European Contexts for English Republicanism


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Broadly speaking, two answers have been proposed. The first defines non-arbitrariness procedurally. Power is not arbitrary, on this view, to the extent that it is reliably controlled by effective rules, procedures, or goals that are common knowledge to all persons or groups concerned Lovett , To be reliable and effective, on this view, constraints must be resilient over a wide range of possible changes or modifications in the relevant circumstances Lovett c.

Roughly speaking, the procedural view equates republican freedom with the traditional idea of the rule of law, provided we are willing to extend the latter idea considerably List ; Lovett a. Alternatively, we might define non-arbitrariness democratically. Power is not arbitrary, on this second view, to the extent that it is directly or indirectly controlled by the concerned persons or groups themselves.

In an example offered by Pettit , 57—58 , suppose Andrea has given Bob the keys to her alcohol cupboard, with strict instructions that no matter how much she pleads, he is not to return them except on twenty-four hours notice. Since Bob must answer to Andrea for his conduct in this regard, his power over her is not arbitrary. In roughly the same way, the power of the state over its citizens will not be arbitrary provided the people have an equal share in controlling how their state exercises its power. Many authors subscribe to some version of this democratic view see for example Bohman ; Laborde ; Forst ; McCammon Either way, two caveats are worth noting.

The first is that, on either view, arbitrariness simply means uncontrolled and vice versa. The second caveat is that, again on either view, arbitrary or uncontrolled power should not be defined along substantive lines as power that is unjust or illegitimate. The well-known problem with a moralized definition of arbitrariness is that it would collapse our conception of republican freedom into a general account of the human good Larmore ; Costa ; Carter So far we have assumed that, however ultimately defined, republican freedom is always a good thing. Some have wondered whether this is the case, however.

This objection is most often expressed via the example of benevolent care-giving relationships. On the republican view that one enjoys freedom only to the extent that one is independent from arbitrary power, it would seem that children do not enjoy republican freedom with respect to their parents.


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But surely, one might suppose, the parent-child relationship is in most cases an extremely valuable one, and so we would not want greater republican freedom in such a context. Republican freedom is, perhaps, not always a good thing Ferejohn As stated, this objection rests on a conceptual error, though as we shall see it points to an important set of issues as yet under-developed in the contemporary civic republican literature. The error in the above example stems from our confusing the overall evaluation of a whole with an evaluation of its parts considered separately.

It is undeniable that, at least in the ordinary course of things, parent-child relationships are extremely valuable, considered as a whole; it does not follow from this, however, that the relationship is necessarily valuable in each and every part. For the objection to hold, it must be the case—not only that the parent-child relationship is valuable overall—but further, that that it would actually be worse if, holding all its other features constant, it involved less arbitrary power.

But this is highly doubtful. That their republican freedom cannot be increased still further, perhaps, without destroying family life altogether, and thus losing its many other benefits, is neither here nor there. What consideration of this faulty objection does reveal, however, is that republican freedom is simply one good among others, with which it might come into conflict Markell Pettit , sketches a case for the relative priority of republican liberty on more or less pragmatic grounds: roughly speaking, he argues that political doctrines will be most effective when they concentrate on as few core values as possible, and accordingly that the best values to concentrate on are those whose promotion will service as wide a range of needs as possible.

Republican freedom is just such a good, he claims, insofar as our efforts to promote it will necessarily have far-reaching beneficial consequences. It will be more clear why this might be so in light of the discussion in part four below, but regardless there remains considerable work to be done developing the foundations of republican theory. After long-standing neglect among historians of political thought, there has been a dramatic revival of interest in the classical republican tradition in the past fifty years or so.

For the first few decades of this revival, a particular interpretation of that tradition prevailed. According to this view, the classical republicans held what would now be described as a perfectionist political philosophy—that is, a political philosophy centered on the idea of promoting a specific conception of the good life as consisting in active citizenship and healthy civic virtue on the one hand, while combating any sort of corruption that would undermine these values on the other.

This distinctive vision of the good life is supposed to be rooted in the experience of the ancient Greek polis, especially as expressed in the writings of Aristotle. The goods of active political participation, civic virtue, and so on, are to be understood as intrinsically valuable components of human flourishing. These and other civic humanist writings have left such an impression on the field that even today many fail to distinguish their views from those of the civic republicans.

As we shall see, however, the two are importantly distinct. Beginning with Skinner , Sunstein , and Pettit , an alternative interpretation of the tradition began to emerge. Undoubtedly, the classical republicans were committed to the importance of active political participation, civic virtue, combating corruption, and so forth. But rather than viewing these as intrinsically valuable components of a particular vision of the good life, these authors argued, they should instead be viewed as instrumentally useful tools for securing and preserving political liberty, understood as independence from arbitrary rule.

Republicanism, on this view, has its roots not in an Aristotelian vision of the ancient Greek polis, but rather in Roman jurisprudence with its fundamental and categorical distinction between free men and citizens on the one hand, and dependent slaves on the other. There now exists a considerable historiographical literature advancing this new interpretation, including studies of Machiavelli Skinner , ; Viroli , the seventeenth-century English republicans Dzelzainis ; Skinner , ; Lovett , a ; Rousseau Viroli ; the Americans of the founding era Sellers ; Wollstonecraft Coffee ; Halldenius ; and the nineteenth-century American labor republicans Gourevitch These and other contemporary civic republicans argue that a careful reading of the classical republican texts firmly rejects the perfectionist interpretation favored by civic humanists.

Moreover, the instrumental turn was vital to establishing interest in republicanism as a viable contemporary political doctrine. The difficulty with civic humanism, as many critics have pointed out, is that a perfectionist vision of human flourishing through active political virtue is out of step with modern political and social conditions. There is simply no hope of recreating the experience of the Greek polis in economically complex mass democracies characterized by reasonable pluralism Herzog ; Goodin ; Brennan and Lomasky This objection is removed, however, if we regard civic virtue instrumentally, as merely one tool among others for securing political liberty.

Insofar as republicans are willing to use that tool, and thus willing to support public policies designed to deliberately cultivate civic virtue, they must perhaps reject stronger doctrines of liberal neutrality; but they will nevertheless be happy to endorse broad principles of toleration Honohan ; Lovett and Whitfield At one level, this should surprise no one. After all, classical republicans and classical liberals shared many political commitments constitutionalism and the rule of law, for example , and many figures are regarded as central to both traditions Montesquieu, for example.

The difficulty arises, however, from the suggestion that on the new instrumental interpretation, republicanism for all intents and purposes collapses into liberalism Larmore ; Patten What then is the advantage of civic republicanism over mainstream liberalism Herzog ; Goodin ; Brennan and Lomasky ? The republican critique of liberalism is thus best understood as a critique of various problematic tendencies that developed within the liberal tradition as it increasingly diverged from its republican roots.

The most important of these is the tendency in the liberal tradition, especially beginning with Bentham, Paley, and Constant, to displace the robust conception of liberty as independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power with a weaker conception of liberty as non-interference. The significance of this substitution will be easier to assess after the discussion below, but in the main it comes down to this: because republican liberty is inherently incompatible with any form of dependency or mastery, its social implications are considerably more radical than those of mere negative liberty.

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Pettit What is more, on the view of liberty as non-interference, any sort of public law or policy intervention will count as an interference and, ergo, as a reduction in freedom. Liberals committed to the received view of negative liberty will thus tend to be overly hostile to government action Pettit , On the republican view, by contrast, public laws or policy interventions need not always count as reductions in freedom. Indeed, if the law or policy ameliorates dependency, or curtails the arbitrary powers some in the community exercise over others, freedom may be enhanced.

The grounds for this claim will be explained further below. However interesting the debates discussed in the previous section, one may still wonder whether republicanism has anything valuable to contribute to contemporary normative political theory and philosophy. One reason many people remain skeptical has to do with the fact that the classical republican writings often express views that are decidedly elitist, patriarchal, and militaristic.

How could the basis for an appealing contemporary political program be found in such writings Goldsmith ; Maddox ; Goodin ; McCormick ? That the classical republicans often expressed these very unappealing views is not disputed. But what are we to make of this fact? There are two possibilities. On the one hand, the parochialism of the classical republicans might reflect logical consequences of their core value commitments, in which case we cannot adopt the latter without taking on board the former. On the other hand, it might merely reflect the accidental prejudices of their day, in which case it can easily be dispensed with as we modernize the republican program.

Now according to the civic humanist reading of the tradition, the classical republicans were committed to a perfectionist conception of the human good as active citizenship and civic virtue. On this view, it is clear that some individuals will be more successful than others in attaining the good so understood—some are more adept at politics than others, some are more capable of heroic displays of virtue than others, and so on. Indeed, political power and public honor are, to some extent, positional goods, meaning that their distribution among the members of a community will necessarily be unequal.

It follows that, on the civic humanist reading of the tradition, the elitist bent of the classical republican writings is a consequence of their core values. The civic republicans, naturally, reject this view. There is nothing inherently elitist about the ideal of freedom when this is understood negatively as independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power. The classical republicans, to be sure, typically confined the extension of this ideal to a narrow range of propertied, native-born male citizens.

But on the civic republican reading of the tradition, this merely reflects an unnecessary prejudice we can easily dispense with. The elitism of the tradition long concealed the potentially radical implications of freedom as non-domination; suitably universalized now at last, republicanism is revealed to be a strikingly progressive political doctrine Pettit , ; Maynor ; Lovett ; Gourevitch The remainder of this section will sketch some of the wide-ranging applications of a universalized republicanism, dedicated to the promotion of freedom as non-domination.

Much of the contemporary republican program, as one would expect, bares some familial relationship with the political commitments of the classical republicans. There are also divergences, however. Contemporary civic republicans draw inspiration from the classical tradition, but they do not aim to anachronistically implement the republicanism of yore for its own sake. Contemporary civic republicans aim to promote freedom, understood as independence from arbitrary power. Roughly speaking, there are two directions from which republican freedom might be threatened.

First, there is the obvious danger of an autocratic or despotic government assuming arbitrary powers over its subjects; this concern, and republican remedies for it, will be discussed below. But there is a second danger to republican freedom as well—one that concerns contemporary civic republicans just as much as the first.

This is the danger that some individuals or groups within civil society will succeed in assuming arbitrary or uncontrolled powers over others. A few examples will help clarify this second danger. Imagine for a moment there were no system of domestic criminal and civil law. In this case, citizens would not know where they stood with one another; their interrelations would be governed simply by force—which is to say, by the arbitrary whim of the momentarily stronger party. Notice that, on the republican view of freedom, the laws do not merely protect some freedoms at the expense of others as on the non-interference view , but rather themselves actually introduce or enable that freedom.

On this view, only when their interrelations are mutually governed by a system of public and stable rules is it possible for fellow citizens to enjoy some measure of independence from arbitrary rule Pettit , , ; Viroli ; Dagger This connection between the rule of law and freedom is a common theme in the classical republican literature. Contemporary civic republicans observe, however, that even when the rule of law is firmly established, there remain many other potential dangers of which the classical republicans were less well aware.

Specifically, there is the danger of basic needs deprivation, which can place the least advantaged members of society in a position of economic vulnerability Spitz ; Pettit ; Viroli In order to satisfy their basic needs, individuals may well submit themselves to the arbitrary power of exploitative employers or become dependent on the whims of voluntary charity Dagger ; Lovett ; Gourevitch Ensuring the enjoyment of republican freedom will therefore require some public provision for otherwise unmet basic needs. Yet another danger to republican freedom arises in the context of family life and gender relations.

Traditional family law subjected both wives and children to considerable arbitrary power: circumstances in the case of the latter, circumscribed opportunities in the case of the former, ensured the nearly complete dependency of both on the family they happened to be in. It is always important from a civic republican point of view to be on guard against the introduction of new forms of dependency and arbitrary power through those very laws and policies designed to enhance individual freedom, however.

In the area of criminal and civil law, for example, freedom might be threatened by legal uncertainty or prosecutorial discretion; and, of course, there are grave republican concerns with respect to the existing system of punishment in many western nations Braithwaite and Pettit Similarly, in the public provision of basic needs, there are republican concerns with respect to dependence on government aid and arbitrariness in the distribution of benefits that might point to the introduction of an unconditional basic income Raventos ; Lovett ; for a contrary view, see Taylor In many of these areas, however, there remains considerable work for contemporary civic republicans in determining the appropriate public policy implications of a universalized concern for republican freedom.

Turning from questions of public policy to the form of government, we return to issues more familiar to the writers in the classical tradition. Protecting citizens from the arbitrary or uncontrolled power of their government through good institutional design represents perhaps the signature classical republican concern. Many of the standard devices for achieving this aim—the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, constitutionally entrenched basic rights, and so on—have been adopted by liberals and others. Contemporary civic republicans, naturally, remain committed to these institutional devices in some measure Pettit , , ; Maynor However, contemporary civic republicans also recognize that these sorts of devices can only go so far.

The basic reason for this is that, no matter how carefully designed, the operation and functioning of government necessarily entails considerable discretion on the part of public authorities Pettit ; Richardson There are two especially prominent instances of this. First, it is clear that no matter how detailed and carefully-crafted it is, no system of explicit rules and regulations can possibly cover all contingencies and circumstances.

It follows that discretionary authority must inevitably be left in the hands of courts, public agencies, and administrative bureaucracies. Second, even apart from this, there remains extensive discretion in the hands of legislatures to set public law and policy in the first place. A daily-changing system of rules is no better than having no rules at all.

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The standard republican remedy for this problem is enhanced democracy. It must, however, be democracy of the right sort. Most contemporary civic republicans reject the populist model of democracy according to which all public laws and policies must express the collective will of the people in order to be considered legitimate. Roughly speaking, the idea is that properly-designed democratic institutions should give citizens the effective opportunity to contest the decisions of their representatives. This possibility of contestation will make government agents wielding discretionary authority answerable to a public understanding of the goals or ends they are meant to serve and the means they are permitted to employ.

In this way, discretionary power can be subject to popular control in the sense required for a secure enjoyment of republican liberty Pettit , ; see also Ingham Next, of course, we will want to know how popular control might actually be put into practice.

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The main challenges are commonly addressed under three headings, outlined by Pettit , —7. The first and most thoroughly discussed is the requirement that discretionary authority be guided by the norm of deliberative public reasoning. This means that the relevant decision-makers legislatures, courts, bureaucrats, etc. So, for example, legislative processes should be designed so as to discourage back-room bargaining on the basis of sectional interests, and instead to encourage open public deliberation.

Similarly, bureaucratic agencies should not be allowed to merely issue determinations on the basis of technocratic expertise without offering reasons for their decisions that are open to public examination. The other two requirements have not received as much attention as the first, perhaps because both are relatively obvious. The second is that of inclusiveness. Opportunities for democratic contestation must be equally open to all persons and groups in the society.

This requirement follows naturally from a universalized concern for republican liberty, and it has implications for the design of representative institutions, campaign financing, and so on Pettit , ; Bellamy Whether these forums should include constitutional courts with strong powers of judicial review remains a subject of debate in the republican literature, however Bellamy ; Honohan Among the more salient themes in the classical republican tradition are the importance of civic virtue and the dangers of corruption.

Critics of republicanism often fear that this implies extensive self-sacrifice and frugality, a renunciation of individuality and self-identification with the community Herzog ; Goodin ; Brennan and Lomasky These fears are no doubt encouraged by the civic humanist reading of the classical tradition along perfectionist lines. Civic republicans accordingly have been at pains to show the contrary—that civic virtue should be understood as a strictly instrumental good, useful in establishing and maintaining republican liberty.

Far from calling for the subjection of individual to collective aims, they argue, republican liberty is desirable in part because it enables citizens to pursue their private aims with assurances of security Skinner , ; Spitz ; Dagger ; Viroli ; Maynor Broadly speaking, there are two topics to consider under the heading of civic virtue. On the one hand, there is the civic virtue and danger of its corruption on the part of public officials; on the other, there is the civic virtue and danger of its corruption on the part of citizens in general.


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With respect to the former, republicans typically reject the view common in the liberal tradition that public officials are by nature corrupt, and instead regard individuals as potentially corruptible, but not necessarily corrupt Pettit Working from this assumption, it is strictly a pragmatic and empirical question which configurations of public laws, institutions, and norms are most likely to minimize the danger of corruption, and enhance the civic virtue of public officials.

Options here include screening procedures on the selection of officials, rules and norms keeping some policy options out of bounds, and both positive and negative sanctions. In designing such institutions, it is important not to assume the worst of people, for otherwise we might inadvertently encourage through an evident lack of trust the very corrupt behavior one aims to guard against.


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Promoting civic virtue on the part of the citizens in general, however, is just as important from a republican point of view. There are a variety of possible reasons for this. For the most part, they stem from the observation that the widespread enjoyment of republican liberty is most likely to be maximized in a community where the citizens are committed to that ideal, and each is willing to do his or her part in realizing it. For example, through collective political action, citizens can bring instances of domination to public attention; they can support laws and policies that would expand republican freedom; and they can do their part in defending republican institutions when called upon to do so.

Promoting this sort of commitment to republican ideals will require a fairly robust program of civics education, together with a culture that rewards virtue with public esteem Dagger ; Pettit ; Brennan and Pettit ; Maynor ; Costa Again, it should be emphasized here that citizens do not enjoy republican freedom, on the civic republican view, in being virtuous. Indeed, this could not be the case since, as argued earlier, the degree of republican freedom enjoyed is rather a question of how the laws, institutions, and norms of the community are ordered.

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Civic virtue is, however, instrumentally useful both in bringing about the right sorts of laws, institutions, and norms, and in ensuring their durability and reliability. Finally, it is worth mentioning the connection between civic virtue both on the part of public officials and citizens in general and the rule of law. Of course this cannot ever be literally true, but it can be approximated in a sort of artificial way, so that life can be experienced as if it were true within a given community.

This requires, however, that the law be widely regarded as clear, predictable, and legitimate, and this in turn is possible only when there is a generally high level of compliance and when legal rules are embedded in a shared network of informal social norms Pettit ; Lovett a. The classical republicans were fond of extolling the martial valor of Rome and other ancient republics, and they often followed Machiavelli in advocating policies and institutions that would enhance the expansionist capacities of republics.

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For this they have often been accused of militaristic and imperialistic tendencies see for example Goodin , but this is not entirely fair. One has to be mindful of the dangerous security environments republics have often faced.

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Even so, the classical republicans were sensitive to the particular dangers of territorial expansion. They especially worried that by upsetting the domestic balance of wealth and power, imperial conquest would undermine freedom at home, and accordingly they sought remedies through various cooperative and federal arrangements Deudney ; Bohman Beyond narrow security concerns, however, contemporary civic republicans have recently begun to explore the implications of republican freedom for global economic justice.

Here a wide range of views can be found in the literature. Pettit , argues no, on the grounds that economic justice is mainly important indirectly for preserving domestic republican institutions, whereas Lovett b argues yes, on the grounds that poverty and severe inequality directly expose individuals to domination. In between these positions, Laborde , and Laborde and Ronzoni maintain that our global obligations to promote non-domination are similar but ultimately weaker than our domestic ones. Finally, Bachvarova suggests that republicanism is best suited to address relational rather than distributive global justice.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to contemporary civic republican theory, however, is the problem of state borders and global migration. Republicans are in a strong position to advocate for stateless persons, refugees, and resident non-citizens who, in various ways, are clearly vulnerable to avoidable domination Bohman ; Benton Much less obvious, however, is how to address the issue of international freedom of movement.

Traditionally committed to a strong conception of citizenship, the republican ideal of political liberty has often seemed inseparable from the existence of bounded communities of fellow free citizens. Pettit , —2 claims that since states have no choice but to maintain borders, the existence of migration controls as such cannot count as dominating, while Costa disagrees.

Honohan insists that any migration controls a given state does implement should be non-arbitrary, but as Fine observes, this does not settle the ultimate question of whether freedom of movement can be reconciled with the need to maintain civic community. In many respects, civic republicanism remains a still underdeveloped political doctrine. Further work is required in all the areas discussed above, and there are many issues central to the concerns of contemporary political theorists and philosophers that contemporary civic republicans have only recently begun to examine.

Among the latter, there are now at least initial treatments of multiculturalism Laborde ; Lovett ; Honohan ; Bachvarova , education policy Peterson ; Hinchliffe ; Macleod , and intergenerational justice Beckman ; Katz among other topics, though substantial work certainly remains to be done. Nevertheless, civic republicanism is a dynamic and growing field, which stands to make continuing positive contributions to debate in contemporary social and political theory. Political Liberty as Non-Domination 1. Republican Liberty: Problems and Debates 2.

The Classical Republican Tradition 3. The Contemporary Republican Program 4. International Journal on the History of European Expansion 38, 1 , Share this: Twitter Facebook. Like this: Like Loading Post to Cancel. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. To find out more, including how to control cookies, see here: Cookie Policy.

European Contexts for English Republicanism European Contexts for English Republicanism
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