That great ideal, liberated from its capture: Just Freedom

Review: Philip Pettit’s challenge to conservative ideas of freedom can invigorate democracy and the republic

Philip Pettit: the absence of deference is almost as important as the absence of fear.  Photograph: Frank Wojciechowski/Princeton University

Philip Pettit: the absence of deference is almost as important as the absence of fear. Photograph: Frank Wojciechowski/Princeton University

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 10:46


Book Title:
Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World


Philip Pettit


Guideline Price:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Irish politics is short on ideas, with almost all the major parties clustering around a narrow range of assumptions about policy and public life.

Yet the current President is perhaps the most unapologetically intellectual head of state on the planet and internationally distinguished thinkers like Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have been elected to high office in recent decades, suggesting that Irish people may not be as anti-intellectual as they are often painted.

The machinery of clientilist politics is entirely indifferent to ideas, but this does not indicate a lack of hunger for grown-up conversation about the values and principles that should shape our democracy. This tension between the system of politics on the one hand and the desires of citizens on the other is best summed up in the confusion that surrounds a single word: republic.

It is woefully abused – put “republican” into the search engine of this paper’s archive and you will get references either to Irish people connected to conspiratorial violence or to Americans connected to a party that is ever more nakedly the voice of an aggressive oligarchy. Yet the word retains a deep emotional significance for much of the Irish public. A reasonable project for the “decade of centenaries”, indeed, might be to take back the word “republic” for Irish democracy and to arrive at some common understanding of what it means. This is indeed the project President Michael D Higgins has both proposed and provoked.

In this there could be no better guide than Philip Pettit.

Born in Ballygar, Co Galway, Pettit began his career in University College Dublin but has long since been an international figure, currently holding chairs of politics and philosophy at both Princeton and the Australian National University. His thought is not specific to Ireland – his new book, Just Freedom, presents itself (ambitiously but not unreasonably) as an approach to political philosophy that is relevant to the entire “complex world”. But it is not utterly parochial to place him in the tradition of the United Irishmen, republicans whose intellectual roots lay in a long line of thinking stretching back through the English and Scottish enlightenments to the Italian city states of the Renaissance and thence to the Roman republic.

In this sense, and in this sense only, Pettit is a conservative: like so many 18th-century revolutionaries, he argues for the contemporary power of classical ideas, albeit ones he has thoroughly reimagined. In every other sense, Pettit is a formidable critic of what passes for conservatism in contemporary politics. Just Freedom is a highly accessible and readable summation of what might be regarded as Pettit’s core philosophical project: liberating the idea of freedom itself from its capture by the political right.

Conservatism and constraints
Contemporary political conservatism is built on a crude but enormously attractive idea of freedom: to be free is to have no one interfering with you. (In practice, of course, conservatives are usually only too happy to interfere with people, practices and regimes they don’t like, but that’s another day’s work.)

Being free means having as few constraints on your behaviour as possible. Taxes and regulations are an interference with the free individual’s choices and therefore must be kept to an absolute minimum. And since corporations are people too (the US Supreme Court actually upholds this view), then it is wrong to interfere with their free speech by limiting the degree to which they can fund and control political parties.

Progressives have tended to dismiss these arguments as selfish individualism and to oppose them by appealing to communal values. Pettit takes a radically different approach. He, too, argues, eloquently and with brilliant clarity, for freedom to be placed at the heart of progressive politics – but a different, older and much more fruitful conception of freedom.

Against the conservative (and quite recent) definition of freedom as “non-interference”, he posits a definition of freedom as “non-domination”. To be free is to have nobody dominating you. Domination is subjection to the arbitrary will of another – to imperatives that you have had no equal role in deciding.

The importance of Pettit’s argument is that, in principle at least, it resolves the tension between our instinctive desire to be free individuals on the one hand and our need for shared institutions on the other.

Pettit’s notion of freedom is as proudly independent as any conservative evocation of the rugged individualist: “People should be so resourced and protected in the basic choices of life – for short, the basic liberties – that they can look others in the eye without reason for fear or deference.”

Absence of fear
The absence of deference is almost as important to Pettit’s formulation as the absence of fear: a crucial part of his argument is that you are not free if you depend on someone in a position of power over you being nice. A slave with a kindly master is still a slave. And to prevent these conditions of fear and deference, we need political institutions – a republic that organises itself in such a way that no individual or group gets to dominate others. This is not non-interference – on the contrary, it is necessary to interfere with those who would exercise domination if left to themselves.

For the traditional left, though, there is also a twist in Pettit’s thinking. He is a great critic of what might be called the Rousseau brand of republicanism, with its notion that “the people” decide the “general will” which must then be obeyed by all citizens. This of course led to a dictatorship of the state, with horrific consequences. (And it also colours Irish “Republicanism” which went a step further and decided the general will without consulting the people.)

Pettit confronts the problem implicit in his own notion of freedom: how do you stop the republic, with all its powers to prevent citizens dominating each other, from becoming itself a source of domination? His answer is that a republic must have two specific features: divided government (the separation of powers) whose components check and limit each other; and active, engaged citizens who protect their republic by constantly arguing with it.

In Just Freedom, Pettit elaborates these ideas with more simplicity but no less sophistication than in his denser On the People’s Terms (2012), making this the best place to start for anyone wishing to engage with his thought. It is also consciously grounded in the issues that concern most thinking people: the rise of inequality, the crisis of democratic legitimacy in most states and the chaotic international order of the post-9/11 world. Pettit shows how a coherent application of republican principles can provide a consistent moral basis for judging each of these questions.

Just Freedom is a bracingly optimistic book, not because it proposes a panacea, but because it resists with such force the insidiously prevalent notion that some people are really not fit for freedom. Pettit quotes the magnificent words of the 17th-century republican Richard Rumbold as he was about to be hanged for treason: “I could never believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden.” Just Freedom is a stirring echo of that vital faith.