Philosophy of Republicanism Research Paper

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Republicanism is the doctrine that laws and the state should always serve the common good (or ‘res publica’) of a nation’s people or citizens (‘populus’). The basic desiderata of republican government, as articulated in the republican tradition derived from Rome, secure government for the common good through the checks and balances of a mixed constitution, comprising a sovereign people, an elected executive, a deliberative senate, and a regulated popular assembly, constrained by an independent judiciary, and subject to the rule of law (Sellers 1994). Some republicans would add representation, the separation of powers, or other new structural devices to protect public liberty (‘libertas’) and avoid Rome’s eventual descent into popular tyranny and military despotism (Sellers 1998). Republican liberty signifies subjection to the law and magistrates, acting for the common good, and never to the private will or domination (‘dominatio’) of any private master (Pettit 1997).

1. The Republican Tradition

‘Res publica’ was the Romans’ term for their state, its public business, all public property, and the purposes these served. The word notoriously evades translation, most often appearing in English as ‘commonwealth,’ or simply (more recently) ‘republic,’ the use preferred here. Marcus Tullius Cicero (BC 106–43) and Titus Livius (Livy) (BC 59–AD 17) constructed the first and most influential comprehensively republican ideology, to try to explain how and why the Roman republic had failed to serve the public good. Both agreed that republican institutions collapsed when military expansion and party conflict upset traditional checks and balances between the senate, the magistrates, and the people of Rome.

Cicero and Livy inaugurated a republican tradition of ‘liberty’ that fortified principled resistance to demagogues, emperors, and kings for the next two thousand years. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) did the most to revive this republican tradition in Italy, in his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1517). The resistance of the Swiss, various Italian cantons, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands to imperial control added practical models for republican liberty, as did the constitutional and theoretical writings of various English authors, in their efforts to restrain or remove their kings during the Civil War and Commonwealth (1642–60), the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the extended British controversies over American Independence (1763–83).

2. The Republican Revival

Republican political and legal philosophy provides an enduring model for philosophers and lawyers who oppose the domination of arbitrary power. The constitutional controversies of the French and American Revolutions left institutional relics, which established republican ideals in the structures of Western politics, with a pervasive commitment to ‘liberty’ and even (in the United States), a federal ‘guarantee’ that every state in the union must enjoy ‘a republican form of government’ (United States Constitution, 1787 Art. IV § 4). Similar provisions requiring senates and independent judges give republican theorists a practical foundation in the constitutions of most Western democracies. Lawyers such as Frank Michelman (1936– ) and Cass Sunstein (1954– ) first revived republican doctrine in law schools, to justify judicial intervention for the common good, against partisan legislation and political corruption (Symposium 1988).

Philip Pettit inaugurated a similar revival among philosophers, embracing three central claims of the republican tradition: that government must serve the common good; that certain institutional arrangements will do so; and that liberty will be the result (Pettit 1997). Republicanism since Cicero has offered a political epistemology for finding the common good, or approximating it as closely as possible. The republican question has not been (in the first instance): ‘What is the common good?’; but rather: ‘Which political procedures will best find and protect the common good, given the possibilities and limitations of history and human nature?’ (Sellers 1991).

3. Liberty As Nondomination

Republican liberty consists in not being interfered with by fellow citizens or the state, except as regulated by the common good of the people, established by republican politics. This conception of liberty as ‘nondomination’ contradicts a widely-held (but more recent) understanding of liberty as not being interfered with at all. Public and private actions that constrain or influence a person’s activities do not restrict republican liberty unless they violate the law or republican moral principles established to serve the common good of the people as a whole. Republican liberty cannot exist without a republican state because nonrepublics will always dominate their subjects, as masters dominate their slaves.

Domination marks the end of liberty, in republican theory, because domination subjects one person to the arbitrary will of another, without regard to the common good. The unchecked power of the dominus (or master) makes his subordinates slaves, whether the master chooses to exercise power or not. Slaves to good masters remain slaves, and dominated, because they have no security against their master’s will. States dominate citizens when their constitutions give legislatures or public officials arbitrary power to act, without regard to the public welfare. Private individuals dominate others when laws and public officials do not protect citizens against private oppression.

The common good is the measure of domination, and therefore of liberty, in republican political vocabulary, because only the common good distinguishes ‘arbitrary’ interference from justified state action. Libertas (liberty) in Rome signified the status of a free citizen in a republican state. The res publica (republic) represented every citizens’ common interest in the public good. Restraining citizens equally with just laws in pursuit of the common good enhances their liberty by restraining arbitrary power. Neorepublican doctrine revives liberty as a worthy object of public policy by rescuing the sense in which the word first developed as a political ideal. Liberty is not, as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) maliciously redefined it, the unfettered license to do what one wants, but rather a public shield against uncontrolled license in others. Republican liberty consists in equal subjection to the rule of laws, made for the common good, through the carefully balanced mechanism of a republican form of government. For further references see Freedom: Political.

4. The Common Good

The fundamental republican insight that government and laws should serve the common good did not originate in Rome. Most governments have made this claim, which Cicero (Tullius Cicero Off. I.xxv.85) attributed to Plato (circa BC 427–347). Cicero defined the purpose of the state as seeking to create harmony from the disparate interests of all members of society (Off. This does not require that all public interests always serve every individual’s separate desires, but that laws and government exist to make every citizen’s life worthwhile. Most human goods have a social component, making liberty essentially communal in character.

The first difficulty republicans face in finding the common good lies in defining their community. Ancient republics closely restricted their citizenship, excluding women, immigrants, and slaves. Most republicans would now extend citizenship and membership in the populus or people to all inhabitants of a given territory. This leaves open the question of boundaries. Cicero endorsed a universal republic or society of humanity, but also recognized the value of local politics. Cultures and human relationships develop and solidify locally. Therefore, the republican interest in harmony and community implies small homogenous republics, where people will be very much the same (Montesquieu 1748). But the natural diversity of human talents and interests guarantees that small communities will find their own internal minorities to dominate and oppress. Larger republics with greater diversity better protect minorities, by making dominant factions harder to assemble (Hamilton et al. 1787–8, p. X).

The republican solution to republican boundaries has been to encourage different levels of nested republics, for different purposes, with different capacities. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) advocated a federation of national republics, assembled in perpetual peace (Kant 1795). The formula suggested by the United States and modern European Union has been to entrust the protection of individual human rights and commerce, which local majorities might threaten, to federal suprarepublican authorities, while delegating social and cultural concerns to smaller, more homogenous republics. When regional authorities consistently abuse their powers to oppress local minorities, their oppression implicitly recognizes such minorities as separate people, entitled to separate republican homelands, within the republican federation (Sellers 1996). For further references see Public Interest.

5. Popular Sovereignty

Republicans realized very early in Rome, and have maintained the principle ever since, that the common good will never be found or maintained without the imperium populi or popular sovereignty to support it (Tullius Cicero Cat. IV.14; Phil. IV.iv.8). Macchiavelli credited Cicero with the insight that although the people may be ignorant, they are capable of grasping truth, when good men place the truth before them (Macchiavelli 1517 I.iv.10). The purpose of republican popular sovereignty is not that the people should govern every day, but rather, as Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) suggested in advocating an American ‘republic,’ that the people should select their rulers themselves. The people exercise their power on election days, then defer to magistrates that they themselves have selected (Rush 1777).

This republican reliance on popular sovereignty distinguishes republican government from liberalism, which diverged from the republican tradition at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Sellers 1998). Early liberals rejected popular sovereignty in the wake of the French Revolution, while retaining republican commitments to liberty, the rule of law, and certain specific rights against of government (Constant 1819). Liberals divorced liberty from its basis in public deliberation by distinguishing ‘political liberty’ from personal independence. This left liberals dependent on judges and magistrates to verify their assertions of rights, and protect individual liberty against the state. Liberalism started as a flight from politics, but found that this implied a new definition of liberty as the ability to do what one wants, without state regulation (Pettit 1997).

Contemporary liberalism has largely abandoned the fear of democracy that separated liberalism from republicanism in the first place, and most liberals now endorse the widespread political participation of citizens in elections (Rawls 1993). Republican popular sovereignty never signified democracy in any case, but rather a carefully balanced and controlled mechanism for gathering the insights of all members of society, through a process of public deliberation, in pursuit of the common good. As modern liberals have sought a method of democratic deliberation to legitimate their sense of community, and regulate conflicting private interests, they have increasingly returned to republican principles and institutions, embedded in Western constitutional democracy. For further references see Sovereignty: Political.

6. Checks And Balances

The primary, process-centered challenge for republicans has been to identify those institutions that find and secure the common good best. Popular sovereignty provides access to every citizen’s interests and insights, but democracy would become an elective despotism, without checks and balances to restrain it (Pettit 1999). Cicero blamed the Greeks’ misfortunes on the turbulence of their popular assemblies, lacking internal balance or a senate to control them (Tullius Cicero Flacc. 1976). Republics since Rome have maintained bicameral legislatures to prevent self-seeking in either assembly (Harrington 1656, p. 22). Democracy is one of several foundation stones of liberty, not an end in itself.

The necessary checks and balances of republican government prevent public officials from making themselves and not the res publica the object the state (Paine 1792, p. 168). The dispersion of power through bicameralism, federalism, and the separation of powers makes it harder for any one person or faction, including the majority, to wield arbitrary power over others (Pettit 1997, p. 177). American republicans, such as John Adams (1787–8, p. I.ii–iii) and Alexander Hamilton et al. (1787–8, IX) added representation and the life tenure of judges to bicameralism and the checks on governmental powers as basic desiderata of balanced republican institutions. If the people and judges are outside government, they can better control their government’s mistakes (Hamilton et al. 1787–8, p. LXIII).

Modern republicans such as Philip Pettit differ from democrats in viewing democracy as a derivative value, in service to the broader ideal of balanced or ‘contested’ government (Pettit 1997, p. 187). All government decisions should be subject to challenge by institutions that prevent private inclinations from ruling public interests and ideas. Republicans have proposed bills of rights, public hearings, and many other devices designed to constrain and channel public decision making, so that ordinary citizens may influence their government’s decisions, without diverting the public purposes of the state. For further references see Constitutionalism.

7. The Rule Of Law

Republican government consists of whatever institutions ‘will compel the formation of good and equal laws, an impartial execution, and faithful interpretation of them, so that citizens may constantly enjoy the benefit of them, and be sure of their continuance’ (Adams 1787–8, p. I.128). Such institutions secure the ‘imperia legum’ or ‘empire of laws and not of men’ praised by all republican authors from Livy to Pettit. Laws secure liberty against domination by delimiting and protecting the line across which private or state behavior violates individual autonomy against the common good. Cicero insisted that such laws must serve the public welfare (populi utilitas) not the public will (populi voluntas) (Tullius Cicero 1906 [Sulla 25]) because votes cannot alter the natural laws of justice (Tullius Cicero Leg. I.xvi. 44). Republics need institutions that will find justice by securing the common good.

The empire-of-law condition of republican government entails that laws should be publicly promulgated, intelligible, consistent, stable, general, and apply to everyone, including the legislators themselves. This prevents arbitrary decisions by public officials, by subjecting their will to known constraints and purposes. Republics maintain a general presumption that government action, when needed, will operate by law, not by ad hoc or ex post decisions. All agencies of government must act through principled, regulated structures, maintaining the ‘due process’ of laws to prevent the abuse of governmental power (Pettit 1997, pp. 174–5).

Codifying the law in every detail will not be possible or desirable. Some discretion must remain, but subject to the dispersion-of-power and popular sovereignty procedures that generate republican laws in the first place. Discretion subject to constraints against arbitrariness may sometimes secure the common good, but unlimited discretion produces mistakes about justice, through the natural partiality and limited viewpoint of any individual decision-maker. The republican rule of law protects liberty by respecting the welfare of every member of society, pooling their insights to secure the common good of the people. Legislation is the public reason of the republic, protecting citizens’ liberty against private power (Harrington 1656, pp. 19–20).

8. Neorepublican Ideals

Contemporary philosophical republicanism reasserts the republican conception of liberty, proposing new republican institutions to support republican liberty in the modern multicultural state. Philip Pettit has given the most detailed proposal for neorepublican politics, supplanting the Benthamite liberal opposition of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty with older republican conceptions of liberty as nondomination, and protection against arbitrary power (Pettit 1997). Pettit understands arbitrary power (‘arbitrium’) to include any action against the ‘interests and ideas’ of those who suffer interference. This surpasses the old republican standard, which measured arbitrary power by its violation of an objective public, common, or collective good.

Neorepublican deference to private interests and ideas reflects the residual liberal commitment to moral pluralism and cultural diversity. This enduring hesitation to overrule anyone’s personal ideas makes the revised standard of nondomination very strong. Interference or influence over others’ choices becomes domination unless it tracks their private values. This introduces a subjective element into republican doctrine. Older republican ideals tolerated hierarchy and private influences when toleration served the common good of all citizens.

Neorepublican rhetoric describes the state as seeking to ‘promote’ freedom as nondomination, where older republicans would have understood republican pursuit of the common good simply to be freedom as nondomination. The difference lies in the pluralistic language of the newer theories. Some suggest that immigrant groups and minority cultures will maintain their separate identities in republics, because republics help to preserve hereditary differences within the larger culture (Pettit 1997, p. 144). This represents a significant departure from traditional doctrine. Republics exist precisely to create and maintain an overarching culture that embraces all citizens. This necessarily influences and discourages dissenting subcultures by promoting an image of national unity, which will tend to assimilate minority perspectives.

9. Neorepublican Institutions

The neorepublican commitment to pluralism encourages a greater emphasis on countermajoritarian aspects of republican popular sovereignty (Pettit 1997, Symposium 1988). Neorepublicans embrace the empire-of-law condition of republican government and the dispersion-of-power constraint, but they often seek to displace public decision-making onto independent panels of social scientists or courts (Pettit 1997, Sunstein 1993, Symposium 1988). This favors ‘contestability’ over consensus to limit the weight of unified public opinion.

Neorepublicans do not endorse interest-group pluralism in the classical amoral sense of liberal democracy, but their concept of representation favors cultural minorities. Some believe that public policy should be able to be justified according to the lights of every member of society (Pettit 1997, p. 169). This overstates the value of mistaken perceptions of the good. Republican government differs from liberal democracy precisely in that it offers a deliberative technique for overruling mistaken views, while allowing constructive dissent by those who oppose the consensus.

Traditional republics maintained geographical representation to encourage the development of local communities. Most recent proposals prefer religious, cultural, or sexual diversity. Popular elections now seem too crude to identify administrative competence, or to guarantee minimum statistical representation for every stakeholder grouping (Pettit 1997, p. 192). Neorepublicans often propose deliberation among statistically selected ‘representative’ officials, in place of elected representatives or public assemblies. This leads to difficulties in identifying which sub-cultures or stakeholder ‘groups’ to represent. Most people have many such partial or self-defined sources of identity.

10. The People

The fundamental republican conception of the common good encourages social solidarity by seeking a community of interest among the populus or people of any given republic. Cicero described republics as the property of a people (res populi), in the most influential and frequently repeated passage in the republican canon. A populus is not just any collection of humans, but a partnership about justice, in pursuit of the common good (Tullius Cicero Rep. I.xxv.39). There will be no republic without a people and no people (in the fullest sense) without a republic, which is to say the mutual recognition of common citizenship (fraternity) and the equal importance (equality) of all citizens in the eyes of the state.

The concept of peoples represents the most contested element in contemporary republican doctrine, and the most likely source of disagreement between neorepublican philosophers. The United Nations Charter recognized the republican principle of self-determination of peoples (Article I (2)), implying a people’s right ‘freely [to] determine their political status’ (International Convention on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 1). This gives the republican identity a practical importance in international politics, implying that recognized status as a ‘people’ entails some degree of political separation. The salient examples of liberated ‘peoples’ have been the inhabitants of colonial territories, who constitute peoples in international law for the purpose of pursuing their independence from imperial domination.

Some neorepublicans would separate the national and territorial principles to create politically separate republican peoples on the basis of ethnic, religious, or linguistic affinities within larger multinational empires. Different laws would apply to different subjects of the overarching state, according to their different internal ‘citizenship’ or status. This violates the republican principle of equal citizenship to achieve the republican ambition of social solidarity among statemaintained subgroups of the population. Traditional republican doctrine would insist that all citizens enjoy the same privileges and immunities in their public capacities, while permitting private initiatives to pursue elective affinities. This protects (but may subtly discourage) private diversity, because the people, as public citizens, will be the same under law.

11. Republican Philosophy

Republican philosophy since Cicero has sought to construct a harmony of interests and common sense of justice among citizens through the ‘empire of laws and not of men.’ Republican laws draw the line between liberty and license, in pursuit of the common good. Republican theory seeks to find and establish good laws, by discovering the principles and basic structure that serve the res publica best. So although republican philosophy begins, as Thomas Paine (1737–1809) put it, by making the ‘res publica, the public affairs, or the public good’ the object of all governments, and ‘republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public’ (Paine 1792, p. 168), the idea of the republic entails a constellation of political structures to secure republican legislation, embedded in two thousand years of republican tradition, derived from Rome.

The republican commitment to political institutions that protect liberty challenges the later ‘liberal’ flight from politics after the French Revolution. Former republicans such as Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) hoped by securing certain rights or liberties to protect their own private liberty against the state. But republican philosophy recognizes the futility of ‘rights’ without power. Republican doctrine offers a political epistemology to discover and protect public justice and fundamental human rights. Republicans believe that without popular sovereignty, the rule of law, deliberative senators, elected executives, independent judges, a representative popular assembly, and proper checks and balances, the people cannot know or enjoy their rights and duties to each other, or to the state. The basic desiderata of republican government may appear more (or less) important in different contexts, so that even a monarchy could seem nearly ‘republican’ when limited by two independent branches in the legislature, and subject to the rule of law (Adams 1787–8, pp. I. xxi–xxii). Contemporary republican philosophers adapt republican principles to new circumstances to protect public liberty against improper domination (‘dominium’) by private interests, or the arbitrary government (‘imperium’) of the state (Pettit 1997). What makes such theories republican is their fundamental commitment to the common good, and to the political structures that support the res publica best. Republican philosophy is a theory of freedom and government, or rather of freedom through government, to secure a shared sense of justice, in pursuit of the common good. Republicans believe that there can be no justice without community, no liberty without the law.


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