The assault on egalitarian social justice in the United States over the past forty years has also been an assault on the legitimacy of vigorous public action to forward substantive goals. This is no coincidence: egalitarian conceptions of social justice invariably assume that the state will be the principal mechanism for establishing just social arrangements and rectifying inequalities (Rawls 1971; Dworkin 2000). In contrast, neoliberal conceptions of governance aim to both straitjacket the public sector and stymie efforts toward meaningful egalitarian redistribution. Given this strong internal connection between attractive conceptions of social justice and the idea of an active, competent public sector, advocates of urban social justice need to develop an account of how public-sector leadership on behalf of normatively desirable ends can be relegitimated. In this chapter, I focus on how we might begin to rehabilitate the idea of a vigorous public sector at the local level, given the existing political climate. As theorists since Tocqueville have recognized, local-level democratic practice is the building block (for better or worse) of larger-scale democracy, and (to use Rawlsian terminology) a society cannot be well ordered, stable, and just if local political and economic life is characterized by large inequalities and the predominance of private interests over public concerns.

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Copyright © 2011 University of Minnesota Press. This book chapter first appeared in Justice and the American Metropolis.

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