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  • On the Future of the Justice Debates
  • Ross Zucker (bio)

The commentaries that Vivek Chibber, Gary Mongiovi, and Thomas Simon prepared for this symposium call attention to some problems in theorizing democracy and distributive justice that I hadn't considered, and I wish to thank them for promoting further thought on these matters. In a review for another journal, Tom Spragens challenges Democratic Distributive Justice from a moral pluralist perspective, which resonates with so many scholars these days. I would also like to respond to his critique, since my book did not grapple extensively with that perspective. Some of the comments focus on my specific way of approaching the theory of substantive democracy and the theory of substantive democracy. But many of them go beyond it and raise objections to these entire categories of theory. From comments in this and other forums, theories of substantive democracy and distributive justice have clearly fallen into disfavor with some of the new voices in the field. In light of the critiques, I would like to reconsider whether these kinds of theories can play a useful role in the justice debates of the twenty-first century. In the process I shall offer some new supporting arguments for my version of substantive democracy and economic justice.

It is noteworthy that a number of radical and mainstream theorists have recently united in opposition to theories of substantive democracy and distributive justice. Moral pluralists and procedural democrats often hold that theories of distributive justice cannot produce definitive standards for the just distribution of economic resources and that theoretical principles have undemocratic implications, since they are derived independently of actual democratic politics. Also opposed, but from a different angle of attack, some economic democrats, market socialists, and neo-Marxists maintain that income distribution is not an essential concern of economic justice and that, instead, the ownership and control of economic enterprises are its main concerns.

Should twenty-first century debates in democratic theory be winnowed down to a contest between different moral pluralist and proceduralist visions of democracy and social justice? Should the justice debates focus on the contest between market socialism and economic democracy, on the one side, and liberal property regimes on the other? Or would these debates be more fruitfully carried on with due regard for theories of substantive democracy and distributive justice?

The gathering consensus against theories of distributive justice and of substantive democracy could lead to the marginalization of these venerable forms of economic and political theory. What is at stake are some of the leading ways of evaluating political and economic systems that have been devised. As the impact of Locke's Two Treatises of Government on liberal democracy attests, theories of substantive democracy and distributive justice have played a major part in this field's contribution to society. Moral pluralism may contribute too, by showing that certain areas of ethics are not susceptible to definitive standards. But I don't think it is likely to contribute more—or in a more positive way—to political knowledge than, say, Locke did by theoretically analyzing democracy and economic justice.

Theories of substantive democracy and distributive justice have special relevance to one of this epoch's great problems: the extremely unequal economic and social conditions that people live under in many "democracies." Disenchantment on the part of the new voices notwithstanding, some leading contemporary theorists, such as Amartya Sen, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Philippe van Parijs, recognize the relevance and potential validity of theories of distributive justice and substantive democracy. Moral pluralism, procedural democratic theory, theories of economic democracy and market socialism, may be better suited to understand moral, religious and ethnic value conflicts, political inequality, and the control and ownership of economic enterprises. But theories of distributive justice and substantive democracy can go to the crux of the issue of income inequality in "democratic" societies.

After examining the critics' comments, I think that these classes of theory are free of many of the shortcomings imputed to them and that they can continue to be useful in understanding economic justice and democracy. For one thing, the undemocratic implications which moral pluralists and procedural democrats often attribute to theories of substantive democracy do not...


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