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Democracy Is Coercive, No Matter What “Civic Republicans” Say

An influential line of thought in contemporary political philosophy began well but quickly got off track. The line of thought began as a criticism of Isaiah Berlin. In his famous paper, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin set forward a notion of “negative freedom” that libertarians will find familiar: “I am normally said to be free ...

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An influential line of thought in contemporary political philosophy began well but quickly got off track. The line of thought began as a criticism of Isaiah Berlin. In his famous paper, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin set forward a notion of “negative freedom” that libertarians will find familiar: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.”

Berlin’s “negative freedom” looks like the NAP, but as we’ll see below, it isn’t the same thing. Several writers, the so-called “civic republicans,” seized on a crucial flaw in Berlin’s concept. The best known of these writers are the historian of ideas Quentin Skinner, (whom Murray Rothbard greatly admired) and the philosopher Philip Pettit. The flaw that the civic republicans found in “negative freedom” is that you could be uncoerced but still dominated by someone who held power over you. Suppose, for example, that you were a slave, but your master did not interfere with your life. In Berlin’s sense you are “free”, but your master could at any time change his mind and render you unfree. Even if he never did change his mind, you would still be dependent on him in an unacceptable way.

Philip Pettit generalizes the civic republican’s key theme:

“Think of how you feel when your welfare depends on the decision of others and you have no come-back against that decision. You are in a position where you will sink or swim, depending on their say-so. And you have no physical or legal recourse, no recourse even in a network of mutual friends, against them. You are in their hands.

In any case of this kind you will be dominated by others, being in a position where those others have the power of interfering in your life in a certain way: and this, more or less arbitrarily; more or less at will and with impunity. If you do escape ill treatment, then, that will be by the grace or favour or the powerful, or by your own good fortune in being able to stay out of their way or keep them sweet. And even if you are lucky enough to escape such treatment, you will still live under the mastery of those others: they will occupy the position of a dominus — the Latin word for master — in your life … the central theme in republican concerns throughout the ages — the theme that explains all their other commitments — has been a desire to arrange things so that citizens are not exposed to domination of this kind. They do not live, as the Romans used to say, in potestate domini: in the power of a master.”

Pettit and his civic republican colleagues take their good point in the wrong direction. They emphasize that the power of the person who dominates you is “arbitrary.” By this term, they don’t mean that the master follows a policy that can’t be predicted. Even if a slave knew what his master was going to do, he would still be under the master’s domination. Rather, they mean that the person dominated is under the will (ad arbitrium) of the master.

Now for the wrong turn. They think that in a democracy, under certain conditions, people aren’t subject to the arbitrary will of others. If you participate in a deliberative democracy, then you are involved in choosing the rules by which you are governed. The rules, in this view, aren’t imposed on you arbitrarily, even if these rules aren’t the ones you most prefer. To qualify as non-arbitrary, a majority vote isn’t sufficient. Rather, the rules must be decided through deliberation, by the citizens or their representatives. You could be drafted into the army, or taxed at very high rates, without being dominated, in the civic republican sense.

Before we turn to showing what is wrong with the civic republican position, one misunderstanding needs to be averted. The civic republican doctrine is not the same as Rousseau’s “general will.” If you democratically deliberate and other policies than the ones you prefer are chosen, it isn’t the case that your “real” will now chooses the other policies. The civic republicans wisely avoid that bit of murky metaphysics. Rather, what they contend is no more, and no less, than that with democratic deliberation, you aren’t dominated.

What is wrong with their view? From a libertarian standpoint, the answer is obvious. Even if you aren’t “dominated,” you can still be coerced, if you are prevented from doing what you want to do. From the correct perception that Berlin’s “negative freedom” isn’t sufficient for genuine liberty, the civic republicans wrongly judge that negative freedom isn’t necessary for genuine liberty.

The NAP avoids the problem that the civic republicans found in Berlin’s concept. The NAP says that no one has the right to initiate aggression. In other words, you have a right to be free from coercion. If you have this right, then you are not subject to anyone’s domination. Democratic deliberation isn’t needed to avoid domination, and it can’t take away your rights.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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