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Justice is one of the main goals of democratic constitutions, along with the achievement of order, security, liberty, and the common good. The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, for example, says that one purpose of the document is to “establish Justice.” And, in the 51st paper of The Federalist, James Madison proclaims, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” So, what is justice? And how is it pursued in a constitutional democracy?

Since ancient times, philosophers have said that justice is achieved when everyone receives what is due to her or him. Justice is certainly achieved when persons with equal qualifications receive equal treatment from the government. For example, a government establishes justice when it equally guarantees the human rights of each person within its authority. As each person is equal in her or his membership in the human species, each one possesses the same immutable human rights, which the government is bound to protect equally.

By contrast, the government acts unjustly if it protects the human rights of some individuals under its authority while denying the same protection to others. The racial segregation laws that prevailed in some parts of the United States until the mid-1960s, for example, denied justice to African American people. America’s greatest civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., said that racial segregation laws were “unjust laws” because they prevented black Americans from enjoying the same rights and opportunities as other citizens of the United States. When he opposed unjust racial segregation laws, King asserted that the worth and dignity of each person must be respected equally because each one is equally a member of the human species. Thus, any action by the government or groups of citizens that violated the worth and dignity of any person, as did the racial segregation laws, was unjust and should not be tolerated. King and his followers, therefore, protested these laws and eventually brought about their demise.

Another example of justice is procedural justice. It is pursued through due process of law to resolve conflicts between individuals or between individuals and their government. The government administers fair and impartial procedures equally to everyone under its authority in order to settle disputes among them or to prosecute persons charged with crimes against the state. For example, the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” The 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments include several guarantees of fair procedures for anyone accused of criminal behavior, including “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

When procedural due process prevails, conflicts are settled in an orderly and fair manner in a court of law, according to the rule of law, and not by the arbitrary actions of people in power. This equal justice under the law regulates the interactions among private individuals and between individuals and government. Punishments, such as incarceration in prison, payment of fines, or performance of community service, may be carried out against a wrongdoer. One party harmed by another may receive compensation from the perpetrator of the grievance.

Distributive justice, another type of justice pursued in every constitutional democracy, pertains to the government’s enactment of laws to distribute benefits to the people under its authority. Distributive justice certainly is achieved when equals receive the same allocation of benefits. For example, public programs that provide social security or medical care to all elderly and retired persons are examples of distributive justice in a constitutional democracy. Public schools, which all children have an equal opportunity to attend, are another example.

When the government of a constitutional democracy protects individuals’ rights to liberty, order, and safety, individuals can freely use their talents to produce wealth and enjoy the results of their labor. Thus, they are able to provide for their basic human needs and to satisfy many, if not all, of their wants. But some persons in every democracy are unable for various reasons to care adequately for themselves. Therefore, the government provides programs to distribute such basic benefits for disadvantaged persons as medical care, housing, food, and other necessities. These public programs for needy persons are examples of distributive justice in a constitutional democracy.

In the various democracies of our world, people debate the extent and kind of distributive justice there should be to meet adequately the social and economic needs of all the people. Should the regulatory power of government be increased greatly so that it can bring about greater social and economic equality through redistribution of resources?

Countries that provide extensive social and economic benefits through the redistribution of resources are known as social democracies or welfare states. The consequences of distributive justice in a social democracy, such as Sweden, are to diminish greatly unequal social and economic conditions and to move toward parity in general standards of living among the people. However, the achievement of this kind of social justice requires a substantial increase in the power of government to regulate the society and economy. Thus, as social and economic equality increase through government intervention in the lives of individuals, there is a decrease in personal and private rights to freedom. People in democracies throughout the world debate whether justice is generally served or denied by big public programs that extensively redistribute resources in order to equalize standards of living among the people.

SEE ALSO Equality; Liberalism; Liberty; Rule of Law; Social Democracy