen continues to seek refuge in elegance.” 

But, Bhagwati is not likely to be taken equally seriously even if the other intellectuals eventually come to agree with his positions, because it still would make them look bad. Even when the other intellectuals admit error, they are likely to think, “In hindsight, what I once believed looks stupid, but then I know it only in hindsight.” They will be somewhat uncomfortable with the view that Sen’s views are stupid and evil. (I noticed that my favorite editor, Cheap Auntie said that Maybe if someone gave Bhagwati a Nobel it would all die down.” Lol.) They would also not want to antagonize Sen, who is a more valuable ally. So, while agreeing with Bhagwati, they might still identify with Sen. When they claim that Bhagwati is not in the same league of that of Sen, their readers would assume that it is a mark of their intellectual honesty that they still admit that Sen is a greater intellectual. 

The journalists really would not want to antagonize anyone. In the articles on the debate in the media, there was a tendency to say, “You both are right. There is no need to fight.” But, that is a hyper sensitive, mush-headed woman’s philosophy in its full glory. After a point, the journalists were saying that the personal conflict between two intellectuals is not very productive. But, if this were really about ideas, if this were about the substantive matters underlying the conflict, the journalists could have assessed the conflicting claims of Sen and Bhagwati. They did not do so because they did not have the mind to do so. The journalists are being passive aggressive when they claim that only “He said, She said” journalism is reportage. If reportage is about facts and has nothing to do with the opinions (!) of people, I do not know what this “He said, She said” journalism is about. The journalists want to have it both ways: Relish the personal conflicts between high status people, and keep yammering about this having nothing to do with people.

Now, the only way Bhagwati could have got more attention was by directly asking for it, by openly attacking Sen. Sen had good reasons to say, “Jagdish loves talking about me, I do not like talking about him.” because the proof adduced by Jagdish does not make Sen look good. It makes no sense for him to draw much attention to it. So, it is not surprising that he said, “I don’t want to get into an argument, I don’t like brawls. There are people who like it. I do not.” Now, that is a socially acceptable justification for withdrawing from argument, and a common tactic of passive aggressive people. The passive aggressive people are very good at not losing their cool after driving people mad and claiming that they do not even know what this is all about.  Now, the sentimentalists will use this to establish that Bhagwati is such a big attention seeker, a jealous loser, because Sen is a Nobel laureate. He also tells them what they want to hear. I do not think the battle between the clever old professors is any different from a typical office battle. 

The joke in all this is that the real attention seeker in this controversy is Sen, and not Bhagwati. The truth is strange. As Swaminathan Aiyar once said about Sen, “Looks like a lion, has the liver of a rabbit.”

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