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Sidney Verba Fairness, Equality, and Democracy: Three Big Words WHAT IS A FAIR POLITY? IT ALL DEPENDS, AS ONE MIGHT SAY, ON WHAT FAIR IS. FAIRNESS CAN m ean many things. Whatever it may mean (within the realm of common meanings of the term), it is important; and this for several reasons. Governments make collective decisions for a political unit, decisions that are binding and authoritative for a collectivity. These decisions play a major role in determining the nature of the social and economic systems in which they are made. The crucial nature of such decisions for the welfare of those affected by them easily explains why their fairness is important to the way in which those subject to these decisions evaluate them. In this paper Iwill focus on what might be meant by fairness in a democratic regime. There maybe more general fairness criteria applica­ ble to any political system—democratic or authoritarian—but fairness in relation to political decisions is especially central in a democracy. Democratic regimes are supposed to be run by the citizemy—or at least the citizenry ought to be the ultimate authority. Democracies depend on legitimacy to function effectively; only when a regime is considered legitimate can it rule by consent rather than coercion. Democratic regimes cannot rely on coercion to govern and long remain democratic. Thus, public acceptance is important. This also explains why the public determination of what is fair—both as a matter of principle and in the social research Vol 73 : No 2 : Summer 2006 499 evaluation of particular actions of particular governments—is central in democratic rule. The criterion for democratic fairness I put forward is political equality. I do not argue that political equality is the only possible crite­ rion of democratic fairness or that fairness is the only criterion forjudg­ ing a democracy, only that political equality is an important criterion for fairness in a democracy. Further, I argue that political equality as a criterion for a fair democratic political system is more crucial than is equality of income or wealth for a fair economy or equality of respect for a fair cultural or social system. I will try to define political equal­ ity to show why it is central to conceptions of a fair democratic polity, and—since I am more a foot-on-the-ground empirical researcher than philosophical thinker—show why it is, in fact, impossible to attain, would not be an unambiguous blessing if attained, but is, nevertheless, worth pursuing. I shall be dealing with issues of fairness in democracy generally, but will draw examples and material mainly from American politics. I would think that the same general principles apply else­ where, although the distribution of the impediments to achieving fair­ ness—one of my major themes—will vary. WHAT, THEN, IS FAIRNESS IN POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT? Who Decides What’s Fair? Is it philosophers and scholars of politics? Is it those with an active role in politics, whether in the media or more directly as activists, campaign­ ers, or officials? Is it the public? There is a role for each. This paper will draw on the views that political philosophers have put forward in rela­ tion to fairness, the activities of political elites that might be construed as fair or not, and the perceptions of ordinaiy citizens at to what is considered to be fair. In preparing this paper, I looked at the way in which fairness and politics are linked in ordinaiy political discourse. A crude search using Lexis-Nexis during the 2004 election period makes clear that the two terms (and their variations) are often linked. Space precludes listing all 5 0 0 social research the many meanings given to political fairness, but a few points can be made: ►Notions of fairness are often invoked in relation to democracy. Though democracy and fairness may each mean many things, they are expected to go together. ►Fairness may refer to the output of a political system: taxes should be fair. Laws should be impartial and not unfairly fairly benefit one group over another. ►Fairness may also refer to process rather than output. Processes should be honest and transparent, be unbiased: promises should...


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