The Tension between Democracy and Justice

The Tension between Democracy and Justice
  • 3

The concept, idea and practice of democracy has become, over a period of time, almost a legitimizing principle of governance and government. The idea is so potent that even raw dictatorships employ it to gain a patina of legitimacy. The intuitive appeal of democracy as an organizing principle of a polity lies in its conceptual underpinnings , popularity and , according to some , its intrinsic worth. But, democracy- especially its practice- can come into conflict with another powerful concept, justice. This might be increasingly evident across the contemporary world. In rudimentary and perhaps even in reductive terms, democracy might be defined as majority rule and free elections. And justice can be defined as a cardinal respect for basic liberties. The tension between democracy and justice is evident from the respective definitions itself.
Consider free elections first. These might throw up a regime that adheres strictly to majoritarianism and a majoritarian agenda , running rough shod over minorities and their rights, despite the constitutionalization of these rights. Or, a political party or an individual can take recourse to demagoguery and populism and come to power over a policy plank of denigrating or even harassing minority groups. The case of the election of Donald Trump to the highest office of the United States might constitute a case in point here. Policy implications that flow from populism can create or lead to intolerant conditions for minorities. A practical instance of the flaw(s) of democracy is the condition of blacks in the United States. The blacks form an underclass in the country who have been historically and even perhaps contemporarily been victims. In theory, democracy should provide a redress to their historical condition but evidence suggests the contrary. The political firmament of the United States is defined by a powerful white superstructure which is essentially the reigning and ruing class of the country. White privilege in the United States thus remains entrenched. Justice for the blacks remains elusive despite attempts at social engineering in the recent past by, for example, elevating Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States.
This is , insofar as the broad critique of democracy and its tension with justice is concerned-( especially at the group level and in terms of group dynamic and rights). At the individual level, it has been observed . while the conceptual underpinnings of liberal democracy might elevate the individual to a pinnacle and render a polity revolve around an individual and individual rights, justice for an individual, who comes in the cross hairs of the state , the bureaucracy, or a powerful group is again elusive. Consider an example. If the Department of Homeland Security in the United States deems an individual to be a “security threat” or an individual is deemed, for some reason, in adverse terms by the department, there’s very little likelihood of the individual obtaining redress and justice. Similarly, if an individual in the West, comes in the cross hairs of the state, justice for him or her remains a charade- generally speaking.
The reasons, among other things, pertain to the fact that justice and access to justice in the West is expensive. In fact, there is such a perversion of individualism and individual rights in the West that while, in theory, the individual is supreme, but an obstructive morass plus perverse incentives could be said to have created a culture of what could be called “vexatious litigation”. In this schema, it is the lawyers or those for whom law is a business that are the supreme beneficiaries. Moreover, there is also the aspect of utilitarianism involved in Western policy and practice: if , out of 100, five suffer injustice and 95 are fine, it is not apparently held to be “bad”. So , God help the individual, who falls foul of the state or powers that be.
This is not to single out the West. Instance galore of injustices against groups and individuals can be found in the non Western world. Moreover, there are extraordinary features of the West that render it salubrious and exemplary. However,, since the West never ceases to trumpet the superiority of its values and systems, it becomes perhaps a natural target of critique.
It then appears that there is a clear tension between justice and democracy. The question then becomes: which value to accord preference to? Whilst there might be theories that dwell on this question and purport to answer it, I would posit that justice should be treated as an intrinsic good that should be tied to democracy in such a way that redounds to the good of everyone. Is this possible? Unlikely is the answer.

—The author can be reached at:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.