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.  


  1. About Mickey Mouse…

    The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text.

    During the 2000 debates, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6). In the 1992 debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while George H.W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did H. Ross Perot (6.3). In the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the candidates spoke in language used by 10th-graders.

    In the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas the scores were respectively 11.2 and 12.0.

    In short, today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. It is fitted to this level of comprehension because most Americans speak, think and are entertained at this level. This is why serious film and theater and other serious artistic expression, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of American society. Voltaire was the most famous man of the 18th century. Today the most famous “person” is Mickey Mouse.

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