The Importance of GNF (Gross National Freedom)

by Robert Brow   September 1999    (

Sylvia Ostry has reviewed Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, $41.50 (Weekend Post, Fall Books, p.18, September 25, 1999).

My first degree was in Economics, and I am still disgusted with the assumption that the GNP (Gross National Product) reflects a country's happiness and welfare.

Amartya Sen became the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge after receiving the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Science. He had moved the old model of development "from the single objective of economic growth, as measured by national income, to a quite different and far more complex concept he calls freedom" (Sylvia Ostry comment).

You don't need to read Sen's 366 pages to see the sense of this. If people have been free to enjoy a large parkland, and it is sold to developers, the GNP is increased by millions but the citizens of that city have their GNF cruelly reduced. Or in terms of development, the people of a country have lived freely eating bananas and coconuts, and fishing for their proteins.  Put them to work in factories exporting bananas, coconuts, and canned fish, and the GNP of that country grows astronomically. But no one but old fashioned economists should imagine they are happier.

Economists, however bad, can influence a nation's politics. Sylvia Ostry quotes John Maynard Keynes, himself an economist. "Practical men, who believe themselves quite exempt from any intellectual influences,  are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler from a few years back."

Sen's work now gives us a wide open door to remind governments that freedom is what Christians are about. Politicians and Civil Servants might not want to hear that it was Jesus who said to his disciples : "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free . . . So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:31-31, 36). And having been converted from legalism, Paul said : "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).

We recognize that the state is appointed by God to prevent the freedom of some from interfering with the freedom of others (Romans 13:1). But nowhere does it say our government should make the maximizing of our GNP (and that of unfortunate countries all over the world) a prime objective.

Sen wisely proposes the maximizing of the citizens' "freedom to achieve a desired lifestyle." And Ostry quotes a recent editorial in the Economist, "The moral answer is that, whenever possible, people should be left free to make their own choices."

But we have much more to offer from the Bible. The Creator of our universe is himself free, and he cares about the freedom of his children. Good parents seek to free each child for what they long to be and do in life, and God pursues that aim for every one of us. In other words he cares about the GNF of the world.

But he also intervenes to free us from the hatred, guilt, fear, and legalism that destroy our freedom. Paul even explains that, when we long to be and do what we want to do, and find ourselves totally unable to do it, the Holy Spirit mightily empowers us (Romans 7:18-8:4). That should be very good news for government correctional services and every social service agency in the land.  We can also add that the Holy Spirit is also the one who can inspire every kind of creativity, and especially create in us the love, joy, peace, and other fruit of the Spirit that we so badly need.

I am delighted Amartya Sen has offered us a powerful model to present our good news persuasively.

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