Freedom before liberalism


Freedom before liberalism

Philosopher Philip Pettit talks liberty, republicanism and democracy.

Philip Pettit

Topics Long-reads Politics

The tradition of republican thought has long inspired the work of philosopher Philip Pettit, the current LS Rockefeller University professor of politics and human values at Princeton University. And no wonder. Having bloomed in Ancient Rome, nourished the aspirations of the Italian city states in their struggles with pope and Holy Roman Emperor alike during the 13th and 14th centuries, and fired-up the revolutionaries of England, America and France during the long Enlightenment, republican thinking about freedom, or the ‘Italian-Atlantic’ tradition as Pettit calls it, remains intellectually and politically potent. It addressed questions of domination; it set itself against ‘the subjection to another’s will’; and it explored what it is to be free. And yet, until recently, it is a tradition that has been obscured, marginalised, first by classical liberalism, and later by its variants. So to find out what happened to this neo-Roman tradition, and to explore the rich, many-sided idea of freedom it carried within, we spoke to Pettit himself.

spiked review: So what differentiates the neo-republican concept of freedom from the more familiar, liberal idea of liberty?

Philip Pettit: The liberal idea of freedom really goes back to classical liberalism, which corresponds pretty well to what we know now as libertarianism. Under classical liberalism, freedom meant you were left alone – it was laissez faire, to use the familiar phrase. So, as long as you weren’t interfered with, coerced, locked into doing things, manipulated and so on – to that extent you were perfectly free.

What marked out this idea of liberalism from the republican concept of liberty was that power didn’t actually matter so far as freedom was concerned. For example, the fact that an employer, who has much greater power than the employee, could, if he so wishes, simply dismiss the employee, doesn’t affect the employee’s freedom. So just so long as the employer doesn’t actually interfere with the employee, the imbalance in power doesn’t make a difference.

And that was a very big shift from what had been the standard view of freedom going back to Roman times. (Admittedly, Thomas Hobbes did say as early as the 17th century that ‘A free man, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to’. But he was an exceptional and complex case.) The Romans put it thus: even if your master was a very gentle master, who didn’t actually interfere, he was still your master, which meant that you were not free. So in this older, republican way of thinking, power is really at the heart of it. So if you live under the power of another, even if that power is very kind to you, very gentle, that still means you are not free, that you are in servitude.

review: How does this differing conception of freedom affect the idea of the individual?

Pettit: The idea of the free man was the usual translation of the Roman word for citizen. Now, in order to be a free person as a citizen, you basically had to have, before the law, the same power as everybody else. Maybe there are differences of wealth, but, insofar as the law protected you equally alongside everybody else, insofar as you could walk tall, could look people in the eye without reason for fear or deference, you were a free person among free people.

The usage that came into play under classical liberalism moved away from the free citizen altogether, and towards the notion of a free choice. What was important now was to maximise freedom of choice in a society. And that’s understandable. Because if, according to liberalism, freedom boils down to non-interference, then it’s all about maximised free choice. But if freedom is about not being subject to the power of another, the focus is really on the citizen in relation to others.

review: I was struck by your formulation, in On the People’s Terms, of the free man of Roman thought, someone who lived in his own domain sui juris (‘under his own jurisdiction’), as it was put in Roman law. That sounds like a very strong defence of the private realm, a sense writ largest in that early-17th-century idea that an Englishman’s home is his castle…

Pettit: Now that is an idea that is certainly central to the tradition of republican liberty, and one that has passed into certain strands of liberal thinking. The idea was that of the free person, the liber sui juris, who was free under his own jurisdiction. The idea was that there was an assumed range within which each citizen was his own master. It has to be said that the Roman ideals were always far richer and more inspiring than the actual practice. In practice, of course, it was not the case that all citizens could pass the eyeball test, looking into the eyes of another without reason for fear or deference – because there was as a lot of dependency of an informal kind. But the ideal was that each adult man could stand on his own two feet, and knew his realm of protected, empowered action in relation to others. In the political dimension, the citizen was different. Only a few were capable of belonging to the Senate, for example. But all could vote: laws were established by pretty inclusive gatherings, as were offices of the state.

review: Why did the republican idea of freedom, which formed the bedrock of the Italian city states during the 13th century, and informed the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, virtually disappear during the 19th century?

review: Yes, up until the 17th century, with the exception, of course, of Hobbes, the idea of republican liberty was prevalent. ‘Britain never, never, never shall be slaves’ was straight out of the hymn book of republican liberty. Think also of the Commonwealth men, those protestant republicans of the 18th century, some of whom wrote ‘Cato’s letters’, where they offered the following formulation: ‘liberty is to live in independence of others’. These were the prominent ideas of freedom at that moment. But, as the 18th century moves on, the Whigs tend to separate into the comfortable ones, and the radical ones. The radicals, like the Commonwealth men, tend to be associated with the dissenters, people like the philosophers-cum-preachers, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, and so on. These were very significant people in Britain at that point, but they were very much on the outer of politics rather than the inner.

The American War of Independence has a lot to do with the move away from a republican idea of freedom. One story in particular captures this shift. In 1766, the British government, after complaints from the American colonists, overturned the Stamp Act, which was effectively a duty imposed on the American colonies. Parliament expected the Americans to be really pleased with the government’s generosity, but they actually responded really badly. That’s because the government passed another act, the Declaratory Act, alongside the repeal of the Stamp Act. And the Declaratory Act asserted that parliament’s authority was the same in America as in Britain, which meant it could therefore pass laws that were binding on the American colonies. Now that really grated on the Americans, who had no say in parliament. Britain was cast by the colonists in the older terms of a gentle master. It was gentle insofar as it withdrew the tax, but it was also insisting that it was the boss, that it was still in control. As Richard Price said, it was insisting that we’re the master and you’re the slave, the dependent. So the American colonists were calling upon this republican idea of liberty in opposition to the British government.

Likewise, the emergence of the newer liberal idea of freedom as non-interference, rather than non-domination, emerges on the side of those in England supporting the British government: Lord North and his associates; pamphleteers like John Lind, who wrote the Three Letters to Dr Price in 1776, aimed at Richard Price, and in defence of British rule in North America. Lind actually offers a new definition of freedom, the first, that I can find, of freedom as non-interference. Price says freedom is just the absence of restraint and constraint. And then he says that means all law takes away your freedom. Now notice the contrast with the republican idea of freedom, where the law makes you free, because it made you a free person, protected and empowered in the domain of choice. But Lind is saying that law is the enemy of freedom. That’s a big shift. And then Lind argues that, yes, Westminster’s law in America has taken away the colonists’ freedom, but it’s taken away ours, too, so what’s the big complaint? You see that freedom as non-interference becomes very, very attractive because it justifies the British government’s colonial rule in North America. There’s no harm being a gentle master; the only harm is when you actually interfere. Lind is arguing that the British state is not interfering any more harshly in North America than it is here. So the imbalance in power doesn’t really matter.

So that’s one reason why the idea of freedom as non-interference took off, I think – it justified colonial power. But it also justifies the power of employers in the new industrial period, a period during which all the traditional laws about how a master could treat journeymen or apprentices had become obsolete. Thousands of people were heading to the cities, to gain employment in these new factories. The employers, as we all know, do a blacklist, so if any of them fires someone, that fired employee is put on a blacklist, and probably can’t get a job. So the employers have enormous power over their workers.

In the older republican terms, that would have been really shocking, because even if the employers are nice to their workers, they’re still in a position of power in relation to the workers, and, worse than that, they can put them on a blacklist at will. The new way of thinking of freedom as non-interference is welcomed because it justifies the power of employers over employees. So if a worker signs a contract, formally or informally, to enter employment, he is agreeing to the terms of the relationship, and it doesn’t matter that it’s a relationship in which you’ve got a master, and you’re effectively a slave. That would have been anathema to the republican tradition.

Ironically, those who really develop the idea of freedom as non-interference are the utilitarians, who cannot be described as being right-wing. They’re all for reform and equality of people. Bentham – who argues each to count for one and none for more than one – is a great egalitarian. And what I think motivates Bentham and the theologian William Paley, who’s another significant utilitarian thinker in the 1780s, is that they want equality, but realise that if you hold on to the old notion of freedom as non-domination, then, wow, you’ve really got a powder keg on your hands, because it would overturn master-servant law, the relationship of employer to employee and family law. So I think that they’re under pressure to dilute this idea of freedom, turning it from this richer idea of non-domination to that of laissez faire non-interference. And then they can push their own agenda without it appearing too revolutionary.

review: You do also make a very strong argument in favour of freedom of choice…

Pettit: So in the republican tradition, as I understand it, the focus is on the person, and on the freedom of the person. But in order for a person to be free, two things have to be true. The person has to live under a law that gives him or her a range of choice or discretion in decision-making, where they really can act just as they wish. This is his or her area of independence under the law. Of course, people will always enter relationships, which means they are dependent on others. And that’s fine, so long as they reach out to one another for those relationships from a position of strength, where they really do have this area of independence under the law.

The second thing that’s needed is that they have to be politically as well as socially free, meaning that the law under which they are personally protected in this space is a law controlled by them equally with others. So they share a system of control over the law. Now that maps on to a notion of democracy.

But in the tradition as I read it, what’s really important is not just that you have elections – and you do have elections in Rome, as you did referenda – you also have a power of challenging what is happening in the law, through the courts, through demonstrations, by whatever means – the Romans call it provocatio, a right of appealing against the law. So it was never just that you are restricted to the right of the community voting. It also means to challenge a law, and to call for a rehearing of it, so to speak.

review: You mentioned dependence, or rather ‘dependence on others’, which a is tricky idea in relation to ideas of freedom, because, on the one hand, advocates of freedom would want to defend an idea of independence. But, on the other hand, being dependent on others, perhaps informally, on friends or family, or on others more broadly, to enable or to help you to achieve something, seems like it actually enriches our freedom. So are there forms of dependence that help people to be free?

Pettit: This is a really important point. The sort of independence that is important in the republican tradition, as the 17th-century theoretician and parliamentarian, Algernon Sidney, put it, ‘consists in independency upon the will of another’. It’s all about being independent from what others want you to do in a particular area of choice. So you’re guaranteed by the law, and by your informal powers and resources and the support of the community, to be able, if you wish, to act according to your own will in the relevant area of choice – let’s call it the fundamental liberties – regardless of what other people might want you to do. It’s independent of what others will you to do.

Now that, of course, is completely consistent with being dependent on others for the opportunities you have. So I’m travelling to Sidney by bus tomorrow. That’s available to me because of other people – because other people like to travel, bus travel is a mode they are willing to pay for. So I’m dependent in a generic way on other people. That’s not inimical to the idea of of freedom as non-domination. Equally, personal relationships which you choose – relationships of friendship, of love, of commitment – are relationships in which, of course, we do become dependent on others. You don’t just ignore your partner, so to speak, and do whatever you like in the realm of basic liberties. It’s part of having an intimate relationship that you develop a common mind together. But that sort of dependency is chosen. And I would say that you don’t get proper relations of intimacy, proper dependencies and intimacies, unless they are entered from a position of strength.

So if you go back 100 years, when women were totally dependent on a father or a husband to look after them, at least in the middle part of life. They were in a position of great weakness entering romantic relationships. It’s no coincidence that men abused those relationships in a way that women didn’t. Men wore the trousers, as it were. So while women may not have been interfered with – and liberal freedom means non-interference – they endured a great imbalance of power, and lived, even with a gentle husband, under the husband’s thumb.

The example I always use to illustrate freedom as non-domination is that of Nora and Torvald from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It’s set at a point in Norway’s history when women have little legal power. The man has it all: he owns everything; he can dictate whether his wife leaves the house, what she wears, who she associates with. But Torvald dotes on Nora. She is given everything. She really does enjoy freedom as non-interference in the classically liberal sense. What she absolutely does not enjoy is freedom as non-domination in the older republican sense (although of course in the Roman sense it wasn’t applied to women). The idea of republican freedom applied to women would require equality in marriage, and of course the possibility of divorce. It’s no coincidence that John Milton, who was a great republican thinker, wrote strongly in favour of divorce, recognising that in relationships that you can’t exit, you’re going to get domination if one of the parties was of a particular psychological disposition to dominate.

And this is a key point: there’s a personal dimension to being a free person, and a political dimension to being a free person. In each case, being a free person means not being stood over; it means not suffering dominatio, which was the word the Romans used for the relationship of the slave to a master, a dominus. It means not suffering that sort of subordination to another. In personal life, it means you’ve got to have an area where you are the boss, even if you choose to bring other people as intimates into that area. And in the political dimension, you’ve got to have a standing of equals with others when it comes to seeking influence over the state, seeking to contest laws and so on.

review: You write that it’s important that the state ‘guards against itself practising a form of public domination’. Which is where democracy comes in. Could you say a bit more about why democracy is so important to ensuring the flourishing of republican freedom?

Pettit: The state, even in the most democratic, communal states, is a corporate agent with enormous power over us. States do have to exist, and they have to be coercive. That’s like gravity – it’s the background to society. Now, how states exercise their power – let’s think of the domestic state – over their citizens is really crucial to the quality of life those citizens enjoy. You can think of this in terms of respect for freedom. So the state has to give respect as equals to all its citizens, meaning more or less permanent, adult, able-minded members of a political community. And it has to respect them as equals. Now that does mean that the decisions of the state, which are always intrusive, because the state is essentially coercive, have to be shaped and disciplined and controlled on terms that appeal across society. So, for example, in a society in which the citizenry is equally protected and empowered, they’re always going to value equality. So any breach in the equal treatment of people is extremely disrespectful. And it means those treated unequally are obviously subject to a dominating state power, because it’s singling them out.

I think that what is really, really essential to a properly democratic state is that it is controlled equally on the people’s terms. You have to have elections; they have to be periodic; they have to be free. But I think it’s equally important that apart from that electoral side, democracy must have a strong contestatory side. And the contestatory side requires two things. On the side on the state, it requires a great deal of sharing of power between different centres of power that can hold one another to account. So, for example, you need an electoral commission that can dictate the boundaries according to which politicians are elected, rather than allowing those politicians to do it themselves – a straightforward abuse that routinely occurs in the US. You’ve got to have auditors that can look at the books of government. You’ve got to have publicity, for instance, of economic data, and so on, which can be scrutinised. You also have to have a central bank that has a relative degree of independence, because politicians have such powerful interests in these areas. You need the courts to be clearly independent. And all of this needs to be transparent, so you need a media.

But above all you need an active citizenry, which will hold the government to account, ‘to keep the bastards honest’, as they say in Australia. The reason I’m emphasising this is that there are many on the left, which is my side of the divide, who think we need a more and more inclusive electoral style of democracy. Of course, it’s really important that we have democracy, which is control by the people on their terms. That requires something of far greater complexity than simply some notion of the popular will being imposed on government. There isn’t such a thing as the popular will. What you have to have are the channels by which people with different complaints from different sections of society can keep the sand in the wheels, which otherwise might run a little too smoothly in the direction of those in power.

Now all of this requires transparency, and the involvement of the people, not just at the moments of elections or referenda, but by demonstrations, by the media. What I’m sketching is a multidimensional democracy, of which elections are only one part. You need lots of networks, ways of proposing things, ways of challenging things, to-ing and fro-ing, interacting

I would at this point like to make clear my objection to referenda. In particular, I think it was a great abuse to have an up-down referendum on the membership of the EU. Many people had made plans for their whole lives, even acquiring a certain education (learning a language, for instance), on the assumption they would belong to this larger European bloc. It meant that those people represented an important group who were deeply invested in an arrangement that appeared pretty unshakeable. Now I don’t say that people can’t leave a treaty like that, but the decision to pull out of an arrangement of this order should not be made on the basis of what amounted to tossing a coin. We all know that referenda like that are likely to be influenced by collateral sorts of factors that are not germane to the question at issue, namely EU membership. A decision that is going to undermine the lives of a whole sector of the population should not be made on the basis of a one-off, up-down referendum. There are lots of ways it could have been done. One very simple one is to insist on a majority of 60 per cent or over, or to require two referenda, the second incorporating responses to the first.

In the 18th century, which was the great republican century, people designed constitutions so as to avoid these kinds of decisions. Even Rousseau argued that when making an up-down decision of this kind, the decision-making process must be slowed down somehow. The model for all those drawing up constitutions during the 18th century was, of course, Britain’s. But, ironically, because the British constution was never itself written down, procedures were never introduced for making major infrastructural changes, which is what leaving the EU amounts to. So now there’s this tendency to say, let’s have a referendum, let the people speak. Which is a rubbish understanding of democracy.

review: The EU isn’t exactly a shining embodiment of democracy…

Pettit: I wasn’t saying for one moment that the EU was the perfect democracy. It’s very imperfect indeed, because it’s not clear whether it’s a federation of states acting as states, or a federation of peoples who belong as much to the EU as to their own state. The EU’s a bit of a mess, and the Eurozone was a terrible idea. So I’m very critical of the EU in lots of ways.

I’m going to sound like a hoary old conservative now, but democracy only works really well in the longer term. Slow democracy rather than fast democracy. And I think referenda are examples of fast democracy.

Democracy, from day to day, is a hurly burly, messy business, with people shouting at one another. Rome was like that, too. Cicero talks of the ‘tumult of the crowd’, of their irrepressibility and so on. But Machiavelli was right: that was what was good about Rome, the fact that there was all this tumult and hurly burly. That is what kept the government on their toes.

But it’s what happens over the longer term that tells us whether democracy is in a good way, whether ideas gain traction among the people, as has happened in many democracies – ideas of equality, of health-provision entitlement, judicious security, social security… All of these ideas have emerged and stabilised only as a result of the hurly burly of day-to-day democracy over the longer term. The success of democracy lies in the laying down of foundations, the establishment of ideas according to which governments cannot be tyrannical or despotic.

Philip Pettit is LS Rockefeller professor of politics and human values at Princeton University. He is author of many books, including Republicanism (1997); On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (2012); and Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World (2014).

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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