Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice

When all the law-abiding adult members of a society share free and equal citizenship in a fair scheme of social cooperation, they constitute a democracy. This is the ideal of democratic justice that is captured by John Rawls, the most eminent twentieth-century Anglo-American political philosopher. A society does not necessarily achieve justice merely by following majority rule. A just democracy must secure every person a set of fundamental liberties along with adequate education, health care, productive work, and income. Fundamental liberties include personal and political liberties such as freedom of conscience, speech, and association; due process under the rule of law; and equal suffrage in free and fair elections. Personal and political liberties are "co-original," as the distinguished German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, puts it: Both are similarly rooted in the democratic ideal of free and equal citizenship in a fair scheme of social cooperation.

Nowhere, however, has this ideal of democratic justice been realized. Indeed, at least since an Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to death for the crimes of heresy and corrupting young minds, the relationship of democracy and justice has been a subject of great controversy. Critics of democracy-who typically associate democracy with majority rule rather than with the moral ideal of free and equal citizenship-claim that the very effort to link democracy with justice is dangerously misguided. The critics find fuel for their fire in the way some friends of democracy-false friends as it turns out-defend majority rule. "The majority should decide what's right," they say, adding the stunning non sequitur "because there is no truth about the matter." With friends like this, democracy does not need enemies.

But democracy does have enemies, and they say that justice is best served when the few people who know what is right and who can pursue the true interests of the people are in control. One problem with the alternative of autocracy is that the most ruthless, not the most just, typically seize power, and they rule in the name of the people-but neither in their interests nor with their consent. (Plato, no roman tic about democracy, recognized that the truly just person would be the least likely to seize power and rule.) Another problem is that autocracy, however benevolent, does not respect individuals as free and equal citizens.

In Democratic Justice, political theorist Ian Shapiro asks how to join democracy and justice and quickly rejects two simple, perpetually alluring answers to this question. First, democratic justice is not purely pro cedural. It is not simply what the majority decides. If the majority decides to require everybody to practice the religion that it favors, and amends the consti tution accordingly, a coercive religious establishment could become the law of the land. But the popularity of a law does not justify coercing minorities in their religious worship. A second alluring way of joining democracy and justice is to identify democratic justice with achieving the right results, regardless of how they are achieved, as long as those results can help create a just society somewhere down the road. If population control is the right result, an elite would therefore be justified in enforcing a one-child-per-family rule. Whatever else we want to say about this policy, we should not call it democratic if an unaccountable elite imposes it.

Shapiro concentrates on the United States, but comparative analyses can clarify and strengthen the case for joining democracy with justice. Some undemocratic countries, most notably China, have limited their population growth far more successfully than some democratic countries, most notably India. This comparison, on its face at least, suggests a simple truth that both defenders and critics of democracy can agree upon: Democratic societies do not always achieve better results than undemocratic ones. Eco nomic growth rates in some authoritarian countries-such as Singapore-have been strikingly high, at least for a few decades, and ordinary people have reaped some substantial benefits from this growth. But the best evidence demonstrates that economic development does not generally depend on the suppression of political and civil liberties.

Moreover, the suppression of political and civil liberties generally exacts a high price on the poorest members of society. No democratic society with a moderately free press, as Amartya Sen has shown, has ever experienced a massive famine. Although China can boast far more impressive economic growth (and less population expansion) over the past decades than India, democratic India has never subjected its population to famines comparable to those that killed an estimated 30 million Chinese from 1958 to 1961. One reason that democracy protects against famine is that freedom to criticize government and to hold it accountable spreads the costs of famine to the rulers. Additionally, although China achieved a birth rate of 1.9 per family undemocratically, the province of Kerala in India achieved an even lower birth rate (1.7 per family) democratically, without coercing women or selectively aborting female fetuses as has been done in China. The literacy rate among women in Kerala is also higher than in every province of China. A democratic form of socialism-as practiced in Kerala-is much to be preferred to an undemocratic form, as in China. Neither, of course, is perfect, but no form of government is.

Democracy does not bring all of justice in its wake, but democrats are right to insist that part of what constitutes justice is the freedom of ordinary people to develop and reveal their political preferences without fear of political reprisal. Only a democratic government that guarantees freedom of speech, conscience, and press can provide this part of justice, upon which even the critics of democracy rely when they claim (without good evidence) to know that poor people in Eastern cultures prefer authoritarian to democratic governments. But the only way to determine which type of government the Eastern poor prefer would be to give them a choice in free and fair elections, precisely what authoritarian governments do not give their subjects.

Shapiro recognizes two general rules that should guide the search for democratic justice. One is that "justice must be sought democratically." This is because, as we have just seen, part of justice is giving people the freedom to speak their own minds. A second rule is that "democracy must be justice-promoting." If democracy does not promote justice, it cannot be defended to the people who are suffering the injustice against their will. Any democratic theory worth developing, therefore, should value both process and substance. Once we recognize the value of both process and substance, however, we immediately confront the central challenge of democracy. To the extent that democracy is identified as a process (say, an inclusive electorate with institutions of popular rule that allow for effective opposition), it may not always yield just outcomes (say, universal health care, literacy, and religious freedom). Insofar as justice is identified with substantive outcomes, the democratic process may not support it.

Shapiro calls the democratic process a "sub ordinate conditioning" good. It is "subordinate" for Shapiro because dem oc racy should be in the service of find ing just outcomes. Most of us value democracy not because we get great kicks out of participating in politics but because it will generally produce better results than its alternatives and because it expresses our equal status as citizens. We are most aware of its expressive value when our voting rights are denied or threatened. Democracy is a "condi tioning" good because having a say in how we are governed adds value to outcomes: the value of the equal political freedom that produces those outcomes. Democracy should be "omnipresent but not omnipotent." It therefore stands staunchly opposed to vanguard politics, a politics of wielding unaccountable power from above.

What then should a democrat do when he notices that democratic pro cesses in the United States-the society on which Shapiro concentrates-often produce unjust outcomes? Accord ing to Shapiro, democratic justice also demands securing the basic interests of all individuals, which include an adequate education, decent health care, housing, income support or work that pays, and some democratic say in the workplace. If democracy should be "omnipresent but not omnipotent," then democratic justice would guide us toward reforming our political processes in ways that would help make American politics both more democratic and more likely to yield justifiable outcomes. Public financing of electoral campaigns, for example, may be one among many potential ways of improving both the process of public accountability and the substance of political decisions.

When Shapiro confronts political out comes that he opposes, however, he typically ignores procedural reforms and instead defends-in the name of demo cratic justice-unaccountable political action from above. Like other defenses of vanguard politics that portray themselves as democratic, Shapiro's account takes away with one hand what it gives with another. In his general discussion of democratic justice, he quotes with approval John Dewey's famous dictum: "Democ racy can be served only by the slow day by day adoption and con ta gious diffusion in every phase of our common life of methods that are identical with the ends to be reached." Shapiro writes, "Whenever anyone claims to know how to get to democracy undemocratically, skepticism is in order." This good judgment vanishes, however, when Shapiro starts putting his principles into practice. When he confronts public policies that offend him, without a hint of skepticism, he defends unaccountable "action from above"-that is, vanguard politics-as a way of getting to democracy undemocratically.

Although Shapiro says that vanguard politics is justified only under exceptional circumstances, he offers four classes of such circumstances, two of them so broad as to make vanguard politics the rule rather than the exception. Vanguard politics is justified if there are substantial differences in exit costs at the local level-for example, affluent citizens can leave cities more readily than poor citizens-and those differences lead to "perverse consequences," such as white flight from city school districts. In these situations, Shapiro favors what he calls "imposing solutions from above." There are almost always substantial differences in exit costs at the local level, and Shapiro never defines "perverse consequences." This exception is therefore an (unintended) in vi tation to justify "imposing solutions from above" under most circumstances if the solutions support our politics. Shapiro also endorses another, even broader and more troubling, class of exceptions that calls for vanguard politics: where state action is the only way to remove domination within a domain. If vanguard action were not thus necessary, then it would not only be unjustified, it would also be irrational if invoked by a professed democrat.

The irony is that Shapiro does not need to defend vanguard politics. Powerful people who engage in action from above, when that action is necessary to defend against domination, can be held accountable, if not before then at least after they engage in their action. If they are held accountable to the people whom they represent in some institutionalized way, then they are not operating as a vanguard. Vanguards justify their power by virtue of being right, period. They deny the need to justify their actions and to be held accountable to the people over whom they exercise power. While power is as omnipresent in a democracy as it is in any other form of government, it is more publicly accountable.

Public accountability plays a silent but essential role in Shapiro's sensible discussion of governing children. He defends a "dual regime" of shared parental and governmental power. Both parental and public powers are held in trust of children's interests. For any government agency to be a democratic trustee of children's interests in education, it must be publicly accountable. Otherwise the government trustee would be autocratic, not democratic.

Something similar can be said about democratic justice as it applies to the other life stages around which Shapiro organizes his book. Making the family less patriarchal is not the same as making it more democratic. An autocratic regime could require a more equal division of labor within the family than what exists in the United States today. Democratic justice is served only when the division of labor within the family supports democratic citizenship (as patriarchalism does not) and is also freely supported by democratic citizens (as has yet to occur in the United States). Democratic justice may therefore sound like a tall order. It is.

Although Shapiro criticizes other perspectives for not being sufficiently attuned to political power, his own perspective on democratic justice neglects the most basic consideration about political power: its tendency to be abused by those who wield it. What can account for such selective blindness to the value of public accountability? If we value democracy solely as a subordinate good and not more directly for the equal political liberties that it also entails, then we may give it up far too readily whenever the results of a democratic process offend our substantive political commitments. The rights that democratic justice entails include equal political liberties for all law-abiding adults-regardless of color, gender, ethnicity, income, or wealth. These liberties include the right to vote in free and fair elections, to speak openly to people in power without fear of retri bution, and to prevent powerful people from abusing their public trust.

"Democratic justice," Shapiro writes, "requires that mechanisms of collective self-governance be as inclusive as possible, limited by necessity only." Taking the requirement of inclusion seriously raises another critical question about democratic justice that Shapiro neglects: Are there mechanisms of collective self- governance that can include noncitizens when their interests are significantly affected by American politics? A lot of American politics significantly affects noncitizens: dumping toxic waste on other countries, failing to pay dues to the United Nations, restricting immigration in ways that discriminate against the neediest noncitizens, and bombing some civilian populations are only a few examples. To the extent that powerful countries like the United States make political decisions that adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of noncitizens who have no say in these decisions (or in those of their own authoritarian countries), democratic justice is violated. Mutually binding laws should be mutually justified.

In the absence of a federated world government, democratic accountability for foreign policy is impossible. This is a serious limit to democratic justice in our world, which more representative international organizations cannot fully overcome. There may be no better alternative to recommend than that democratic citizens think morally about their commitment to all individuals, not only to their fellow citizens. Shapiro concentrates on the life cycle of American citizens and therefore overlooks the problem of reconciling democratic justice in the United States with a foreign policy that affects noncitizens at least as much as it affects citizens.

Because power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, public accountability may be the most important feature of democracy. When accountability is absent, so is democracy. But accountability, even when it works reasonably well, does not guarantee justice for two reasons that tell us a lot about why the union of democracy and justice will always have its limitations. First, even the best democratic procedures will sometimes yield unjust outcomes. Second, even good-willed and well- informed people reasonably disagree about whether some outcomes are just. To recommend imposing outcomes from above is not a solution but part of the problem of political tyranny to which democracy is a response. Democracy and justice may be joined only through public accountability and only imperfectly.


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