ABSTRACT: This paper explores the relationship between justice and government, examining views on the subject expressed by traditional political philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke, as well as those expressed by contemporary political theorists such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. According to Rawls, justice is one of the fundamental concerns of a governing body; Locke and Rousseau agree that government and justice are essentially connected. Nozick and Max Weber, however, claim that the essential characteristic of government is not justice, but power. This paper argues that government, as an institution formed and controlled by human beings, is subject to the moral injunction to treat human beings as entities accorded certain rights, and included among these rights is the right to just treatment. Governments are therefore enjoined to be just because human beings, as rational agents, and therefore persons, are owed the minimal respect due a person, such as the right to freedom and the right to forbearance from harm by others to self and property.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights;...that to secure these rights governments are instituted...." - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Declaration of Sentiments"
Does government have an obligation to act justly? John Rawls cites justice in A Theory of Justice as the "first virtue of social institutions" (1971, p. 3), of which a government is one example. He writes expansively in the beginning of his book on the importance of justice and of its centrality in a "well-ordered" society. Eloquently, Rawls extols the primacy of justice, and asserts that no matter how efficient and productive the government and the laws issuing from it may be, if the government or its laws are unjust they must be changed (although he does say later that statements like this one may have been put too strongly) (1971, p. 4). The "well-ordered" society, as described by Rawls, has two characteristics: (1) it furthers the interests of its members and (2) it is organized according to a "public conception of justice" (1971, p. 5). When citizens have a public conception of justice "they understand the need for, and they are prepared to affirm, a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining what they take to be the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation" (1971, p. 5). In this optimal society the principles would generally be the same throughout the society and would be enforced by the State. Clearly, this would represent government at its best: everybody agreeing on the governing principles and the State instituting just those principles.
In the opening to his book Rawls sketches, then, an outline of a well-ordered society with three components: (1) it advances the interests of its members, (2) it is governed by a public conception of...