Justice by Association

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It’s hard to have genuine conversations about equality and difference when some of the people we’ve metaphorically invited to the table lack enough food at their non-metaphorical tables. That’s one reason that some political theory encounters practical limits in its real-world applications. 

Harvard professor Danielle Allen’s latest book, Justice by Means of Democracy, has little patience for abstractions that neglect real-world constraints. Allen argues instead for greater attention to the background conditions that make real disagreement possible, in part by critiquing and reframing the arguments in John Rawls’ seminal work of political philosophy, A Theory of Justice.

Allen posits “a fresh approach to a theory of justice” that reimagines political equality differently than Rawls and the economic paradigms that followed. Where Rawls focused principally on questions of distributive justice (i.e., the just way to allocate a society’s resources), Allen sets out a more comprehensive notion of political equality that pushes beyond economic redistribution and toward “conditions in which no one dominates anyone else”—what she calls “difference without domination.” This vision in turn requires not only negative liberties (which constrain governmental limits on our freedom) but also positive liberties (the political conditions that allow us to realize equal citizenship). Allen contends that Rawls and his followers “shortchanged political equality and democracy” by privileging the former. She instead envisions positive and negative liberties “as genuinely co-original and co-equal.” 

Much of Allen’s argument and many of her policy prescriptions are persuasive. Her vision of ensuring that “all people have an experience of ownership, belonging, and equal footing in relation to our political institutions” is compelling. But her account of how to get there—in particular her description of human flourishing, her understanding of groups, and her treatment of associational rights—is less convincing.

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