Tag Archives: liberalism

The Problems of Salon’s Constitution

In America, we treat the Constitution like holy scripture. No other country even approaches the US Constitution’s 231 years. The average of constitutions is 18 years. This is because constitutions are not holy scripture, but human instruments for the organization of their society and applying principles of justice. Our constitution does not do that very well. The citizenry has enormous difficulty getting what it wants from its national government (unless the ruling class wants it as well). The Founders designed the constitution to be undemocratic, yet we continue with the illusion that we live in “the greatest democracy on earth”. The government itself has lifted that illusion in recent years. A drone-murdering president, police riots in Ferguson, waterless Detroit, torture, the prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, et cetera, show us that existing state institutions provide no way for the people to have what they want. We need a new constitution. Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg have offered their ideas for a new constitution at Salon. This is a conversation that needs to begin. Fortunately, Burstein and Isenberg aren’t cowed by the apathy and nihilism of the critics of this pursuit. Unfortunately, they do more to reveal the limitations of the centrist-liberal imagination than they do to offer a constitution for a democratic republic.

Burstein and Isenberg present plenty of good ideas for reforming the current structure of government. They want to remove private money from campaigning and preventing legislators from seeking jobs in the businesses they benefit while in Congress. They want to limit the term of Supreme Court Justices to ten years instead of a life term. The two historians want electoral redistricting by algorithm to remove human bias.

What I found most surprising was that two clearly liberal people would also advocate congressional term limits. I had thought that Republican demand for term limits in the 1990s meant that liberals could not want them as well.

Burstein and Isenberg also recognize the need for reversing the enormous economic inequality in the United States. They advocate distributive taxation to do so. However, they are also under the impression that education is a solution to inequality. Others have more than adequately dealt with this myth. Moreover, Burstein and Isenberg embrace the goal of “social mobility”, or transferring from one class to another, usually “up”. They say they want to increase social mobility while also wanting to end the myth of the American Dream. Somewhere in that muddle, there is a contradiction. Upward social mobility through hard work was the American Dream. But it is just a dream. We should focus on the more human desire to live purposeful lives, to free people from low-wage drudgery and economic insecurity.

Burstein and Isenberg’s two-part article has several problems. First, it is more of a centrist-liberal policy wish list than a genuine constitutional manifesto. In fact, the whole “new constitution” angle seems more like a framing device for a list of liberal grievances. They write extensively on gun nuts and the Second Amendment. They focus on upward social mobility and economic opportunity. Their political fixes are about removing private money from elections, with nothing about the many undemocratic features of our government.

Second, they spend a long time discussing what the Founding Fathers intended, in a positive light. This is odd for an article about a new constitution. First, the Founding Fathers lived in an entirely different, slave-plantation-and-small-artisan society. Who cares what they think anymore? Why are we still talking about them? Madison was the keenest mind among them, but his political philosophy still wasn’t very good.

Finally, all of these recommendations are the most tepid and lukewarm ideas possible. Burstein and Isenberg think that appropriate penance for polluters is to make them “pay for TV ads that aggressively promote a clean-energy economy”. Granted, they also demand government regulate for a clean environment, but it’s already supposed to be doing that. What about other antiquated vestiges: the Senate, judicial review, the executive veto? All intact!

Achieving a new constitution for the United States means a lot of work. It means convincing political organizations to form coalitions, extensive community organizing, strategic alliances with elites, and persevering over a long-term national campaign. Liberal pundits always write like the ruling class will see reason and adopt a good proposal. But the ruling class is bound together by their common interests in the existing structure of society, and will not give that up without conflict.

Changing the constitution, or adopting a new one, will be a long struggle. The benefits of change must always be greater than the costs of forcing the change. To pick up Frederick Douglass’ metaphor, the crops must be worth the plowing. The minor tweaks proposed by Burstein and Isenberg aren’t worth photocopying petitions, much less working over the course of a decade.

Here are just a few political innovations enshrined in the constitutions of other nations:

  • Abolition of the military (Costa Rica);
  • Limits on military spending (Japan);
  • Participatory democracy, including at the at the national level (Brazil and Venezuela);
  • Recognition for the ‘rights of nature’ (Ecuador);
  • Social directives that mandate goals for the state to meet (India).

Also, most constitutions have provisions for popular referenda and initiatives, protection of the rights of women, of labor, of ethnic and linguistic minorities, and of the disadvantaged. Nations across the globe march into the future, while America waddles towards the Weimar republic.

“This is not a call to revolution…,” they write.

Well, I will call for revolution! Throw out the tepid tongue of “constitutional conventions” and images of bewigged and august white men. We demand a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for a democratic republic! The people are sovereign, and the state is their prerogative!

The Struggle for Liberty: Religious Liberty in Arizona?

Mr. Smith is a bigot who owns a small store who has religious objections to serving homosexual patrons. Mr. Jones is a homosexual man who wants something from Mr. Smith’s store. Mr. Smith will not serve him because of Jones’ homosexuality. Both men claim that the other man infringes his liberty. Mr. Smith claims that the state violates his free practice of religion if it forces him to serve Jones. Mr. Jones claims that the state violates his freedom of action if it forces him from the store on Smith’s behalf. How are we to decide between these two claims? Today I will show that the liberal theory of freedom does not provide guidance in this real-world case. Yet, we will find that the republican theory does.

The case above is exactly the sort of case that has come up recently with the failed passage of a ‘religious exemption’ bill in Arizona. In this case, religionists wanted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws. They claim this exemption on the grounds of religious liberty. We grant exemptions to Quakers and pacifists from the duty of bearing arms. Likewise, we should grant exemptions to bakers from the duty of baking cakes for gay weddings. The religionists have pursued this strategy before, with everything from racial segregation to birth control. The purpose of such religious exemptions is clear: to protect bigotry. For the sake of an example, let us grant that religious liberty is actually at stake.

Political theory should provide guidance on practical problems. If we have a case of conflicting liberties, then our theory of freedom should be able to decide it. The liberal theory of freedom does not provide such guidance though. The dominant political philosophy of the United States is liberalism. The Founders wrote the liberalism of John Locke into its constitution.  The liberal theory of freedom says that a person is free when they can do what they what want. The only limit to this freedom is when the action of one person interferes with the freedom of another. This principle provides no guidance in the case above. Each man perceives the other as limiting his ability to do what he wants. The liberal theory of freedom provides no clue as to which of their claims to liberty is legitimate.

Let us turn to the republican theory of freedom then. The republican theory of freedom tells us that a person is free when any interference into their choices is not arbitrary. Republicanism recognizes that we interfere in each others’ choices all the time. We remove arbitrariness from such interference by creating rules to regulate it. Those rules in turn must be those one could, in principle, consent to, because they are in one’s interest. These conditions ensure that interference into one’s choices are not according to another’s interests. Does republicanism help us decide between Smith and Jones?

Between the two of them, Jones has the rightful claim under republican theory. He expects to be able to shop at any store that he chooses without having to take into account his sexual preferences. Jones’ violation of Smith’s religious doctrines is not arbitrary. Most law and social convention uphold Jones’ expectation.

Meanwhile, Smith is seeking an exemption from law. Moreover, he seeks an arbitrary exemption from law. The whole purpose of the Arizona law is to turn arbitrary power over to religious business owners. The business owner interferes in the choices of others according to unpredictable, personal criteria. Smith’s claim must be illegitimate according to the republican theory of freedom.

In this case, the liberal theory of freedom could not decide between competing claims of liberty. On the one hand, we had the liberty of ordinary human decency. On the other hand, we had the liberty of obscene, degenerate bigotry. Fortunately, republican theory, having a more robust conception of freedom, could decide between the claims, and I think it did so correctly. Moreover, the real world was kind enough to give us a good example of republicanism in action.

The Struggle for Liberty: The Republican Theory of Freedom

Part I of the Struggle for Liberty

Previously, at Democracy in Principle, we discussed the apparent contradiction of the “free slave”.  If we define liberty or freedom as the classical liberal tradition does, then we would say that any person is free whose actions are not interfered with.  If this is the case, then it is possible that a slave could be free if his master were agreeable, and let the slave mind his own business for the most part.  Because the idea of the “free slave” seems contradictory, we must instead reject the classical liberal definition of freedom.

We noted that this hidden contradiction was half the point of defining the concept of freedom this way.  Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, introduced this definition as part of his theory of government.  He wanted the English kings to rule absolutely, so government itself had to be the limit of freedom.  A democratic government would limit freedom at least as much as an absolute monarchy.

This view became a central component of modern liberalism and the neoliberal and libertarian resistance to government itself.  But instead of the authority of the state, we are still bound by authority across society, for example, at the workplace.  Our assent to this authority, by “free contract”, is a pretense.  We pretend we have a choice to refuse this contract, when the only other option is starvation.  This situation makes as much a mockery of liberty as the free-slave contradiction.

Classical Republican Theory of Liberty

This is what the republican tradition of liberty tries to correct.  Republicanism revives the political perspective of the ancient Mediterranean city-states, like Athens, Sparta, or Rome.  The ancients had a different conception of politics from our own, in which public participation and contribution were essential and exalted rights.  The concept of liberty or freedom was usually expressed metaphorically, contrasting the free citizen with the bound slave.  The position of the free citizen in the cities of the ancients was different from that of the slave.  The slave was not free no matter how benign his master was, and the citizen was free no matter the number of laws.  Freedom was not just doing what you want, but related to your position relative to others in the institutions of society.

Contemporary philosopher Philip Pettit gives us the most precise definition of republican liberty, with the help of some additional terms.  To be free in the republican sense is to not be dominated.  To be dominated is to be in a position in which you are subject to the arbitrary will of another person.  A dominant person’s will is arbitrary when he or she acts in a way that affects subordinate persons without taking account of their interests.  Let’s figure out what all of that means.

Capacity to Interfere with Another’s Action

Pettit defines domination using several terms that his work takes great pains to clarify.

First, Pettit writes that a dominating person has the “capacity” to interfere with the choices of another person.  What could be meant by “capacity”?  What sort of ability is it to dominate someone? Domination does not need to mean physical or intellectual superiority, for nations have been ruled by sickly boy-kings and half-wits for thousands of years.  Rather, the capacity to dominate is the social position of the dominating person.  By social position, I mean the role or position that a person holds in the social institutions that make society run.  One person dominates another because the first is the social superior, and the second is socially inferior.  The roles of dominant and subordinate are promoted, accepted, or tolerated by everyone else because this relationship is seen as legitimate.

This institutional capacity is an institutional inequality in decision-making power.  The dominant occupies a role that either has express decision-making power, or has some influence within society for controlling the decisions made.  The former type of inequality is represented by assemblies, boards, presidents, executives, managers, or supervisors, and may be a necessary component for efficient organizations (maybe).  The second type of inequality is often informal.  The Communist Party of the Soviet Union would be an example.  Complete Communist Party control over the state institutions of the Soviet Union was not formally introduced into the Soviet constitution until the 1970’s.  But the Party obviously controlled the decisions made by those formally democratic structures, because of its effective yet informal control over the public.

Arbitrary Will

So the “capacity” of the dominant party is the position they hold in a particular social institution, which also affects their dominance in the larger society.  But how should we understand their “arbitrary will”?  Here, Pettit is looking back to Roman law, in which arbitrium is translated as a decision or judgment.  That the will of the dominant is arbitrary means that it is their own decision to restrict the choices of the subordinate.  The dominant is not subject to any norms in their interference other than what they choose to do.  Thus, we can characterize “arbitrariness” as, on the one hand, not rule-bound.

We can determine whether interference is rule-bound by observing whether that interference ‘tracks’ (takes into account) the interests of those being interfered with.  If the rules are themselves not made at one person’s discretion, then they will reflect the interests of the public generally.  So we can tell that the rules are made arbitrarily if they do not reflect the interests of the public in general.  Thus, if interference into a person’s action does not take into account their interests, then that person is dominated and not free.

I think “arbitrariness” is an important feature of the republican theory, because it reflects the most important surviving republican concept – the rule of law.  The rule of law is not merely the requirement that public officials follow proper procedures, as it is so often portrayed.  Rather, the rule of law means that the law itself is the source of power over persons, and not the decisions of individuals.  Interference in the actions of others is on the basis of procedures established in law, and the interfering individual is not exercising their own judgment, or pursuing their own interests or purposes.

Thus, the Romans contrasted their state as res publica, or a “public thing”, from the res privata, or “private thing”, of their pre-republican kings.  Under a republic, the state belongs to the people and they are ruled only by law.  Under the king, the state was his property, and they are ruled by his whim or arbitrary will.

Republican Freedom

So what does it mean to be free, in the republican sense?  Well, not to be dominated.  Domination means that a person is in an institutional or social position in which their choices are subject to arbitrary interference, that is, interference with reference only to the discretion of another and not one’s own interests.

Thus, to be free, a person would have to occupy social positions in which interference in their actions is bound by rules and norms that take account of their interests and is not at the discretion of any particular individual.

To be more concise: freedom is the equality of social relationships.  The institutions of a free society are such that no person has to accept the decision of another person without question.

So the slave of the benign master is not free because the slave is in a subordinate institutional position.  The master might allow him to keep some of what he earns, might allow him to go to town when he likes, and might allow him to say what he wants.  But because of the nature of their relationship, all of the slave’s actions are at the permission of the master, and can be taken away whenever he wishes.  We may judge the liberty of the worker and other strata of society against this measure.

Further Reading

Gourevitch, Alex, “Wage Slavery and Republican Liberty”, at Jacobin

Lovett, Frank, “Republicanism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Pettit, Philip, “Taking back the economy: the market as Res Publica”, at OpenDemocracy

Pettit, Philip, On the People’s Terms

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government

Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before Liberalism

The Struggle for Liberty: the Free Slave

Is it possible for a person to be both slave and free?  This would seem to be an obvious contradiction. But the contradiction dissolves according to the theory of freedom assumed by classical liberalism. By classical liberalism, I mean the political philosophy principally concerned with the freedom of the individual and limitations on the power of the state.  This is the philosophy that controls our political discourse on both the left and the right.  According to this philosophy, a person can be counted as free when no other person interferes with their actions.

We can imagine a slave with a benevolent master.  The master gives the slave all the freedom given to anyone else.  The slave works when he wishes, comes and goes as he pleases, and does what he wants, comparable at least to what most other people can do in his society.  In other words, the slave with the benevolent master has a similar range of choices as to what he is allowed to do.

The theory of freedom in classical liberalism would suggest that the slave is, in fact, free.  If he does not suffer from another person’s interference in his choices, then he is free.  Yet we would not consider any slave to be free, by virtue of his or her social position.  This should be a sufficient counterexample to the liberal theory of freedom, but the theory runs deep in American politics.

The origin of this contradiction is at the heart of its very purpose.  The purpose of defining liberty in this way was to overthrow the ancient understanding of liberty as one of relative social positions of power.  The liberal theory of freedom erases concerns about fairness and equality that was once embedded in the ancient theories of freedom.

The Liberal Theory of Freedom

Our modern theory of liberty claims that we are free when there are no obstacles to our actions and that we can do what we wish to do.  Conversely, we are forced or coerced when another human being intentionally interferes with our actions.  Typically, coercion is understood as occurring through the use of violence or the threat of violence.

A more precise formulation of the modern theory is that free persons have as many choices as possible (physically possible, as far as their bodies and modern technology can allow them).  Coerced persons thus have choices removed by the deliberate interference of other people.  Since freedom is the central concern of liberalism, its philosophers add that one person’s liberty should only be restricted for the sake of the liberty of others.  Thus, your liberty is restricted only to prevent you from interfering in the actions of others.

Ideological origins

According to Quentin Skinner, this way of conceiving freedom is the invention of the early modern English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes is justly famed as the modern originator of social contract theory.  Social contract theory holds that human beings form political communities to escape the “state of nature”, a lawless natural state with no justice.  Most often this natural state is imaginary, but it always presents problems for which human beings invent the state as the most rational solution.  Even if there was never any such state of nature, the idea allows us to see why we are rational to submit to political authority in at least some aspects of our lives.

In Hobbes’ version of social contract theory, presented in his Leviathan, he imagines what the state of nature would be like.  Famously, it would be “brutish, nasty, and short”.  Since human beings are fundamentally selfish, we would live in a “war of all against all”, with each of us at each others’ throats.  Thus, we would be rational to sign away almost all of the liberty we have in a state of nature to a dictatorial sovereign to bring everyone into line.

Despite its elegance, this theory is pure ideology; Hobbes sought only to justify an illegitimate political cause.  We know better now that humans are brutes under specific conditions (like extreme scarcity), but are also natural cooperators, like many mammalian species.  Hobbes lived during the eighteenth century struggle between King and Parliament that culminated in the English Civil War.  Hobbes needed a theory that provided support for the absolute monarchy of the English kings that waged war against the forces of Parliament.  The Parliamentarians had a collection of republican philosophers (such as , John Milton, etc.) who could wave the banner of freedom for Parliament.  The forgotten English writer James Harrington described an elaborate republic in his Commonwealth of Oceana.  And John Milton (yes, that Milton) wrote many tracts advocating republicanism.  Republicans like Harrington and Milton drew on the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome for their understanding of what made a people free.

Against this tradition, Hobbes needed to understand liberty in such a way that an absolute monarch could rule without limit, and yet the population could still be counted on as free.  By the invention of the social contract, Hobbes had demonstrated that absolute monarchy is what would result if people had the perfect freedom of the state of nature.  That is, if anyone could do anything, then they would voluntarily give up all of their freedom to a sovereign.  Otherwise, they would not survive.  Thus, even the subjects of an absolute monarch are free, because the sovereign is not interfering with them in what they would (really and rationally) want to do.

Hobbes’ assumption, that freedom is the absence of interference to acting as you choose, has become “common sense”.

The Liberal Theory of Freedom in the 21st Century

This conception of liberty was to persist through the English tradition and to infect future English and American philosophy, to the point where it seems obvious.  Hobbesian liberty and property rights melded into an unholy nightmare monster of industrial authoritarianism.

We see it in the discussion of workplace liberty.  The boss has a right to do what he wants, and you have the right to do what you want.  The boss can hire and fire; you can take it and serve, or leave it and starve.  If the boss wants to keep people from using the bathrooms in his factory, then you can quit the job and find a place where they will let you use the bathroom.  Nobody’s stopping you, as long as the boss can do what he wants to do with his bathroom.

Obviously this is not any sort of freedom.  Just as I did not agree to any social contract, so my choices with regard to real contracts are also limited.  Any real contract that a person signs is against a backdrop of a great inequality in the power of the two contracting parties.  Surely that should matter with regard to evaluating the extent of my freedom.

The illusion of freedom behind the social contract has become the illusion of freedom in real contracts!  Hobbes won the rhetorical struggle more thoroughly than he could imagine.  We all live the contradiction of the free slave, bound only by free contracts with absolute sovereigns.

We can begin to escape the grip of this theory by considering alternative theories of freedom.  In the next installment of this series, we will consider the republican theory of freedom.

Further Reading

Gourevitch, Alex, “Wage Slavery and Republican Liberty”, at Jacobin

Harrington, James, The Commonwealth of Oceana

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan

Lovett, Frank, “Republicanism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Milton, John, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth

Pettit, Philip, “Taking back the economy: the market as Res Publica”, at OpenDemocracy

Pettit, Philip, On the People’s Terms

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government

Skinner, Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before Liberalism


Voting for the Lesser Evil is Irrational

It’s the tie color that makes the difference. The only difference.

Presidential election season means pretty much half of all the voters are asking, “Do I really have to vote for that guy?”  Libertarians and Tea Partiers have no desire to vote for Mitt Romney, and liberals, socialists, and Occupiers don’t want to have to vote for Obama.  Reluctant voters are scolded that if they don’t vote for one of the major party candidates, then the other guy will win; and make no mistake, he’ll destroy America.  Of course, America has already been mostly destroyed, and the two major parties are some of the main culprits.  In any case, the idea that you should set aside your own political preferences to vote for one of two cartoonish villains is known as “the lesser evil argument”. read more »

What is Democracy?

Democracy isn’t what it used to be. Our contemporary nations are considered ‘democratic’ pretty much by changing the meaning of the word. For most of human history, those who thought about such things identified a democracy as a state in which the majority of the people ruled, in all the political institutions of that state. The common example, which persisted from the ancient world until the last decades of the eighteenth century, is the Athens of ancient Greece. The contemporary definition of democracy is very different.  For example, some so-called democracies are content with deviations from democracy (like hereditary monarchy, as in Great Britain), acceptable as long as the undemocratic elements (like the British queen) are kept in the background.  And never mind the social conditions that make democratic institutions a sham (like various social inequalities). The shift in meaning of democracy occurred sometime in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the United States and Great Britain at least, the term ‘democracy’ was appropriated by populist and liberal reformers as the right to vote slowly expanded to include all white men and abolished the requirement of owning a certain amount of property to qualify for voting. However, institutions designed for oligarchy, or rule by the few, in the United States and Europe, remained; for example, the Senate of the United States.  Political mechanisms once recognized as oligarchic became democratic merely through wordplay. read more »