The idea of procedural fairness is the one of the central ideas of democracy – that each person has a say in who governs them. But in practice, this is not enough, because on closer examination, the key requirement of a democracy is that every person should have the same opportunity to express their views and to influence the decisions that are made in their name, and who makes those decisions and how. Some people might need more help than others to exercise this right (such as helping the elderly or infirm to vote), while rules might be needed to ensure that other people do not have an undue influence because of their status, connections to those in power or wealth.
We should aim for equal opportunities for effective political influence, not equal political influence. Some inequalities in political influence are acceptable, for example, because some people choose to devote more time and efforts to politics than others. But it is unfair if some people have greater opportunities to influence decisions than others purely because they are wealthier.
Democracy and fairness are interdependent. An unfair society undermines the health and even the viability of democracies; if some people do not have a fair opportunity to make the most of their lives, their faith in democracy can be undermined and they are likely to be attracted to anti-democratic populists or even to extremists, as we have seen in many countries in recent years. At the same time, a healthy democracy is vital for building a fair society. If people have a say in how they are governed, the quality of decisions made and laws passed is better, and citizens are more likely to abide by them. Democratic societies are less likely to favour the interests of a narrow elite over the majority of the population than autocratic regimes (although a democratic system is by no means a guarantee of such an outcome, and majority rule can sometimes lead to the disempowerment, impoverishment or even persecution of minorities).
As Will Hutton argues in Them and Us, as soon as a country becomes a democracy, a certain level of procedural fairness is built into society (if not necessarily into the economy): “There must be equality of voice; rights of participation; the right of free expression; real political choices; clear, transparent and public procedures; respect for the dignity of each speaker; vote and voice. Institutions that protect these processes grow up spontaneously. There must be a forum, assembly or parliament. There must be an independent custodian to guard the propriety of the electoral and deliberative process. Courts must offer due justice in a procedurally fair way. There have to be checks and balances between judiciary, executive and legislature.”
However, large and mature democracies have to make a series of trade-offs to maximise fairness, protect their legitimacy and/or increase their efficiency, resolving tensions such as whether voting should be through a majoritarian or proportional system, how much power to devolve to regional or local areas, how broadly to define the electorate, how best to curtail the disproportionate influence of the wealthy or well-connected, and so on. Sometimes there are trade-offs between fairness and efficiency, such as between proportional voting (fairer but can lead to the formation of unstable and ineffective coalitions) and majoritarian voting (less fair as some votes count less than others, but widely believed to lead to stronger governments, although recently the evidence looks less robust). Similar trade-offs can be observed in the debate about retaining our centralised model of government or devolving more power to the regions.
As Hutton concludes, “We may despair of the compromises of politics and the imperfections of democracy… but we can never despair of procedural fairness. We need voice, participation and the opportunity for control and accountability. Democracy affords these processes and values, which is why we must cherish it to the last. Fair democracy - coupled with genuinely competitive, plural markets and the institutions that surround them, which guarantee debate, argument and deliberation - offers the best means to ensure that economy and society are governed by due desert. Only in that way will the entrenched elites who have secured undue desert be challenged effectively.”