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Does Small-r Republicanism Rest on a Mistake?

Summary:
The Niskanen Center has spun its weekly wheel of ideology, and this week landed on small-r, Pettit-style republicanism. There’s a great deal wrong with this theory. Here I’ll focus on one issue.One of the big motivations behind republicanism was the idea that traditional liberal conceptions of freedom were subject to a counterexample. The republican conception of freedom was supposed to fix the mistake. But, as the dialogue below illustrates, something goes wrong when republicans offer to fix liberalism. Civic Republican: Hey, Isaiah Berlin, how do you liberals define “freedom”?Berlin: We conceive of freedom as the absence of certain impediments. A person is free just in case he is not interfered with in various ways. Different liberals spell that out slightly differently. But

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The Niskanen Center has spun its weekly wheel of ideology, and this week landed on small-r, Pettit-style republicanism.

There’s a great deal wrong with this theory. Here I’ll focus on one issue.

One of the big motivations behind republicanism was the idea that traditional liberal conceptions of freedom were subject to a counterexample. The republican conception of freedom was supposed to fix the mistake. But, as the dialogue below illustrates, something goes wrong when republicans offer to fix liberalism.

Civic Republican: Hey, Isaiah Berlin, how do you liberals define “freedom”?

Berlin: We conceive of freedom as the absence of certain impediments. A person is free just in case he is not interfered with in various ways. Different liberals spell that out slightly differently. But the basic idea is freedom = non-interference of some sort.

CR: That can’t be right. Here’s a counterexample. Imagine a slave. The master could interfere with the slave at any time with impunity, but chooses not to do so. Thus, the slave is never actually interfered with in any of the ways you liberals dislike. Obviously, though, the slave is not really free, but your definition implies he is.

Berlin: Oh, shoot. Good point. So I need to amend my definition. Non-interference may be a necessary condition for freedom, but it’s not sufficient. Maybe I should say a person is free just in case he is not interfered with AND also that he is not under significant threat of interference. Maybe more like not interfered with + not subject to arbitrary interference. Or maybe not interfered with + has his rights adequately protected and recognized. Something like that. I’ll have to think about the best way to put it, but you’re right that I need to add something.

CR: Here’s an idea: Why not cut out the interference part altogether. Just conceive of liberty as follows: you are free if and only if you are not subject to arbitrary interference. 

Berlin: But then, on your proposed definition, a person who is continually interfered with in all sorts of ways would be “free” so long as the interference wasn’t “arbitrary”.


CR: I don’t see the problem.


Berlin: What you did was show me that I had identified a necessary but not a sufficient condition for person to be free, so I needed to add something extra to my conception. Now you’re proposing I simply adopt the extra bit but give up what was a necessary condition. Your new conception of freedom, though, allows that a person who is continuously subject to political and social control, who has all of his choices continuously interfered with, would nevertheless count as “free” provided the interference resulted from sufficient convoluted process to qualify as “non-arbitrary”.

CR: Yep.

Berlin: Here’s an analogy. Imagine I had said that a baseball team is good just in case it’s good at hitting. You came along and pointed out that’s not enough–it needs to be good at fielding, too. But now you’re saying all that matter is the fielding, not the hitting. We need both. That’s what you’re doing with your conception of liberty. You aren’t fixing a flaw in liberal theories of freedom; you are jettisoning liberalism altogether in favor of something that makes a mockery of the very idea of liberty.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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