The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 76-77
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Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice
Shapiro proposes two framing principles of democratic justice: participation and anti-subordination. Everyone whose basic interests are affected by institutions or practices should be able to participate in their governance on more or less equal terms with others. Everyone ought to be able to assert their opposition to decisions that have been made, furthermore, and should be free to criticize and try to change policies and practices. Shapiro applies these principles to institutions and relationships that define what he calls the "life course", childhood, adulthood, work, and life's ending. This is a very exciting and original approach to thinking about issues of power and justice. In each case the relationships are potentially or actually hierarchical, and there are actual or potential relations of domination or dependence as a result. The nature of the relationship in each case is implicitly dyadic: parents and children; intimate partnered adults, particularly married heterosexual couples (though Shapiro explicitly raises the question of whether same sex partners should be able to be married if they choose, and answers it affirmatively); employers and workers; old people and those who help them. Shapiro asks how these relationships should be institutionalized so as to facilitate participation and dissent, and minimize hierarchy, at the same time that the basic interests of people are protected. He also considers how the state should regulate these relationships and what policies the state ought to adopt to promote democratic justice in each stage of life or set of relationships.
To take one important example, Shapiro discusses issues of economic dependence that can put homemakers at risk of subordination in respect to family decision-making and violence. To the degree that couples choose or feel forced by circumstance to give primary responsibility for housework and child care to one partner and primary responsibility for wage earning to the other, then the former is dependent on the other, and also often does not receive sufficient recognition for her (and occasionally his) contribution to the household and society. Shapiro reviews and criticizes one of Susan Okin's proposals for addressing this dependency and vulnerability: that the state should mandate a legal division of the wages of the wage-earning partner between the two partners. Despite its plausibility, Shapiro argues that this proposal would not in fact shield family life from market relations, and that it would reinforce class inequality. He argues that a robust welfare social wage system is a better way to protect homemakers from vulnerabilities to dependence on individual wage earners. He does not specify precisely what counts as the social wage, but I assume that it refers to universal welfare measures such as publicly funded health care, publicly funded and administered retirement system, publicly subsidized housing, affordable and reliable public transportation, and the like.
The life course that we follow through Shapiro's book is that of a person who is first a child, then an adult in a partnered relationship and in the workplace, and then elderly. Shapiro implicitly theorizes principles of democratic justice from the point of view of one person during a sequence of life stages who at each stage stands in the more vulnerable position in a dyadic relationship. There is another way to look at the same life stages, however and the issues of justice their institutional relations raise. Some people are involved in all of these sorts of relationships simultaneously, parent, worker, intimate partner, care giver of old people, most often mid-life women. Some people's position in the division of labor and responsibilities require them to juggle all these relationships at once, and this requirement makes them vulnerable to exploitation both at home and in the paid workplace. If we add this perspective to Shapiro's account, then additional issues of democratic justice arise for all the relationships he considers, but most crucially for the paid workplace.
Shapiro's approach to democratic justice appears significantly influenced by feminist sentiments and theory. He argues for a version of the feminist slogan "the personal is...