The May issue of Prospect contains my short review of Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, the new book by the political philosopher Philip Pettit. Since the publication of Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government in 1997, Pettit has been building on the work done by intellectual historians such as Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock in excavating the so-called “neo-Roman” theory of civil liberty, which came to prominence during the English revolution of the 17th century. What Pettit does is to connect the neo-Roman theory saved from the condescension of posterity by Skinner and others to debates in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy about the nature of freedom, the legitimacy of the state and the obligations of citizenship.
Pettit’s analysis of the neo-Roman or “republican” idea of freedom offers a compelling alternative to liberalism, in its various guises (Skinner’s best known work in this area is entitled Liberty Before Liberalism). To get a sense of the kind of challenge Pettit’s republicanism poses to certain familiar liberal construals of freedom or liberty (Pettit uses the terms interchangeably), consider a distinction made by Isaiah Berlin in one of his most celebrated essays. Berlin distinguishes between two concepts of liberty: the “negative” concept, according to which liberty consists in being left to one’s own devices, and the “positive” one, in which liberty is construed as a kind of self-realisation. It is the former, Berlin thinks, that is “the truer and more humane ideal.”
What follows if we assume, with Berlin, that to be free is just to be left alone? Philip Pettit invites us to consider the case of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Nora’s husband Torvald exerts tremendous power over, yet denies her nothing nor interferes with her choices. Would we, therefore, say that Nora is free? Pettit suggests, plausibly, that we would not. Nora lives under Torvald’s thumb.
Pettit thinks that our intuitions about Nora’s case are best captured, not by a liberal view like Berlin’s, but by the republican notion of freedom as “non-domination”. To be free, in this conception, is to enjoy not merely the absence of interference but also the absence of domination—by other individuals and, crucially, by the state.
Now, unlike those philosophers who follow John Rawls in trying to figure out, almost as a matter of logic, the shape of an ideally just society, Pettit is interested in the kind of concrete policy programme likely to best promote the republican idea of freedom. Although political theory and political practice belong to different realms, he has always believed that “traffic across the divide” between them is possible. A good example of this is the book Pettit published in 2010 with the Spanish scholar José Luis Marti, A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero’s Spain. The book emerged from an invitation, made in 2004, by the then Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to Pettit to carry out an assessment of his government’s record in the light of republican principles. In his report on the governenment’s performance between 2004 and 2008, Pettit looked “first at the [its] policies for guarding against private and then at those for guarding against public domination”. He went to conclude that the Zapatero administration had “kept faith with the civicist or republican vision of government… Despite the enormous challenges confronted in the last few years, it has maintained a steady direction and made Spain into a model for how an advanced democracy can perform.”
It’s unusual, of course, for a philosopher to get so close to a practising politician, but then Pettit has a distinctive conception of what the task of political philosophy is, exactly. Unlike many of his colleagues, he thinks it is essentially public. In the conclusion to their book, he and Marti write: “We expect a political philosophy to have a public role both in offering guidance in institutional design and governmental decision-making and in offering direction to citizens in the public exercise of deliberation and contestation.” This isn’t to say that Pettit is dismissive of other ways of doing political philosophy—for example, conceptual analysis, institutional theory, intellectual history or Rawls-type “thought experiments in the demands of perfect justice”. But it is to say that, in his view, a “political philosophy should identify an idea or set of ideals that it takes to be important for government to foster and exemplify.”
This was a point that Pettit emphasised to me when I met in him in London a couple of weeks ago.
PP: I’ve always taken the view—with philosophy in general, actually, but with political philosophy in particular—that [philosophy] isn’t an exercise conducted simply for the sake for your fellow specialists or fellow teachers, or even for the sake of the students you teach. It has to be part of a larger conversation. There’s an image that’s always gripped me—of there being a conversation around various themes. And clearly in the political area, there’s a range of themes from power and freedom to the nature of the state, the people, democracy and so on. And it seems to me that there are many different circles in which those topicsfeature as the landmarks around which conversation proceeds. These include public intellectual circles, journalistic circles, commentary circles, pure philosophical circles, political science departments and, of course, activist circles and government circles. In all of them there is conversation around those topics. It’s always seemed to me that if, as a philosopher, what you’re doing is going to be hermetically sealed off from the rest of those circles, it really is just a sort of political aesthetic. You’re just looking from afar, as if from Mars, at our political arrangements.
JD: So Just Freedom is not an essay in ideal theory in the Rawlsian mode therefore?
Exactly. I do think ideal theory is an interesting intellectual exercise, but it seems to me that it ought to be—and I believe this very strongly—fairly marginal to what political philosophy and political theory does as a whole. I’m very sympathetic to Amartya Sen’s line and I’ve defended a similar line myself—he made a particularly emphatic defence of it in his 2009 book, The Idea of Justice.
You’re suggesting that the apparently demanding republican notion of freedom as “non-domination” actually fits better with intuitions about freedom aren’t you?
We use the word “freedom” in many different contexts. But when you ask, for example, what it is to be a free person, a free person in relation to other people—now one very solid intuition is that you can’t be free if you live under the thumb of another person, under another’s will. Even if that other person is really nice to you, it has to be the case that you do not live under their power.
Now that’s a very intuitive idea. I call it freedom as “non-domination” because it’s a very old idea, which you already find among the Romans. They talked about dominatio, the rule of a dominus, a lord or master, as precisely what a woman suffered, or a child or slave. I wanted to emphasise that as well as finding this notion of freedom in the classical, Roman sources, you also get it in the medieval period and in 17th and 18th century England—which, in a way, is the context in which it really comes into full bloom.
Milton is a great representative of this way of thinking. It becomes conceptualised as the English notion of freedom, associated with our ancient liberties and so on, in the 17th century. That’s something of a reconstruction. Quentin Skinner, for example, has emphasised the enormous influence of the Roman texts in the mid-17th century in England, which feeds into an English tradition which is indigenous—the tradition of common law, a law that’s not just the dictate of the king. And so people are ready for this way of thinking. The discontents of the mid-17th century with Charles I were built around this. He appeared to be claiming to have the power to impose his will.
The American Revolution is another pivotal moment in the story you’re telling isn’t it? Because, as you say, the American revolutionaries appeal to the republican notion of freedom. But isn’t there also an appeal to a more Lockean, proto-liberal notion of freedom there? Don’t those two notions co-exist in the theorising of the early American republic?
My sense is that we have invented a tradition called “liberalism” and associated it with Locke. There are many original emphases in Locke, and it’s fine to call them “liberal”, but if you look at Locke on freedom, he sounds decidedly republican. A lot of the more recent historical work on Locke has been emphasising just how republican, in the broad sense, he is. He insists, for example, that the law does not take away freedom. If you think of freedom as non-interference, which is the later way of thinking, then law itself is a form of interference and it’s going to take away your freedom. On this later way of thinking, which you can call liberal or libertarian, freedom consists in what the law leaves you. But on the earlier way of thinking, you’re free insofar as you are sovereign in your own area, not under somebody else’s thumb. And of course the law is essential for all of us—it gives us that independence in relation to others. What’s equally important is that that law doesn’t represent the imposition of the will of another, either. So you have to have private non-domination, given to you by the law, but you also need public non-domination, insofar as the law itself isn’t imposed on the whim, for example, of an absolute monarch.
You’re quite scrupulous, throughout the book, in calling the notion of freedom as non-interference “libertarian” rather than “liberal”. Why is that?
I think because the word “liberal” has become massively capable of interpretation in many different ways. Lots of the people who describe themselves as “liberal”, especially left-liberals—I don’t see a huge difference between them and the position I think of as republican. Take Rawls, for example. I do think that Rawls retains the notion of freedom as non-interference, which is a thin notion that doesn’t really deliver much in terms of social policy. But he balances that by having a separate ideal—a quasi-equality ideal—and I think that’s typical of the left-liberal position. You get freedom understood in the thin way beefed up by this independent value of equality.
You get something similar in the work of G.A. Cohen don’t you?
Exactly. Freedom in a relatively thin understanding beefed up by an understanding, in Cohen’s case, of equality of advantage. Whereas, with the republican way of thinking, you can just seize on the one value of freedom. You understand it in this rich, traditional way, which requires that you don’t live under the thumb of another. And then you see that this value, by itself, has enormous implications on three fronts: for social policy and social justice; for democratic policy in relation to government; and for international relations between countries. So interpreted in this way, it’s got these rich ramifications. And it’s traditional. It doesn’t seem to me like a rewriting of things.
The book starts on two tracks simultaneously—offering a historical account of republican freedom and a conceptual account of it. On the conceptual side, there’s a claim being made about choice here. You offer a very complex account of what constitutes free choice. And this strikes me as particularly important given the status that choice has as a kind of fetish term in contemporary political discourse, particularly in Britain and the United States. Could you say a little bit about the notion of choice you defend in the book and how it might differ from a more etiolated, liberal notion?
On the standard way of thinking, the idea is to say that every domain, short of the domain where you’re actively hurting other people, is a domain in which we should try to maximise free choice. There’s no concern particularly with protecting it—“maximising” simply means giving people the opportunity. Now, what it means if you say that it’s always good to have more choice rather than less is that you lose the egalitarian dimension altogether. It’s a little bit like, for example, when the US Supreme Court continues to push the line that it’s been pushing for 40 years that all speech is good speech. It’s what the First Amendment to the US Constitution requires. What they ignore completely is that by counting money as speech, which they do, increasing the amount of speech is entirely consistent with that speech being owned by five per cent of the population. The distribution doesn’t matter. The important thing is to maximise free choice. The idea is that you just look at the aggregate to see how much free choice there is. This seems to me to be a bêtise, an absurdity.
If, on the other hand, you think that in order to enjoy real freedom of choice it must be the case that you are genuinely protected against others, so you’re not under anyone’s thumb, then you realise that if everybody’s going to have this, it’s got to be equalised by means of designating certain areas of choice as protected for all members of society. It’s a very different sort of image. The two dimensions are the breadth of choice and the depth of choice. The standard view, as you call it, places no limits on the breadth and doesn’t worry about the depth. With that, you end up with an aggregate notion of maximising free choice whatever the distributional cost.
While I think that domination is essentially something that involves being subject to the will of another individual, or the will of a corporate entity, this doesn’t mean that republican theory is just focused on face-to-face relationships. Racism, sexism and so on exposes people who are discriminated against to possibilities of domination. So you’ve got to guard not only against domination as such, but also against the structural conditions of domination.
Right. And as you point out in the book, I can be dominated by another individual, but I can also be dominated by an agency.
Absolutely. One of the things that has got worse over the last century is the power of corporate entities—in particular, their legal power. Corporations have got great economic power, when it comes to the courts. They enjoy certain privileges—very often their court expenses are tax-deductible. Above all, they’re repeat players in the legal system. I heard a wonderful remark recently made by the legal scholar Mark Galanter. “Sharks and human beings can both swim,” he said. “But only sharks are in the swimming business.” In the same way, we don’t have judicial security against corporations. They’re going to have more resources and they’re repeat players. Our main protection against corporations, then, is probably their fear of disesteem in the eyes of the public. We can sometimes mobilise that, but otherwise corporations have extraordinary power.
You apply what you call an “expressive egalitarian” constraint on the policy proposals you set out in the second half of the book. What do you mean by that?
I mean that government, in determining both distributional questions and questions of social security and so on, should always treat individuals as equals. Now, as Ronald Dworkin pointed out, it’s another question as to how much equal treatment people get when they’re treated as equals. In order to treat people as equals, you’ve got to take account of their different circumstances.
You make that point using a distinction between “expressive” and “substantive” notions of equality. I wonder what relationship, if any, that distinction has with one that’s often invoked in day-to-day political debate between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.
Both of those phrases can be understood in different ways. I’m interested in equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity, in the following sense: what I want as an outcome is that people should enjoy equal freedom. And what I mean by that sort of equality is that people have no reason to live in fear of or in deference to others. They can look one another in the eye, without having to fawn or toady, without having to tug the forelock, pull the cap or bend the knee—all these expressions are second nature to us, they run deep in the tradition. So that’s the sort of equality we want.
When you talk about equality, the question always arises, “Equality of what?” I suggest that we look at freedom as non-domination as the important value. And then when you look at equality, you can see what we want is equality in the enjoyment of precisely this kind of freedom. But what I think of as one of the virtues of the approach I adopt in this book is that it doesn’t just give you a way of thinking about social justice. It also gives you a perspective on the two other aspects of justice—political justice and global justice.
Let’s turn to political justice, then. Non-domination, on your account, requires democracy—pace Isaiah Berlin, for whom freedom as non-interference is compatible with life under the rule of a benevolent autocrat. What notion of democracy is in play here? Presumably, as a matter of logic, it can’t be a crudely majoritarian conception?
Absolutely not. The core idea is very simple: stick with the same idea of freedom as non-domination. It’s conceivable that people could enjoy the social justice just described under the rule of a benevolent despot. But in order for people to enjoy freedom, they’ve got to have a sort of vertical relationship to the government under which they live, as well the relationships to one another that a political order creates. Now, the republican ideal is obviously going to be that each of us should live under a government in such a way that we do not think of it as an alien will in our lives. Republican theory has found many different ways of articulating this idea. One famous way is Rousseau’s, which I reject—I think it’s interesting, but I do think, as Berlin thought, that it points in a totalitarian direction: we should form a general will and because we all share in that will, none of us are imposed upon.
The Rousseauvean tradition comes late—it’s an 18th-century tradition. According to a much older tradition, we can enjoy our freedom against the government that rules over us insofar as we’ve got—in a phrase that goes all the way back to Cicero and Polybius—a mixed constitution. There are three ideas involved in this notion of a mixed constitution. First, that every sector of the population should have some involvement. Second, you get different centres of power. The “reins” of power, as the Federalist Papers had it, are never held by one set of hands. Third, that there’s a rule of law that governs what happens in society as a whole.
Of course, that in itself is just an abstract template that gets differently interpreted by different theorists—through the Roman period, through the Renaissance, in England in the 17th century, the American Revolutionary period and so on. I happen to think that parliamentary democracy is a better interpretation of the idea of a mixed constitution than is the American Constitution—ironically, seeing as the US Constitution was devised precisely by people who were trying to pick up the traditional view.
What I try to do in this book, and in more detail in my previous book On the People’s Terms, is to develop a theory of democracy according to which what democracy ought to be giving us is equally shared control over what government does.Then the question is: what’s the institutional model [that this theory requires]? What are the core elements in the required institutions? Let me highlight a couple of points. It’s very important that there is election of representatives to a part of government. I’m a standard electoral democrat to that extent. I also think it’s important that there is a party system. Ironically, since many radical democrats criticise the party system.
Burke, was very good on this—he criticised the idea of having a congress of ambassadors in parliament in which each works for his or her own area, in which it’s all a jumble, one compromise after another, case by case. That’s essentially what happens today in America, in my view. Senators and members of the House of Representatives don’t have the pressure that you get in a parliamentary system to close ranks and operate essentially as a group agent. When you have a group agent, as you get in the Westminster system, you’ve got an entity imposing law that can be held more answerable to the electorate as a whole. Equally, you have a government that is harder for lobby groups to penetrate, as they’ve got to buy over the whole party, rather than picking off [people] at the edges. And in such a system, when people vote they don’t just vote for the local representative who’s going to, say, support the zoning policy they want—they have to vote for a party and think nationally. Whereas in America, people think locally, and lobby groups are incredibly powerful.
The worst possible thing in a democratic system, if you’re looking for equally shared control over government, is that you have special groups, moneyed elites, with an inside track to influence over government. In the United States today, the power of corporations, the power of the wealthy, is undermining what I think of as democracy.
Philip Pettit’s “Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World” is published by WW Norton (£16.99)