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  • Democratic Distributive Justice by Ross Zucker:Comment on Symposium in The Good Society, Vol.13 No.1 (2004)
  • Kambhampati S. Sastry (bio)

Having been a practitioner, I would deal with only the operational aspect of the debate on democracy and distributive justice. While supporting the principle of some measure of redistribution as being justified from the viewpoint of democracy as much as on grounds of justice, Thomas W. Simon, in his lengthy argument, makes a plea that a "public works" approach is superior to mere redistribution of incomes. Apparently, Simon has no problem if every citizen is asked to shed a percentage of his income to finance such public works.

Ross Zucker did not exactly spell out in his book how much of national income should be redistributed and how to redistribute, as Gary Mongiovi has also drawn attention to. I wonder whether Zucker would actually oppose a redistribution effort through public works of the kind suggested by Simon.

Simon's public works approach meets with the objection that "in principle" it might not be a good idea to give citizens something for nothing. But, experience the world over has clearly shown the inadequacies of the public works approach. There are a plethora of administrative problems in "targeting" such public works to the needy. Such a selection itself has serious sociological implications in the long run, as is well documented, in that it brands and stigmatizes those selected. Then there are enormous leakages. Finally, a public works program yields incomes. There is no guarantee that those incomes would result in socially desirable consumption – which, after all, is the object of the redistribution measure, especially in developing countries. There could be supply constraints; markets themselves may not be able to resolve them. Finally, real progress towards equality (or reduction of inequalities if one prefers to put it that way) is possible only if "capabilities" are built up through education and the like, as Amartya Sen has been saying. A more promising approach than Simon's public works approach is to determine the bundle of capabilities that every citizen must acquire and then to provide them to all citizens treating them as "public goods".

The question still remains as to whether such a provision is in pursuance of a theory of justice or of a theory of democracy. While rebutting the criticism of his book in the Journal as well as elsewhere, Ross Zucker has cogently argued that the twotheories are inseparable if democracy is to be understood as being also "for the people".

I do not know, however, why Zucker has not drawn any strength from the philosophy of democratic ("republican") governance advocated by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson argued vehemently that for the citizen to participate in a democracy he needs to be educated. Jefferson said: "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it."1 In the modern day world, and especially in the Third World countries, what Jefferson argued in relation to public education applies with equal force to the provision of drinking water, access to healthcare etc.

Thus, even in a "procedural" democracy, and not drawing upon on any theory of justice, a citizen needs to become "qualified" to be part of the democracy, which means providing him necessary education and a bundle of "capability building" public services, ideally financed through a proportionate levy on the incomes of all citizens, so as not to adversely affect 'economic efficiency' which is the concern of Mongiovi.

I have suggested such a scheme in my book Constitution for 21st Century India. But I have also argued that what modern political scientists call "social and economic rights" are just as important for the citizens as civil and political rights and should thus be inscribed in the Constitution, as did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations followed by a Covenant (signed by India and...


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