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19.9.04

Justice And Decisionmaking

Ampersand points to a series of posts by Jason Kuznicki proposing a typology of political arguments:

Almost invariably, we justify our political thoughts based either on the will of the majority [argument from democracy]; or on some theory of justice, understood as a proper apportionment of reward and punishment; or on pluralism, the idea that life is somehow better (though not necessarily more just) when a country permits many different modes of life to exist simultaneously.


Kuznicki claims that the argument from democracy is the weakest of the three. As an argument for the rightness or wrongness of a policy, he's correct. Argumentum ad popularum is a logical fallacy. But the argument from democracy is not often used in this fashion.

The argument from democracy is a decision procedure. Justice and pluralism can't put themselves into practice. Given the obvious disagreements about justice and pluralism, some person or group must act as arbiter of what justice and pluralism require. The argument from democracy is typically parasitic on arguments from justice and pluralism, as it's on the basis of those arguments that the majority make their decision. The argument from democracy is based on the idea that we're more likely to realize the requirements of justice into practice if we let the majority decide.

For example, Kuznicki opens his series by proposing that the argument from democracy would lead us to mandate that all radio stations play rock music, since rock fans outnumber fans of all other types of music. But if you were to actually implement democracy as a decision procedure -- say, hold a binding referendum on what people think we should do about the airwaves -- I'm confident that country and jazz would stay on the air, because most people agree with Kuznicki's argument from pluralism. Thus, the argument from pluralism would be put into action by the decision procedure of democracy.

Democracy can be wrong, of course -- I agree with Kuznicki that censorship by the FCC is unwarranted, but I suspect most Americans would vote in favor of banning on-air obscenities. This fact lies behind the argument that we need anti-majoritarian measures in our system of government, to correct for tyranny of the majority. In some cases this means some form of super-majoritarian measure -- for example, the requirement of a two-thirds vote to override a veto or the need to get half of the Senate and half of the House, rather than simply half of Congress, to approve a bill. Super-majoritarianism is simply a more stringent form of majoritarianism, requiring a broader consensus. The real issue is when the proposed anti-majoritarian measure is truly unrelated to the will of the people. In this case it's not enough to invoke the threat of the tyranny of the majority as a justification. What's needed is a further argument that the particular form of anti-majoritarianism in question is more likely to approximate the demands of justice. For example, one might argue that by virtue of their training, judges are able to make consistent and valid deductions from constitutional and legal principles, whereas the masses can be sloppy and self-serving in their thinking.

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