[Moon, J. D. (1994), Review of J. Elster (1992): Local Justice, Political Theory 22(1):179-181]

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


Review of Local Justice

[start of page 179]

J. D. Moon

LOCAL JUSTICE: HOW INSTITUTIONS ALLOCATE SCARCE GOODS AND NECESSARY BURDENS by Jon Elster. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992. Pp. ix, 283, $24.95 (cloth).

In this work, Elster is concerned with the principles used by public or semipublic institutions to determine who will receive such goods as admission to a college or an intensive care unit in a hospital or to select those who will be required to bear such burdens as military service or being laid off from one's job. These institutions deal with goods that are not (or not fully) commodified, that is, whose allocations are not determined mainly through market exchange. Elster views "global" (although a better term would be

[end of page 179, start of page 180]

social) justice as mainly concerned with the overall pattern of rights and the distribution of income in a society; by contrast, "local" justice pertains to in-kind allocation by organizations that have some autonomy from the state, even if they have a formally "public" character. The "justice" of local justice includes any principle employed by these institutions, not only distributive principles such as rights or equality. In contrast to standard usage, then, maximizing utility could be a principle of justice" as Elster uses the term here.

Although deeply concerned with normative issues, the principal focus of the work is descriptive and explanatory. Elster provides what is intended to be an exhaustive classification of allocative principles and procedures and examines how they come to be selected through the interaction of political elites, members of the institutions involved, claimants of the goods being distributed and "public opinion." Elster does not offer a tight, unified theory; instead, we are given enormously rich, insightful accounts of practices in widely different sectors, drawing on the experiences of many contemporary Western countries. The book concludes by setting the issues of local justice in the context of "global" justice and by offering a program for future research. Like the rest of Elster's work, this book is a stunning display of intellectual virtuosity. There hardly seems to be anything in the human sciences or philosophy that he has not read and drawn upon in interesting and creative ways.

In many ways, this book might be seen as staking out a program of research, promising a unified treatment of an important range of social practices. Elster's own caveats, however, lead one to be skeptical of that promise. The sheer range of elementary principles and allocative mechanisms, the variety of ways in which they can be combined, the complexity of the relationships of these institutions to markets and government, and the important variations from culture to culture make one wonder whether delimiting a field of study in this way will lead to growing insight and understanding, as opposed to a proliferation of essentially ad hoc studies, however interesting and important they may be in themselves.

Only time will tell if "local justice" yields a fruitful research program. Of more immediate significance are its implications for normative theories of justice. Elster rejects Walzer's version of local justice, in part because of its reliance on a poorly defined notion of "social meanings," which results in philosophical argumentation that is "disappointingly vague" (p. 14). But in agreement with Walzer, he argues that attention to issues of social and historical context can challenge and deepen our accounts of justice. The study of local justice, of the judgments made by men and women wrestling with concrete problems, who bear responsibility for their choices, and who have

[end of page 180, start of page 181]

(at least in general) undergone professional training for their roles, significantly extends the range of views that must be included in any "reflective equilibrium," in any theory of justice that systematically orders and grounds "our" (i.e., philosophers' and political theorists') prereflective intuitions.

Following these very plausible suggestions, Elster sketches what he calls the "commonsense conception of justice," which is broadly defined to include conceptions of welfare, rights, and fairness (parts of which have been presented in his earlier works). The commonsense conception of justice might be thought of as a compromise or halfway house between Rawls and Nozick. End-state principles such as equality are affirmed, subject to various constraints including respect for individual rights; some of these rights are conceived of as "natural" in the sense that they could not legitimately be abrogated through democratic procedures (such as "the right to one's own bodily parts," p. 242). Many of the most interesting suggestions involve welfare state policies; Elster, in effect, endorses policies requiring work in exchange for income on the grounds that guaranteed incomes would be "exploitative" of those who work and that the condition of publicity, essential to democratic politics, entails that citizens be treated as "responsible for their preferences" (p. 239). Although this account of justice is suggestive it is far from satisfactory. It is not carefully related to the analysis of local justice, from which it is said to derive, nor is it used to test systematic theories of justice in a way that might challenge them, leading to a new reflective equilibrium. But it is a promising start, from which we have much to learn.

- J. Donald Moon
Wesleyan University

[Moon, J. D. (1994), Review of J. Elster (1992): Local Justice, Political Theory 22(1):179-181]

[ Books | Articles | Reviews | Index | The main menu ]


1 1