Sugden’s critique of Sen’s capability approach and the dangers of libertarian paternalism

Research paper by Mozaffar Qizilbash

Indexed on: 03 Mar '11Published on: 03 Mar '11Published in: International Review of Economics


The force of Sugden’s critique of Sen’s capability approach depends on the interpretation of the approach adopted. It is persuasive when public reasoning about what is good (or best) for people can justify policies which promote opportunity through (potentially objectionable) restrictions on liberty. Sunstein’s discussion of preference formation and politics shares key elements of Sen’s views. His proposals for democratic controls illustrate the potential danger Sugden signals about application of the capability approach. Sugden is also critical of paternalist views inspired by the findings of behavioural economics. One of these—Sunstein and Thaler’s ‘libertarian paternalism’—is a worrying extension of Sunstein’s earlier views and opens the door to a much wider range of interventions. Sugden rightly and forcefully resists it. His critique of the capability approach may, by contrast, be better seen as sounding a cautionary note than as an act of resistance.