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The Political Egalitarian’s Dilemma

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Political egalitarianism is at the core of most normative conceptions of democratic legitimacy. It finds its minimal expression in the “one person one vote” formula. In the literature on deliberative democracy, political equality is typically interpreted in a more demanding sense, but different interpretations of what political equality requires can be identified. In this paper I shall argue that the attempt to specify political equality in deliberative democracy is affected by a dilemma. I shall illustrate the political egalitarian’s dilemma by a hypothetical choice between two informational bases for political equality: Rawlsian primary goods and Amartya Sen’s capability approach. The political egalitarian’s dilemma reveals a clash between the requirement of ensuring equal possibilities to participate in the democratic process and the requirement of subjecting substantive judgments to deliberative evaluation. As such, the dilemma is a variant of the procedure vs. substance dilemma that is well-known in democratic theory. While it has sometimes been argued that deliberative democracy solves the tension between procedure and substance, the political egalitarian’s dilemma shows that this tension continues within deliberative democracy.

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  1. A prime example is the theory of deliberative democracy put forward by Gutmann and Thompson (1996, 2004).

  2. I discuss this debate in Peter (2006).

  3. Many deliberative democrats emphasize this, see e.g., Bohman (1996, 1997), Christiano (1996), Cohen (1997), Gutmann and Thompson (1996, 2004), Knight and Johnson (1997).

  4. Estlund (2000), for example, argues that there is generally too much emphasis on political equality and too little on what he calls “political quality.” I discuss this issue elsewhere (Peter 2006) and want to bracket it in this paper.

  5. The distinction between a weak and a strong criterion of political equality echoes Sen’s distinction between “means” and “freedoms” (Sen 1990).

  6. I shall focus on Cohen, but many deliberative democrats have written on how deliberative democracy combines considerations of procedure and substance, indeed on how this is a key feature of deliberative democracy. See also Gutmann and Thompson (1996, 2004), for example.

  7. Many deliberative democrats would argue something similar. Gutmann and Thompson (2004), for example, also argue that deliberative democracy combines procedural and substantive principles. Their focus is not so much on the relationship between the two, however. Instead, they argue that judgments on both will always be contestable and thus necessarily provisional. I will come back to this strategy below.

  8. This condition seems to correspond to what Gutmann and Thompson (1996, 2004) call reciprocity.

  9. For an excellent overview over the recent literature on deliberative democracy, see Freeman (2000).

  10. For an early assessment of the debate, see Daniels (1990).

  11. Sen’s criticism of the primary goods framework proved so forceful that in Political Liberalism, Rawls acknowledged the possibility of incorporating basic capabilities into his framework (Rawls 1993: 178ff).

  12. Rawls specifies the requirement of democratic legitimacy through what he calls “constitutional essentials.” The constitutional essentials are necessary for legitimacy and describe a framework in which democratic decision-making is to be embedded that respects the first principle of justice. The second principle of justice need not be satisfied for democratic legitimacy: “A principle specifying the basic rights and liberties covers the second kind of constitutional essentials. But while some principle of opportunity is surely such an essential, for example, a principle requiring at least freedom of movement and free choice of occupation, fair equality of opportunity (as I have specified it) goes beyond that and is not such an essential. Similarly, though a social minimum providing for the basic needs of all citizens is also an essential, what I have called the ‘difference principle’ is more demanding and is not” (Rawls 1993: 228f).

  13. For a critique, see Brighouse (1997).

  14. Nussbaum (2000, 2003) pushes the capability approach towards a full-fledged theory of justice. I shall only refer to Sen’s interpretation of the capability approach.

  15. According to Bohman (1997: 343): “Freedom is, on this account, the capability to live as one would choose. It includes the capability for effective social agency, the ability to participate in joint activities and achieve one’s goals in them. For political liberties, the issue is effective use of public freedoms, which may not be possible even in the absence of direct coercion or prohibitions.”

  16. Bohman (1997: 333) writes: “Political poverty consists of the inability of groups of citizens to participate effectively in the democratic process. The consequences of such poverty are two-sided: public exclusion and political inclusion.”

  17. See Dworkin (2003) for a discussion of the problem this interlinkage causes for the ideal of political equality.

  18. As an unintended consequence, such policies might even produce exclusionary effects of their own. A policy based on the assumption that people who have been poor in their childhood have, on average, fewer cognitive skills than those who have not been poor, may feed into existing discriminatory practices against people from the lowest social classes.

  19. I owe this example to an anonymous referee.

  20. I thank an anonymous referee for asking me to answer that objection.

  21. Note that the thrust of their argument is to criticize pure proceduralist views and to de-problematize the inclusion of substantive principles in the ideal of deliberative democracy. As such, they address a premise of the argument of the present paper, i.e., that the ideal of deliberative democracy is partially substantive.


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For comments and discussions, I am grateful to Arun Abraham, Eva Feder Kittay, Paul Gomberg, Tony Laden, Herlinde Pauer-Studer, Hans Bernhard Schmid, to the members of the Political Philosophy group at the University of Warwick, in particular to Matthew Clayton, to ECAP5 participants at the “Workshop on Economics, Philosophy, and Public Policy” in Lisbon, and to participants of the September 2005 “Priority in Practice” workshop in London. Last but not least, I would like to thank the anonymous referees for very helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Fabienne Peter.

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Peter, F. The Political Egalitarian’s Dilemma. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 10, 373–387 (2007).

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