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Review: "Republicanism" Refashioned: Comments on Pettit's Theory of Freedom and

Author(s): Richard Dagger
Review by: Richard Dagger
Source: The Good Society, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2000), pp. 50-53
Published by: Penn State University Press
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Republicanism Refashioned: Comments on Pettit s Theory of

Freedom and Government
Richard Dagger

Two years after its initial appearance in the Oxford Political Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Bentham, Paley, and other historical fig
Theory series, Philip Pettit's Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom ures. When he looks backward, however, as he does especially in
and Government is now available in a paperback edition that adds a Chapter One, he does so in order to establish his republican creden
22-page postscript to the original text. Bargain hunters are not the tials?to show that the theory he is putting forward truly qualifies as
only ones who should take advantage of this opportunity to obtain a republican?so that he may then get on with the important work of
longer book for a lower price, for persuading his readers of the attractions
Republicanism is in two ways a remarkable of a "neo-republican politics." For Pettit,
achievement. there is no doubt that republican concepts
The first, to which I shall return at the and idioms are still available and, upon
end of this review, is that Republicanism For Pettit, there is no reflection, still powerful. The pressing
occupies an important place in Pettit's tasks now are to establish the philosophi
ambitious theoretical program. The second doubt that republican cal underpinnings of the theory and to
work out its implications for government
is that it marks a significant point in the concepts and idioms are
revival of the republican tradition of politi today.
cal thought that has been underway at least
still available and, upon
since the publication in 1975 of J. G. A. reflection, still powerful
Pocock's Machiavellian Moment.1 Whether
Both the book's subtitle and its organi
it began with or before Pocock, the republi
zation indicate the importance of these
can revival certainly began with historians
tasks for Pettit's attempt to refashion
rather than political philosophers. The dis
republicanism into "a new vision of what
tinction should not be drawn too sharply, of course, and Pocock
public life might be" (p. 129). In Part I, "Republican Freedom,"
might resist it altogether. But there is no denying that the revival
Pettit argues that "freedom as non-domination" is not only the
started with the backward gaze of scholars intent on recovering a
"supreme political value" of the republican tradition (p. 80) but also
form of political thinking that seemed to have been all but lost. As it
that it is superior to other conceptions of freedom. Freedom as non
began, so it has continued. Several political theorists have seized
domination may have served earlier republicans as a means of
upon republicanism in the last 15 years or so as an alternative to, or
defending and advancing the interests of property-holding males,
a supplementary remedy for, the failings they see in the liberal indi
but Pettit claims that it provides the basis for a "distinctively egali
vidualism of our day, but even they have devoted their efforts largely
tarian and communitarian" neo-republicanism (p. 110) that is hos
to the historical retrieval and reconstruction of republicanism. So
pitable to environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and multicultur
much is necessary, it seems, if they are to show that the republican
alism. He develops this claim in Part II, "Republican Government,"
concepts and idioms of an earlier era or eras still speak to present
in which he advocates "a sort of gas-and-water-works republican
concerns. Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent (1996), with
ism" (p. 239) that adds "contestatory democracy" and praise for the
its attempt to reclaim the republicanism of the American founding
committee as "the enzyme of the body politic" (p. 239) to such tra
and its "political economy of citizenship," may be the clearest exam
ditional republican concerns as the rule of law and the dispersion of
ple of this tendency, but there are plenty of others.2
Pettit's Republicanism marks a significant point in the republican
The case for conceiving of freedom as non-domination begins
revival because he is much less concerned with what republicanism
with the distinction between negative and positive liberty. Following
was than with what it could and should be. "The book," he
Isaiah Berlin, Pettit takes the ideal of negative liberty to be non
announces, "is an exploration of what a neo-republican politics
interference and the ideal of positive liberty to be self-mastery. He
would involve" (p. 50). This forward-looking shift is due in part, no
has little to say about positive liberty, however, for he is convinced
doubt, to the fact that Pettit is a philosopher by profession. By com
that the negative notion of freedom as non-interference is the chief
parison to John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, David
obstacle to the acceptance of freedom as non-domination. Pettit's
Gauthier, Alan Gewirth, and other practitioners of analytical politi
objection is that Hobbes, Bentham, and other advocates of the nega
cal philosophy, Pettit may seem to be preoccupied with Cicero,
tive notion have ignored two points when they have held that any

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and all interference with our actions deprives us of freedom. First, Steps to relieve women from subjection to men, workers from sub
someone may suffer domination without suffering interference. I jection to employers, and the members of some racial, ethnic, or
may be in someone else's power and see the need to shape my con cultural groups from subjection to members of others. It also
duct to what I take to be his or her whims even if that person never requires democracy? "contestatory democracy," to be precise?so
really interferes with my actions. This, according to Pettit, happens that citizens may limit the discretion of public officials and effec
all too often, and he provides numerous references to fawning, toad tively contest their decisions. In contrast to a market- or bargain
ying, cap-doffing, forelock-tugging, and other forms of servile def based conception of democracy in which the citizen is a consumer
erence to demonstrate the evil of domination. The second point free who shops among the candidates and parties for the products that
dom as non-interference ignores is the distinction between arbitrary fit his or her fixed preferences, contestatory democracy emphasizes
and non-arbitrary interference. It is not interference as such that is deliberation and debate in which preferences may be transformed,
objectionable, according to Pettit, but its includes "the voices of difference" (p.
arbitrariness. The slave and the citizen may 191), and demonstrates its responsive
both suffer interference when one must bow ness to citizens' concerns by providing a
to the will of the master and the other must variety of forums for contestation, rang
bow to the law, but it is a mistake to say that As previously noted, ing from routine hearings to social
they both suffer the loss of freedom. The however, Pettit s neo movements.
master holds arbitrary power over the slave In keeping with traditional republican
because the master need pay no regard to republicanism is sensitive pessimism about the tendency of power
the slave's desires or interests, but the law,
to forms ofdomination to corrupt, Pettit also gives considerable
at least in the ideal, must attend to the inter attention to "screens" that should put the
ests of the citizen even when it interferes that earlier republicans right kind of people into office and "sanc
tions" that should be effective when the
with his or her actions. By protecting the failed to perceive.
citizen against arbitrary power, the law is wrong kind slip through the screens. He
"the non-mastering interf?rer" (p. 41) that also invokes "the intangible hand" and
ensures the citizen's freedom. appeals to the idea of "a suitable econ
Freedom as non-domination thus rests on omy of regard" (p. 236). The coin of the
"the frankness of inter subjective equality" (p. 64). The law may realm in this economy is the regard or good opinion of others, and
interfere with my conduct more than with yours, yet we stand eye Pettit believes that the common knowledge that certain standards
to-eye and are equally free as citizens. So valuable is this indepen apply to public offices and a vigilance that ensures transgressions
dence from arbitrary power, Pettit argues, that it is a "primary good" will be noticed will do much of the corruption-preventing work. The
in the Rawlsian sense. Whatever else people may want, they will same concern for the regard of others will also foster civility and
want to be free from domination because they then will have the trust among the citizenry, thereby encouraging the civic virtue upon
ability to make plans, to speak with an independent voice, and even which all republics to some extent must rely.
to be persons, for "everyone?or at least everyone who has to make
his or her way in a pluralistic society?will want to be treated prop
erly as a person, as a voice that cannot be generally ignored" (p. 91). Although this summary of Pettit's theory of freedom and govern
Freedom as non-domination, then, is the good to be secured and ment does not do justice to the subtlety of his analysis or the force of
promoted by the political institutions and practices Pettit sketches his arguments, I hope that it at least begins to vindicate the judgment
in the second part of Republicanism. In most respects his recom that Republicanism is a contribution of the first importance to the
mendations fall clearly within the republican tradition. republican revival. Anyone who believes that republican thought has
Government must protect us from arbitrary power without itself much to offer in our present circumstances, as I do, should welcome
holding arbitrary power over us, so government must be limited by Pettit's bold step forward. The criticisms that follow, then, are those
a constitution that guarantees the rule of law, prevents the concen of someone who is in complete sympathy with Pettit's attempt to
tration of power, and establishes a bill of rights to guard against the refashion republicanism but occasionally dubious about the way the
tyranny of the majority. This is not a departure from republicanism, refashioning proceeds.
as he sees it, but its proper extension: "As an idiom of freedom in There are four points of criticism, beginning with the complaint
which enslavement and subjection are the great ills, independence that Pettit's neo-republicanism sometimes seems too inclusive. Pettit
and status the supreme goods, this language has a claim to validity is so accommodating to so many?to radical environmentalists,
across the full spectrum of contemporary society ... in the plural feminists, socialists, multiculturalists, and to "those entrepreneurs
ist, democratic mould" (132-33). Therefore republicanism requires and professionals who were well served by the classical liberal

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ideal" (p. 134)?that one wonders whether his republicanism will be The third criticism concerns freedom as non-domination. My
a house of many mansions or a house so divided against itself that it quarrel is not with Pettit's conception of freedom so much as with
cannot stand. To be sure, Pettit does make a good case that everyone the name he gives it. He has indeed captured the conception of free
he hopes to include has an interest in freedom as non-domination, dom at the core of republicanism and shown it to be superior to the
although he strains the point severely in the case of ecocentric envi negative notion of freedom as non-interference. What he calls non
ronmentalists. He also insists that neo-republicanism is "not just a domination, however, ought to be called, for the following reasons,
politics of difference, but a politics of common concern" (p. 249), autonomy.
with common concern taking precedence over difference. That sug (1) As the traditional republican opposition of dependence to inde
gests, however, that Pettit's republicanism will welcome some envi pendence indicates, the desire to be free from domination is rooted in
ronmentalists, feminists, socialists, and multiculturalists?those the desire to be in some sense self-governing. That does not mean that
who are predisposed to the republican one can or should even want to be the com
emphasis on the common good?but plete master of his or her domain, for we
hardly all of them. With regard to social must depend upon the impersonal force of
ism, for example, Pettit's conditional the rule of law to secure our independence
endorsement of private property (p. 135) Pettit is so accommodating from the arbitrary power of others. But it
and his declaration that republicanism is
"hostile to material egalitarianism" (p. 161)
to so many... one does mean that we can, as interdependent
citizens, stand on an equal footing with oth
may alienate more socialists than his wonders whether his ers in making the laws that secure us from
appeals to freedom as non-domination will arbitrary power, and in that sense we can be
attract. Nor is there anything wrong with
republicanism will be a
self-governing. We want to be free from
republicanism if it does. No theory can house of many mansions or domination, then, so that we can enjoy
offer everything to everyone, and I think autonomy.
that Pettit's case for the virtues of republi
a house so divided against
(2) Pettit's emphasis on non-domination
canism would be even stronger were he itself that it cannot stand. works like a spotlight that brings some fea
clearer on what republicanism excludes. tures of freedom into sharp relief while
The second point of criticism is that leaving others in the shadows. This has its
Pettit concentrates so much on freedom as
advantages for someone who hopes to call
non-domination that he scants other repub attention to the distinctive value of the
lican concerns, especially the need to promote civic virtue. He does republican conception of freedom, but it also leads to some odd con
turn to civic virtue in the last two chapters, where he discusses the clusions about when a person gains or loses (some degree of) free
ways in which "the intangible hand" uses "regard-based rewards and dom. In the postscript to the paperback edition, for instance, Pettit
penalties" (p. 224) to foster civility and trust. He is both right and declares that "the republic does not take away the freedom of citizens
illuminating on this point, I think, but the discussion is too abstract when it legally coerces them, taxes them, or even puts them in prison"
and Pettit too sanguine about the efficacy of this intangible hand. (p. 291; emphasis added). He subsequently defends this position with
The discussion is too abstract because there is little attempt to con a "comment... on methodology. While the republican conception of
nect the workings of the intangible hand to the institutions and prac liberty does not do badly in generating unacceptable paradoxes of
tices that could lead people to want to win the regard of others as cit usage, I think it is worth remarking that in any case political concep
izens. Pettit barely mentions education, for example, and says tions of liberty should not be judged on the basis of conformity to such
nothing about the possibilities of civic design or military or other usage" (p. 302). Every conception of freedom will "pick on one or
forms of civic service for nourishing citizenship. And he is too san more of the dimensions of contrast put into play in ordinary usage?"
guine when he contends that the intangible hand does not require a liberals will focus on non-interference, republicans on non-domina
small-scale society to do its regard-based work. Most people desire tion?and "when a political philosophy privileges one dimension of
the approval even of strangers, he says, and the anonymity of mod concern in this way, then it may fail to be reflected in all the nuances
ern society is easily exaggerated (p. 228). Perhaps he is right on both of ordinary usage" (p. 303). But surely the ability to account for ordi
counts. Yet it seems that the intangible hand must loosen its grip as nary usage and to avoid "unacceptable paradoxes of usage" is one
more and more of the people one encounters are merely strangers to measure of the success of a conception of freedom. On this measure,
whom one will almost certainly remain anonymous. If the good moreover, autonomy does better than either non-interference or non
regard of others is to retain a firm grip on us, or perhaps to regain the domination. That is, one may hold that the republic does indeed take
grip it once had, some attention must be given to matters of scale and away some of its citizens' freedom when it legally coerces, taxes, and
the cultivation of concern for the common good. imprisons them, but it does not take away their autonomy as long as

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they are coerced, taxed, and imprisoned in accordance with laws that 3.
somehow issue from them as self-governing citizens.
It should be evident that these criticisms are the intramural com
(3) Pettit frequently resorts to a distinction between ways in
plaints of someone who believes that Professor Pettit is headed in
which freedom is compromised and ways in which it is conditioned.
the right direction and that the rest of us should be moved by the
This distinction allows him to say "that someone is unfree so far as
force of his neo-republican vision. As a contribution to the republi
their [sic] freedom is compromised by domination" and "non-free,
can revival, his book is indeed a welcome and remarkable achieve
though not strictly unfree ... insofar as their [sic] freedom is subject ment.
to conditioning factors" (p. 76; emphasis added). I may be free from
But there is another respect in which Republicanism is a remark
the domination of arbitrary power, yet various conditioning fac
able achievement?or an integral part of one. The full richness of
tors?physical handicaps, illness, ignorance, and so on?may never
Pettit's "new vision of what public life might be" appears only when
theless limit my freedom. This consideration leads Pettit to a priority
one reads Republicanism in light of his previous book, The Common
rule. Republicans must act to promote non-domination first by abol
Mind (1993). There he envisions a program for extended research, in
ishing or reducing arbitrary power; that done, they must then extend
the grand tradition" of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Mill (p. 335).
the range of undominated choices available to people: "we ought to
In some ways a comparison with Hobbes seems more apt, for The
try and reduce influences that condition freedom as well as influ
Common Mind begins with epistemology and moves on to social
ences that compromise it" (p. 77). Again, I believe Pettit to be right
explanation and political evaluation, with the last subject carried for
on this point, but it is difficult to see how he is right if freedom is to
ward in Republicanism. Rather than Hobbesian atomism, however,
be construed as non-domination. If that is what freedom is, then why
Pettit argues for a "holistic individualism" that stresses the extent to
should the republican think it worthwhile to do anything more than
which individuals must share a common mind, common knowledge,
secure people from domination? The answer, again, is to turn from
and common concerns. This holistic individualism provides the true
non-domination to autonomy. Extending the range of undominated
philosophical underpinnings for Pettit's neo-republicanism, and I sus
choices is desirable for the same reason that eliminating domination
pect that it will prove sturdier than freedom as non-domination. As a
is desirable: Both are ways of promoting autonomy.
return to political theory in the grand tradition, in any case, Pettit's two
The final criticism is that Pettit, like Sandel in Democracy's
books together pose a formidable challenge to those who do not share
Discontent, insists on distinguishing republicanism from liberalism
his desire to reclaim and refashion republicanism while constituting a
when he would do better to argue for a republican liberalism or lib
remarkable achievement to those of us who do.
eral republicanism. The sharp distinction may help him to under
score the distinctive elements of his theory, but it leads to a carica
Richard Dagger is a professor in the department of political science at
ture of liberalism in which Hobbes, Bentham, Paley, and
Arizona State University.
contemporary libertarians?all advocates of freedom as non-inter
ference?are the principal liberals. Pettit appeals more than once to
Locke's observation that the laws that hedge us in from bogs and Endnotes
precipices ill deserve the name of confinement, but he has to assign 1. Earlier candidates include Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological
Locke to the commonwealth tradition to preserve the distinction Origins of the American Revolution (1967), Caroline Robbins's The
between republican and liberal freedom. Nor does he mention . Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman (1959), and Zera Fink's The
Green, John Dewey, or other liberals who have not defined freedom Classical Republicans (1945).
as non-interference, although he does admit in the postscript that 2. Such as Shelley Burtt, Virtue Transformed (1992), Adrian Oldfield,
Rawls's conception of freedom "is consistent with liberty requiring Citizenship and Community (1990), Richard Sinopoli, The Foundations of
non-domination as well as non-interference" (p. 301, n. 2). Pettit's American Citizenship (1992), Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism

insistence in the original text on distinguishing republicanism from (1998), William Sullivan, Reconstructing Public Philosophy (1986), and

liberalism is sometimes half-hearted, yet he reasserts the distinction Ronald Terchek, Republican Paradoxes, Liberal Anxieties (1997).

in the postscript. He would have done better to rely on what he says, 3.1 develop this argument against Michael Sandel in "The Sandelian
Republic and the Encumbered Self," The Review of Politics, 61 (Spring
in the Introduction, maybe "the best available" taxonomy: "populist,
1999): 181-217, with a response from and rejoinder to Sandel.
republican/liberal, and libertarian" (p. 10). That taxonomy has the
advantage not only of accuracy but of calling attention to the points
at which republicans and liberals are engaged in a common cause.3

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