The Democratic Minimum: Is Democracy a Means to Global Justice?

By Bohman, James | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Democratic Minimum: Is Democracy a Means to Global Justice?


Bohman, James, Ethics & International Affairs


Democracy can be justified for any number of reasons. Many such justifications are intrinsic, related to realizing various moral ends and political ideals. Other justifications are instrumental. Chief among them is the claim that over the long historical term, numerous innovations have made contemporary democracy a better means to achieve the ends of justice than its past realizations. In very many cases, these two types of justification seem to work together, providing support to Jane Addams's old adage that "the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy." At the same time, there are many other cases in which democracies have tolerated injustices for quite a long time. It seems Whiggish to say that in all these cases there was a failure of democracy. Does this mean that the adage should be laid to rest? I want to argue otherwise, especially now with respect to issues of global justice.

Even when quoting Addams's saying for its hopeful pragmatic stance, John Dewey immediately adds an interesting proviso: it can remedy its ills only by becoming a democracy that is "genuinely different in kind." (1) On this account, the Civil Rights Movement did not return the United States to its original ideals. Rather, by including more agents, it created a new, multiracial democracy. Besides being widened, Dewey also argued that democracy could be deepened through reinterpreting democratic ideals and introducing new substantive rights, as when the workers' movement led to the embrace of new social rights and transformed the role of the federal government. Without such transformation, democracy may face a vicious circularity: "For democracy to promote justice, it must already be just." (2) Call this the "democratic circle." While it can never be said to disappear, the circle can become virtuous through what I refer to as the "democratic minimum": the achievement of a democratic arrangement sufficient for citizens to exercise their creative powers to reshape democracy according to the demands of justice--that is, a capacity to initiate democratic deliberation. The rights, equality, and freedoms that are constitutive of the democratic ideal are substantively related to various ends of justice, including self-development, peace, and self-government. (3) For the purposes of this article, however, the constitutive elements of justice have greater prominence; that is, any practice is just to the extent that it treats each person as free and equal, unjust to the extent that it does not. Ultimately, democracy promotes justice precisely because it enables citizens to demand to be treated justly, as free and equal persons.

Of course, the very idea of a reform requires that justice is not an all-or-nothing affair but a matter of degree, and that the same must be true for democracy. The possibility of the gradual amelioration of injustice is indeed the main reason why democrats such as John Dewey believe that they can break the democratic circle through democratic processes. In the same vein, many argue that the solution to the problems of democracy is to deepen democracy, to make it more inclusive of a greater number of agents, and wider in terms of acceptable avenues of influence and modes of political inquiry. (4) Deliberative democracy is one such proposed solution. In this form, democracy becomes not just a set of methods or procedures, or even the political machinery of an existing set of institutions, but also a social ideal that provides citizens with the means to redress wrongs and thus to achieve justice. At the same time, deepening democracy has its limits. By including more people in decision-making, democracy may better achieve justice for its own citizens, but not necessarily for those outside the polity. How can democracy then become a means to global justice? Put another way, can democracy still be the means to promote the freedom and equality of persons?

For that to happen, it must fulfill the democratic minimum: the minimum necessary for people to claim their freedom and equality effectively in the particular situation of potential domination that results from the democratic deficit of the global system. …

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