Book Review: Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach by Martha Nussbaum


Creating Capabilities is an introductory text concerning the “Human Development Approach” or “Capability Approach” to national development.  The central question of this development perspective is this:  “What is each person able to do and to be?”  In other words, what opportunities are open to all citizens.  On this basic level, the approach has much in common with the editors’ perspective here at Unfettered Equality.  We want to give people the positive liberty to reach their potential, and the negative liberty to freely explore that potential.  However, when Professor Nussbaum’s development of the Capability Approach reaches discussion of implementation, some bizarrely illiberal things happen.

The Human Development Approach or Capability Approach was developed largely as a retort to theories and measures of national development that focus heavily or exclusively on growth in terms of GDP.  A growth-only picture of development, Nussbaum argues, ignores several important societal issues.  First, as an aggregate value, GDP-growth does nothing to reflect inequalities, meaning that while overall GDP may rise, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a reduction of poverty, as the benefits of growth may accrue purely to elites (Nussbaum offers real household purchasing power as an alternative economic measure).  Secondly, GDP-growth does a bad job of reflecting key quality of life concerns such as health and education markers.  Lastly — and importantly – GDP-growth measures entail no information whatsoever about whether a nation exhibits oppressed minorities or gender inequities.

In contrast, the Capability Approach strives to measure the development of a nation in terms of the opportunities available to every person, asking “What is each person able to do and to be?”  What this really means is that “…all should get above a certain threshold level of combined capability [innate/developed abilities plus an environment that allows the exercise of such abilities], in the sense not of coerced functioning but of substantial freedom to choose and to act.”  A society under the gaze of the Capability Approach is judged by its ability to raise each of its people – regardless of gender, class, race, or disability – above this “certain threshold” of capability.  This is the extent to which the Capability Approach could be said to be egalitarian:  everyone gets to the threshold, and “those who need more help to get above the threshold get more help.”  It is easy to see why education in particular is of large importance to Human Development or Capability Approach theorists.  From this language, the Capability Approach can also be said to be libertarian, as it emphasizes “choice” and not “coerced functioning.”  Nussbaum goes as far as to say that “Options are freedom, and freedom has intrinsic value.”  The idea is not to enforce a uniform standard of living, but to give each person the opportunities and resources to build the sort of life they want.  Governments are given the responsibility of ensuring these opportunities and resources from which capabilities develop.  In this way, governments are given the task of providing the ground of “a life in accordance with human dignity.”

Sounds great!  However, there’s a hitch: only freedoms associated with a definite list of capabilities – ten, in fact – will be protected by any sort of constitutional or procedural guarantee.  Here, Professor Nussbaum goes beyond other Human Development Approach theorists, and she names the new method the “Core Capabilities Approach,” after her list of key capabilities.  Freedoms that don’t make the list are out in the cold:  “When a freedom is not that central, it will be left to the ordinary workings of the political process.”

There’s a few big problems with this.  First off, it is hard to see how you can justify having the central question “What is each person able to do and to be?” and yet leave most questions of freedom to majoritarian rule.  Gay and lesbian Americans in many southern states could attest to how well their freedoms are guaranteed by “the ordinary workings of the political process.”  Secondly – and more importantly – who decides what’s on the list of core capabilities?  The answer seems to be, well, Professor Nussbaum and her colleagues.  The ideal is for an objective test to be whatever capabilities are required to live a life of human dignity, but the proposed practice is through some form of rule-by-experts:  technocracy, “merit”-ocracy (did you get into Harvard?), plutocracy (did your parents get you into Harvard?) – or all of the above.

Why this is important becomes clear in Nussbaum’s off-the-cuff list of freedoms that are “not that central”:  drugs and alcohol, “risky sports,” and homeschooling.  I suspect that these arenas are not protected by Professor Nussbaum’s list because Professor Nussbaum doesn’t care about them.  In fact, it reads like a laundry list of things that are politically correct to look down on in elite rungs of Western society.

So under the Core Capabilities Approach we are meant to subject our space of freedom to be arbitrarily limited by a list drawn up by elites who are influenced by specific cultural norms of acceptability.  I find this completely unacceptable.  The effect of these cultural norms on CCA is on full display at several points where Nussbaum is comfortable questioning culturally-backed limitations of the sphere of freedom in other societies, yet will not turn the lens back on her own culture.  For example, pharmacological freedom is on her list of “not that central” liberties despite the evidence that the U.S. Drug War entails huge offences to “human dignity,” especially considering the racial bias towards enforcement.  Here, CCA seems to confuse the politically correct with the morally justifiable.

These illiberal tendencies in CCA arise from Nussbaum’s complete disregard for negative liberty (freedom from restriction or oppression), which she considers to be “an incoherent idea” (emphasis mine):

“Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.  The very idea of ‘negative liberty,’ often heard in this connection, is an incoherent idea:  all liberties are positive, meaning liberties to do or to be something; and all require the inhibition of interference by others.  This is a point that must be emphasized particularly in the United States, where people sometimes imagine that government does its job best when it is inactive.”

It is hard to understand why Nussbaum wholly and explicitly disregards the value of negative liberty – freedom from restriction or interference – when her own above discussion of liberty acknowledges that “the inhibition of interference by others” is a necessary component.  A rigorous account of negative liberty is the missing component in the theoretical framework of the Core Capabilities Approach.  If the point is to give each person “substantial freedom to choose and to act,” why does the approach allow such a wide (not to mention culturally contingent) sphere for limitation of that freedom of choice and action?  A framework that allows the Drug War as an acceptable policy under the test of “human dignity” – since drugs are not on the protected list – can hardly be thought of as protective of liberty.  Or, for that matter, human dignity.  Negative liberty – especially as the restriction of the possible sphere of government action – is necessary to prevent a horror such as the Drug War.  Nussbaum ignores its value to the detriment of the Core Capabilities Approach.  And though she explicitly rejects the idea that the American framers should be at all associated with the word “libertarian,” it is from their fertile use of negative liberty that we received this real protection of personal freedoms:  “Congress shall make no law…”