Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 18, No. 5, May 2022
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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A Simple Litmus Test for Democracy and Freedom

Carter Dillard

May 2022

Placard showing positive effects of family planning (Ethiopia) ~ Source: Wikipedia
Click the image to enlarge

This article proposes a simple litmus test for democracy and freedom, based on the premise that we want to live in communities where people matter, both individually and collectively, and in which their mattering is aligned with a universal obligation to restore biodiverse nonhuman habitat across the planet.

Being free and equal people

John Rawls, a political theorist, is known for envisioning a framework for a truly liberated society of free and equal people. The essence of his work involves coming up with a basic set of moral rules to guide society that would be fair, rather than being designed to favor some at cost to others. He derives two core principles: First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others, e.g. (to vote, run for office, speak freely, own property, etc.) Second, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, and offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls is often criticized for his theory not being applicable in the world today. Can his framework be altered to make it more applicable? Yes. Rawls posited principles based on what he and others determined reasonable people would agree to, given the chance to decide the dominant rules - or first principles - under which they would live. But we can instead assume the most fundamental obligations do not arise from national constitutions, international law, or even Rawlsian first principles, but whatever obligations surround the creation - or procreation - of humans. This is an easy assumption to make. How could any obligations precede the obligations that surround our creation? None can. The rules that should govern creation come first and override downstream rules.

Rewriting Rawls

If we correct for what appears to be Rawls bypassing the rule for how humans should be created, and not just how they should act, we can derive a simple litmus test for whether we are truly free and equal people:

Our being free and equal persons involves whether we first treat the capacity for each person’s self-determination as directly inverse to population growth, relative to a neutral baseline such as the nonhuman world. In other words, while many would reasonably trade off the relative self-determination of living alone in the wilds and accept societies with growing populations because of the benefits they bring, they would only do so up to point, rather than losing one’s role in the democratic control of their society. Free people will always act to preserve their equal role, their mattering politically, in the process. In such a dynamic, each person is politically empowered, and empowered equally, such that all groups are arcing down towards optimal and ecocentric population sizes. If people are empowered equally and thus matter politically this direct inversion, relative to neutral position that makes the concept of self-determination coherent, is inevitable. This inversion is crucial, and consistent with the need to invest equitably in each child so that they are empowered parts of functional democracies.

The first reason persons would be obligated to follow laws is if the legal system intentionally includes, and reflects the will, of its constituents. This test determines whether systems are doing that.

Does such a test seem like something most persons would pass today, or is it perhaps too abstract to apply? If we study media and political discourse around population and constant messaging around threat of the “baby bust” to economic growth, including statements by popular thought leaders regarding the crisis of underpopulation, we might infer that many people would fail this test. They would fail to act in the way the test requires. Many may not care about growth because they know the average person does not matter politically, in terms of having an influential voice. This apathy would be justified given the debilitating impact of growth on each person’s political influence – making it irrational to even vote in many societies.

Wealthy and powerful thought leaders support growth because they also know their power is not going to be offset by the addition of new empowered citizens who matter equally. If anything, the average person born today is likely to simply become a consumer, worker, taxpayer, soldier, etc. in systems over which they have no democratic control, and which mostly benefit others. These top-down economic systems are backed by the coercive power of the state, the threat of violence, that defends state-created property rights. Under our test above such people are not living freely and equally, because they are not politically empowered.

Achieving freedom and equality

As a practical matter, in order to reach the optimality described above, the first and necessary condition of any policies we create would have to ensure future children with birth and development conditions consistent with a set of obligations that exist on a spectrum between the more modest Children’s Rights Convention and the more rigorous obligations of Fair Start family planning modeling. Those conditions are a prerequisite for legitimacy. In other words, we would apply Rawls primarily and physically, by caring enough about people to focus on the conditions in which they are born and raised. We will act like other people – all the people who will live in the future - matter politically, and equally.

How would we ensure birth and development conditions consistent with the spectrum? Because doing so is a first obligation that physically enables democracy, that obligation would override downstream state-issued property rights and enable redistribution of wealth as substantial family planning incentives/entitlements that world promote delayed parenting, parental readiness, smaller families, and equitable birth and development conditions that would approach true equality of opportunities in life. There are very practical vehicles, like the child tax credit system, for initiating such changes.

Click the image to enlarge
The system of entitlements described above may seem akin to universal basic income, or guaranteed minimum income, systems but it is a totally different creature. Those systems usually use unsustainable growth economics to create wealth, which is then shared with those at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum – the income often raising the recipient just above poverty. Fair Start reforms, in contrast, entitle all children to equal ecosocial opportunities in life by altering the conditions in which they are born and raised to achieve parity, charging the wealthy to offset any advantage they would give their children and entitling those on the opposite side of the spectrum accordingly. This system of redistribution and incentivizing, which empowers each person socially, is also pegged to a universal ethic of smaller families that ensures smaller democracies where people are empowered through their increased political role, and freed from even the subtle but lethal oppression of others – through things like the anthropocentric climate crisis – via restoration of biodiverse nonhuman habitat or nature.

In this scenario our caring for others - including our ensuring a restored and biodiverse nonhuman ecology - is what makes relative consent to the power of others possible, and liberates us. In it there is no need to debate the traditional social contract dilemma of how to trust one another because the connections are existential, built into the power relations through our creation. In other words, we are finally obligated to be fair to others because we were created fairly – the first, and best, possible reason. The right to an ecosocial Fair Start in life those becomes the first and overriding human right, preceding and trumping property and other “downstream” rights because this first right is “upstream” or existential in nature.

Living under such a creation norm would reflect a state of affairs we can also call existential justice, or the first intersection of all forms of justice: 1) This would encompass political justice because voices in smaller democracies are empowered, of 2) environmental justice as we are not subjected against our will to the climate crisis and other environmental calamities, and of 3) economic justice because wealth has been redistributed to ensure true equality of opportunity, and political control over economic conditions, for those born into the system.

Bending the arc with wealth taken from the top

Practically speaking, Fair Start encourages redistribution to incentivize parental readiness, delayed parenthood, equitable birth and development conditions, and a universal ethic of smaller families that would restore biodiversity and functional democracies. There are concrete standards for each of these areas, including existing standards of parental fitness, the Children’s Rights Convention, measures of equality of opportunity, ideal representative ratios, and biodiversity targets. In other worlds, we can specify exactly how such just and sustainable families would form, including what we mean by “smaller” families.

How feasible is it to achive such a universal norm of better family planning? In other contexts, over the past few centuries, we have seen massive change in cultural norms, from the redistribution of property under socialist revolutions to the seas change in fertility rates that shows many groups of women having less than half the children their forbearers had. Given the massive disparity of wealth today, recognizing wealth at the top as first subject to equitable and sustainable family planning claims and applying the wealth as an incentive/entitlement could easily and quickly bend the arc of growth towards the low United Nations variants, and allow unprecedented levels of child welfare and sustainable development. There are clear forms of discourse that are beginning this process. Note those engaged in the discourse at this link are acting in accordance with and passing the test above. Cassie and Matt both want her future child to matter.

These discourses, around changing family planning norms from the private and inequitable to the collective and equitable, could even be accelerated by social cognitive methods, much the way other family planning changes have occurred. People will react to incentives/entitlements, and we have a right to take them as matter of first and overriding right – by all means effective - to bend the curve. Yes, this is feasible. Are there analogies for such a future of free and equal people? We might envision the family planning reforms necessary to replace the ubiquitous shopping malls of today with functional town halls where each voice matters, or perhaps replacing the concept of freedom in a pandemic as not wearing a mask, quarantining, or being vaccinated with the freedom of a world population - in quantity and civil quality, that could have largely evaded the pandemic in the first place.


John Rawls’s theory provides a pathway towards justice, freedom and equality. Using his theory to recognize the overriding right of every child to an ecosocial Fair Start in life, and applying that right to take concentrations of wealth and power and use them to bend the arc, could help lead us towards a more just and sustainable world.


Carter Dillard, author of Justice as a Fair Start in Life, began his career as an Honors Program appointee to the U.S. Department of Justice. He later served as a legal adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in the national security law division. He wrote his thesis reformulating the right to have children under Jeremy Waldron, his extensive academic work on family planning has been published by Yale, Duke, and Northwestern Universities, as well as in peer-reviewed pieces, and he has served on the Steering Committee of the Population Ethics and Policy Research Project and was a Visiting Scholar at the Uehiro Center, both at the University of Oxford. He has taught at several law schools in the U.S., served as a peer reviewer for the journal Bioethics, and most recently managed an animal protection strategic impact litigation program, with annual resources in excess of five million dollars.

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"I am because we are."

African proverb


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