Justice by Means of Democracy
Danielle Allen
University of Chicago Press, $27.50 (cloth)

In the spring of 2023, I found myself in a small meeting room in a public library on the Southside of Richmond, Virginia, taking part in a fraught conversation with profound importance to the city’s future.  

For some eight months, the Richmond chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a community organization representing Latino residents, had worked with Richmond’s school board on a task force to examine the “status of Latino students and English Learners in Richmond Public Schools.” The partnership was born out of complaints about the treatment of English learners, which painted a picture of a neglected group within a neglected school system.

Research showed that test scores and graduation rates of both Latino and English learner students fell far behind those of other racial or ethnic groups in the system. And despite the fact that Latino students now make up a quarter of all students in the district, the challenges they faced had not, until now, been named as an urgent problem worthy of sustained attention. For decades, the district had spent most of its energy straining to address another problem: the gap in educational outcomes between the majority-Black schools in Richmond and those in Richmond’s neighboring, whiter suburbs.

The situation was delicate. How could we name the specific struggles of English learners and make the case for specific interventions in response without triggering a potentially explosive conversation that pit Brown students and families against Black ones? It would be all too easy for a community member to question why one group might be getting an extra resource not made available to another.

The task force, which I served on, understood this challenge clearly. Dozens of conversations were held to establish a path forward. Ultimately, we found consensus, recommending a reorganization within Richmond Public Schools to place all programs and initiatives related to the needs of English learners in a single, unified department. With the Superintendent’s support, the school board briskly adopted the proposal in February, and it is being implemented this academic year.

For Rawls, a just society does not need to be a highly participatory one.

Yet at this May community meeting in the library, the atmosphere was far from celebratory. The previous week, audio of a Latino student being berated by a district teacher for speaking Spanish in class had circulated on social media. The incident had ignited fierce discussion at the most recent school board meeting, as community members expressed outrage at the student’s treatment. At this meeting, community members wanted something more basic than reforming the organizational structure of the school system; they wanted recognition of injustice and recognition of their demands for dignity and respect. School board members present wanted to convey that recognition, but also could not comment in detail about administrative or personnel matters in a public setting. Some of us feared a large public blowup that might undo all the good, careful work that had already taken place on the organizational proposal.

The meeting in fact ended with frayed nerves but without a debilitating blowup. No one left entirely satisfied, but people resolved to stay at the table. Though it didn’t feel great, it perhaps went as well as that particular meeting could have gone. Relationships stayed intact, and the work continues. The new department was established in July, a director for it hired, and a new community advisory board formed to support the work of improving outcomes for English learners in Richmond.

Such is the work of co-creating justice. In many of these efforts, there is no established rule book to go by, no clear authority to point to for guidance. There is only a group of people thrown together by a shared interest in addressing a problem, using dialogue and discussion to try, together, to find a path forward.

But the academic tradition of theorizing about justice has precious little to say about this step. While a vast body of work, mostly centered around the work of John Rawls, has sprouted plenty of ideal theories of justice—in plain terms, maps of what a hypothetical good society would look like—they generally have a far less sophisticated understanding of the process by which we might get there.

Why not? The typical Rawlsian response has been to turn the question into one of methodology.

Some strands of Rawlsian theorizing draw a sharp distinction between ideals of justice and mere bargaining between competing groups and interests. There is a benefit, on this view, to cordoning off the imperfect, stumbling steps toward justice from the ideal of justice itself. But if this approach has the benefit of articulating a clear vision of justice unalloyed by real-world complexities, it leaves one wondering about the kinds of civic virtues and practices needed to realize it.

Danielle Allen’s Justice by Means of Democracy represents a major, and much-needed, shift in perspective. In the book, she locates the work of establishing justice not in the philosophy seminar room but in real-world discussions with diverse, everyday people: “talking with strangers” with intention to co-create a more democratic and more just society together. Fifty years on from Rawls’s foundational A Theory of Justice, Allen has set out to articulate not simply a new theory of justice but a new way of thinking about justice: one that trades Rawls’s abstract thought experiments for real-life ones. And equally importantly, it offers us the concrete tools for getting from thinking about to practicing democracy, however imperfectly, in messy situations in which the needs and future prospects of real people are concretely implicated.

Of course, many real people, doing real democracy, have been getting along just fine without taking their cues from academic theories of justice. And if these theories are so disconnected from real-world struggles, why do we need them at all? This is a fair question. Allen’s answer is that we live in a complex social world with many competing claims about the form our common life should take, and that we need organized, systemic thinking about how that common life can best be organized, so as to yield “the best prospects for human flourishing.”

The shape that thinking takes is distinctly different from many of her forebears. She argues that the Rawlsian emphasis on distributive justice, often understood in shorthand as maximizing the income levels of the least well-off—has directed our attention away from a more fundamental problem: inequalities in social relations. To remedy this problem, Allen proposes that “the surest path to justice lies is the protection of political equality,” or being an equal co-owner of the political institutions that shape the laws and rules by which we live together. And if political equality gives us our best shot as justice, then “justice is therefore best, and perhaps only, achieved by means of democracy.” Where for Rawls, participation in democracy is a means to an end—a way to ensure that liberties and well-being can be secured for as broad a population as possible—for Allen, it also has an intrinsic value. Being able to take part in crafting your community’s decisions “feels good; in that activity of cocreation people flourish.”

This point yields two important methodological revisions. Perhaps the most fundamental is her nuanced argument that challenges Rawls’s account of the principle of liberty. While Rawls officially lists political liberty as on par with personal liberties, when push comes to shove he treats political liberty—specifically, equal political liberty—as something that isn’t truly essential. If the basic structure of society is just, and if formal democratic mechanisms are in place, people should be able to trust that public policies and the operations of government will approximate justice and respect their own personal interests. A just society does not need to be a highly participatory one—hence Rawls’s declaration in A Theory of Justice that “in a well-governed state only a small fraction of persons may devote much of their time to politics.”

This conclusion has rubbed generations of critics the wrong way. Civic republicans like Richard Dagger and Michael Sandel argue that political agency is a valuable good in itself, and that a just society should cultivate and celebrate political engagement. The work of looking after the health of the polis is a shared responsibility to which we should all contribute; political theorists ought not suggest that it’s okay for people to opt out of that essential work because they don’t feel like doing it.

Allen shares this conclusion, but arrives at it differently. The question of political participation, she writes, is one of power. If you belong to the majority group in a democracy, you can trust the polity to make decisions that track your interests without your personally being bothered to participate. If this is the case, you may well feel pretty secure, too, that the state will respect your culture, way of life, and access to the basic goods of society. But if you are a minority within a diverse society, you have no such luxury: if you didn’t directly participate in democratic decision-making, you would have no guarantee that the government would avoid acting in ways that harm your fundamental interests. For Allen political participation is not an optional choice; it’s a fundamental requirement of protecting one’s own freedom and a good in its own right.

The argument becomes more persuasive when combined with Allen’s second methodological revision: the simple acknowledgement that we live in diverse societies that are marked by historical and ongoing racist practices—practices, in other words, of domination. (Here Allen walks in the footsteps of the powerful criticisms of Rawls developed by Charles Mills in The Racial Contract and related writings.) She repeatedly invokes W. E. B. Du Bois’s insistence on political equality as foundational to the struggle against patterns of racial domination in the United States: “The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defense—else what shall save us from a second slavery?” Allen’s account of justice is not just about how individuals are treated by the basic structure of society, but how groups within that basic structure—white and Black, majority and minority—relate to one another.

These two steps are how Rawls’s “justice as fairness” evolves into “justice by means of democracy.” To achieve it, Allen writes, five essential elements of political equality must be met: freedom from domination, equal access to the instruments of government (such as voting and running for office), epistemic egalitarianism (assuring ordinary people meaningful voice in policymaking), reciprocity (“the ability to look one another in the eye”), and “co-ownership of political institutions” (political institutions belonging not to office-holders or an elite political class, but to all of us).

Danielle Allen’s book offers us a theory of justice rooted in actually existing democracy.

Alongside political equality, Allen adds two more foundational principles. First is an unshakeable commitment to both negative and positive liberties—that is, both personal freedoms and participation in politics. Together they provide people the “autonomy necessary for human flourishing and justice.” Second is a commitment to the realization of difference without domination: a society in which no one group dominates or is dominated by any other group.

Allen’s three principles—political equality, non-sacrificable negative and positive liberties, and difference without domination—lay a powerful foundation for a revised account of justice that reclaims the value of political participation as a good in itself. Especially significant is Allen’s stress on the necessity of government—specifically, democratic self-government—as the crucial mechanism by which flourishing is secured: a conclusion that extends directly from the powerful argument Allen has already made about the purpose and meaning of the Declaration of Independence in Our Declaration, where she reads the document as demonstrating that “only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.”

Indeed, Allen’s account of justice has a far stronger claim to being rooted in the history and complexities of emergent democracy, including the United States’ own constitutional tradition, than the entire Rawlsian paradigm. That rootedness allows Allen to see its many faults more clearly than Rawls, who overconfidently asserted a consensus commitment to equal liberty and social equality while sidestepping serious engagement with the facts of racial domination.

But Justice by Means of Democracy is more than a theoretical revision of Rawls. Allen also develops several “subsidiary” principles of justice of her own that seek to flesh out how justice can be achieved in practice.

She spends considerable time developing the idea of “The Connected Society,” a society which maximizes building connections between people across lines of demarcation such as race, class, and geography. How can these different groups of people build the sufficiently strong relationships and trust that effective, problem-solving collective action requires? she asks.

Allen offers considerable insight, drawn in part from her practical experience serving on several policy commissions. For starters, both individuals and organizations must embrace communicative practices that facilitate inclusive participation. She asks citizens to learn how to “listen for understanding,” “share the airtime,” “stay present and engaged,” and “expect and accept non-closure.” Such norms and protocols facilitate clear, honest communication that does not break down on the shoals of misunderstanding, and does not look to treat conversation partners instrumentally or as props to score political points. There are large challenges involved in these efforts, she acknowledges. But this is the work a “connected society” must embrace.

Needless to say, these are not skills that one would have learned in the virtually all-white, all-male philosophical academy of the 1960s and 1970s (or before). Nor are they skills traditionally emphasized in elite graduate educational programs today. But there is a long history of democratic learning of this type outside the academy. In 1955, months before she helped to launch the Montgomery bus boycotts, Rosa Parks received organizing training and had the first experience of her life sharing meals and interacting with whites as a social equal at the Highlander School in Tennessee. Black activist and educator Septima Clark taught adult literacy programs at Highlander, then went on to organize “Citizenship Schools” across the South in the 1950s and 1960s that promoted both education and voter registration, as a necessary supplement to the push for legal equality for Black Americans.

Both those examples are consonant with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s argument—endorsed by Allen—that justice requires integration, not just desegregation. Indeed, Allen’s account of justice and democracy demands that we be concerned with cultivating people who are capable of practicing the habits necessary to make difference without domination possible, as well as the skill and wisdom to push the ideal forward in new and unprecedented situations.

Allen’s concern with social relationships shapes her approach to questions of economic justice as well. Her critique of the Rawlsian difference principle of maximizing the well-being of the least well-off extends to the economic realm. To her, it invites a single-minded focus on income and resource distribution, while leaving the relational aspects of economic life unexamined. The equitable distribution of goods is only half the picture, she argues: we must also ask whether people are relating to each other in economic life under a principle of reciprocity rather than of domination. This approach, she argues, will yield more egalitarian policy choices than the difference principle taken alone.

Drawing on the work of political economist Dani Rodrik, Allen suggests thinking about three layers of economic life: pre-production (the assets people bring with them into the productive process), production itself (including the organization of work, labor relations, market organization, etc.), and post-production (the distribution and redistribution of income following the production process).

Some of Allen’s specific recommendations for implementation sound social democratic in form, such as a concern with “good jobs.” But others are radical: promoting “democracy-supporting” firms (drawing on the excellent work of Elizabeth Anderson critiquing antidemocratic regimes within the capitalist workplace), and allowing for “democratic steering” of the economy as a whole through monetary policy and related tools. These are familiar socialist ideas, but they are presented in Allen’s book as ones that flow from the logic of democracy, rather than conflicts between labor and capital. Indeed, Allen evades being drawn into a traditional “capitalism versus socialism” debate. But in this case, the aim is not to sidestep important questions about economic organization and democracy but to ask them in different ways.

Ultimately Allen invests much hope in the possibility of democracy. Such investment may seem an unwise gamble if one interprets recent events in American politics as indicative of either democratic excess (voters and majorities are untrustworthy) or democratic futility (elections don’t matter because they don’t really change the control or behavior of elite groups). But Allen offers a clear prescription for improving the practice of democracy, pointing to the need to foster not just better deliberation, but also “fair fighting” and “prophecy.”

Allen’s democracy is for good people. But what about people who are not so good?

“Fair fighting” involves the recognition of a few basic truths. One, politics always involves disagreements; two, committed political actors therefore will usually have equally committed political adversaries; and three, politics goes better when actors, including adversaries, do not aim to destroy one another but instead agree to play by agreed-upon rules, like baseball teams who understand that you must take the field after making three outs at the plate.

“Prophecy” involves the willingness and ability to articulate the ultimate ends of one’s political engagement, to thereby move others and help “shift a society’s values.” When we fight in politics, what are we really fighting for? Allen argues that whatever our specific purposes or causes, we should also prioritize the unity of the political community and the continuing function of democratic institutions as an integral part of our vision. Put another way, prophetic talk and action in democracies should aim not just at the interests of a particular group, but at inviting the collectivity to become a better version of itself.

Critically, all of those roles “require the same ethical practice: regulating and transforming self-interest in the direction of purposiveness.” Rather than remove interests from the public sphere or allowing them to collide in zero-sum, often destructive fashion, Allen argues, healthy civic practice should generate “equitable self-interest . . . where a sense of one’s own good is hooked up to a concern for the ongoing health of the community of which one is a part. When this work is operable, then one can work with others to find a shared or common purpose.”

These are lofty arguments, made in support of a compelling vision. We all want more people in the political arena with the combination of moral purpose, self-awareness, and recognition of both other people and the overriding good of the whole community Allen invokes.

But the problem, of course, is that many lack these traits—and are unwilling to learn how to develop them. Allen rightly calls for a politics of civility in which we call attention to violations of civic norms by “calling in” rather than “calling out” the violators, and in which we, following Martin Luther King, Jr., take care to recognize the humanity of adversaries. This makes sense in many settings. But it seems like insufficient guidance for our political realities defined by zero-sum, scorched-earth warfare in which some actors simply don’t care about civic norms or respect for others.

Allen isn’t blind to these realities. In many ways, the book is a response to them. In the prologue, she writes of the “surprise” many political philosophers and political scientists experienced at recent troubling events, including the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Why didn’t we see him, or someone like him, coming? Allen’s response—because we’ve given short shrift to political equality and democracy and therefore failed to ask the right questions about our political economy—is compelling and persuasive, but still feels a little incomplete.

Social justice theorists, like Rawls, Allen, and many others, all believe social institutions are a good in themselves. But figures like Donald Trump do not. They believe these institutions exist to serve personal interests, and if they can get away with bending them to suit their own purposes, so much the better—and if they are producing results contrary to their interests, they can be dismantled or usurped at will. And many Americans admire, and presumably agree with, this way of being in the world: suckers follow the rules, but smart people bend, break or ignore them. They believe money and power will always have their way and are suspicious or scornful of any talk of higher moral values.

Allen’s democracy is a democracy for good people. But what about people who are not so good, who are not likely to adopt high-minded ideals like “fair fighting,” who just want what they want and will do anything to get it, including destroying an adversary (or for that matter a friend), in order to get their way or to advance their ambition in the political arena?

Allen approaches a solution in this new book, at least at the theoretical level. For her, a just political economy is a form of “power-sharing liberalism,” in which power is broadly shared across the population and no single actor, class or entity class has excessive power. Echoing John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of countervailing power, power-sharing liberalism can, in theory, help check the runaway influence of capitalists and reduce democracy’s vulnerability to self-interested actors. The ideal is an attractive one, if it can be achieved. But, as Tom Malleson vigorously argues in another important recent book, Against Inequality (2023), achieving a just political economy likely will require a frontal assault on the wealth of the super-rich, taking steps like applying rigorous wealth taxes to limit the holdings and scope of influence of the world’s richest people over democratic institutions.

Sometimes democracies must go beyond “fair fighting” to deal with existential threats.

One suspects Allen might in fact agree with this conclusion. But in her book, she doesn’t clearly say. While Allen does include wealth taxes on a menu of potential policy tools to redress inequality, her discussion of political economy is focused elsewhere. In correctly posing the question of “how a vicious cycle of income and wealth inequality and political domination of democratic institutions by wealthy elites can be converted into the virtuous circle of egalitarian empowerment, social connectedness, relational economies, and stakeholder capitalism,” Allen’s proposed answer is simply to strengthen democracy.   

Therein lies the small flaw in an otherwise magnificent work: Allen’s account of democracy doesn’t sufficiently recognize that it is an idea with enemies. “Fair fighting” is exactly what is needed the vast majority of the time in the normal work of democracy, but sometimes democracies must go further to deal with existential threats.

In Richmond, our uneasy, fumbling steps to practice democracy and advance justice proved fruitful because of our shared purpose in addressing a problem that affected us all (albeit in different ways). But are not a Richmond Public Schools task force and our national political institutions two vastly different enterprises? Indeed, for all the complexities involved in our work to address the needs of English learners, we did not have to deal with people who were fundamentally opposed to the project. But those people are certainly here in Virginia, and nationwide, and they have access to voice and to power.

The work of co-creating meaningful responses to community issues, in ways that approximate the vision of “egalitarian participatory constitutional democracy,” represents democracy’s continuing hope, promise, and in the best cases, its reality. But it must be supplemented by a more robust account of how to confront and overcome the amassed opponents of democracy, inclusion, and virtually everything else Allen stands for. What exactly does the “democratic exercise of power” look like in confrontation with contemporary opponents of justice and political equality? That is a question one hopes that Allen—and the rest of us—pursue vigorously, and urgently, in future work.

Like many political theorists trained in the last fifty years, I cut my teeth on coming to terms with Rawls, his critics, and Rawls’ responses to the critics. Rawls’s body of work still has broad influence in academia and specifically in curricula concerning social justice, and not without reason. The idea of the Original Position and the notion of a fair society as being one you would be willing to be dropped into at random remain intuitively compelling, and have the capacity to move and inspire students of social justice even now. I see this almost every semester in my teaching.

But I also see that it’s time—past time—for both scholars and students to move on from abstract theory as the starting point for thinking about justice. Students today demand recognition of the realities of what’s going on in a world plagued by racism and sexism. They deserve tools that will help them more proficiently navigate the world as it is while also inspiring their moral imaginations, to allow them to think about genuinely different and better futures.

It’s time—past time—for both scholars and students to move on from abstract theory as the starting point for thinking about justice.

Justice by Means of Democracy is a much-needed starting point to make that shift. It is anchored in key facts about how real—which is to say, imperfect—democratic societies work in practice. Allen starts with the central fact of modern society, difference mixed with domination, and posits the far-reaching ideal of difference without domination.

If the book suffers from a slight degree of political innocence, the ideals and corresponding rules of action it offers are certainly compelling enough to inspire both clearer thinking and badly needed practical action. Whether these ideals and rules can stand up to the challenge of renewing a democracy endangered by self-serving elites is a question that can only be answered through practice, experimentation and ongoing learning—learning anchored in the experiences and struggles of actual communities struggling for a greater degree of justice.

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