Symposium “Distributive Justice” - University of Zurich

Political Liberty

An examination of what a just distribution of political opportunities would look like according to John Rawls.


    A core democratic principle is that political decisions should be made by citizens. In order to achieve this principle, it is not enough for citizens to have an equal right to vote: they should also have opportunities to actively participate in the activities of government, for instance by launching an initiative, joining a party, or, most importantly, having the opportunity to stand as a candidate for office.

    In Switzerland, citizens have extensive voting rights: they can not only cast a ballot in elections, but also in referendum and initiative votes. However, it is not clear that all citizens have an equal opportunity to run for office, since this requires a variety of resources. In this blog post, we examine these resources and ask whether the inequalities of opportunity to be a candidate for office can be considered just.


    The resources which are needed to become a candidate for elections

    In order to become a candidate for office, citizens need to have formal resources, namely formal political rights that enable citizens to be eligible for office – so-called passive electoral rights. These rights are generally distributed and granted by the state.

    But formal resources are not sufficient: candidates also need informal resources. Political scientists such as Henry Brady, Sidney Verba and Kay Schlozman (1995, 271) have shown the essential role played by resources such as “time to take part in political activity, money to make contributions and civic skills”1 to stand a chance in elections (and, in general, to participate in politics). The distribution of informal resources generally depends on individuals’ opportunities – for instance, of having time and money to practice their skills.

    In order to better understand how important these resources are in the Swiss context, we interviewed Nick Glättli, current party president of SP Region Lägern (2020). In his view, the most important resource is time, which is essential to organize rallies, participate in debates, work in your current office and so on (Glättli 2020). Campaigning can also get very expensive, which leads us to the second resource: money. Running for office often entails advertising or booking venues. This makes it difficult to successfully campaign without having the financial means. And the third resource, civic skills, entail debating, public speaking and organizational know-how (Glättli, 2020).


    A just distribution of resources?

    Are the formal and informal resources necessary for candidates to stand a chance in elections justly distributed, in Switzerland? In order to answer this question, we draw on a proposal developed by American political philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice.

    Rawls argues that a just society should implement two principles of justice (1999, 53). The first principle requires that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all” (Rawls 1999, 53). Rawls (1999, 53) explicitly lists both “the right to vote and to hold public office” as such basic liberties which should be equally distributed.

    Following this principle, formal resources needed to stand as a candidate for office ought to be distributed equally. This first principle appears to be met in the Swiss case: every citizen has a formal right to stand for office as part of their political liberties.

    What about informal resources? Here we can here turn to Rawls’ second principle, which claims (among other things) that a just society needs to guarantee that “offices and positions [are] open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (1999, 72). In other words, citizens need not only to be formally eligible, but also have a “fair chance” to become elected officials (Rawls 1999, 63). Requesting that candidates for office have a certain amount of money or a certain level of education would for instance violate the “conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls, 1999, 53) by restricting the fair chances of the poor or uneducated to stand for political office.

    Are the informal resources, which are necessary for candidates to have a “fair chance,” justly distributed in Switzerland?


    Evaluating the distribution of informal resources

    When it comes to equality of opportunity for candidates for office in Switzerland, we see two threats: socio-economic inequalities and parties.

    The distribution of informal resources in Switzerland is greatly impacted by the socio-economic status (SES) of potential candidates. Individuals with a high SES have a high income and access to higher education, which in turn helps them getting important contacts (Glättli 2020) and developing civic skills (Brady and al. 1995, 275). Since SES is not distributed evenly, neither are the resources of money and skills. The importance of SES is evident in the fact that, according to Andrea Pilotti and Roberto Di Capua (2019), 61% of current members of the Swiss Nationalrat have an academic degree.

    Parties could be considered as a way to counterbalance these inequalities. Indeed, they do play an essential role in distributing informal resources for candidates: they organize events, fund campaigns and grant opportunities to individuals. Additionally, they offer a privileged context to develop the previously mentioned skills through jobs inside the party apparatus.

    However, parties have much liberty in determining who will be able to stand as a candidate and who will not – which undermines their potential to foster fair equality of opportunity. According to German-Italian sociologist Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” (1911, 224), parties tend to develop strong internal bureaucracies which accumulate power and influence until an elite is formed. This elite controls a good part of the party’s decisions. Even in a strongly federal and direct democracy as Switzerland, the parties by law do not have to be organized in a democratic way. The party elite has a strong incentive to funnel the informal resources of money and skills towards candidates with similar ideologies, since this helps legitimizing current power structures.


    Making access to political offices more just

    The Swiss political system, as many other democracies, does not ensure a just distribution of political resources in the sense defended by Rawls among the citizens willing to stand as candidates for political office. More specifically, while it does grant equal formal rights to all citizens to become candidates, it fails at providing them with the informal resources and opportunities needed to have a fair chance of success. In particular, the impact of socio-economic inequalities and the internal decision-structure of parties undermines equality of opportunity.

    We propose that reforms could foster a more equal distribution of “fair chances” and, thus, make the Swiss political system more just. For example, free courses on public speaking and debating, as well as a fair compensation of all political work, including running for office, could be offered. Other possible reforms might include requiring parties to be more internally democratic or reducing the costs of running for office. The question of how to achieve these reforms is subject to debate. However, all of this would still not ensure a completely just distribution of informal resources – which, frankly, is near impossible to reach. Nevertheless, it would be more just than the distribution of current informal political resources. This is why we should strive for political opportunities to be made equal.


    Brady, Henry, Sidney Verba and Kay L. Schlozman. 1995. “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation.” Amercian Political Science Review 89 (2): 271-294.

    Glättli, Nick. 2020. Interview with Pascal Baumann and Lara Koch. Zurich, November 14, 2020.

    Pilotti, Andrea and Roberto Di Capua. 2019. «Die sozio-professionelle Zusammensetzung des Nationalrats 2019-2023.» De Facto, November 8. Accessed February 5, 2020.

    Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Michels, Robert. 1911. Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie.

    Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens. Leipzig: Klinkhardt

    1 By civic skills, they refer to “the communication and organizational skills that facilitate effective participation” (Brady, Verba, Schlozman 1995, 271).