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Pettit's republic.

On the People's Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy

Philip Pettit


Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World

Philip Pettit


The idea of freedom as non-domination, familiar in the history of political thought since classical republican Rome, has enjoyed a splashing revival in recent contemporary political theory. No one has done as much to advance the republican debate from a normative perspective as Philip Pettit, whose sophisticated and erudite scholarship has set the parameters against which any new contribution has to measure itself. His latest books, On the People's Terms (PT) and Just Freedom (JF), articulate the ideal of freedom as non-domination in a compelling philosophical account distinct from both the liberal idea of freedom as non-interference and from the communitarian idea of freedom as collective self-realisation. They then also examine the institutional implications of this ideal for the relations of citizens to each other (the republican conception of social justice), for the relations of citizens to the state (the republican conception of political legitimacy as instantiated in a democratic account of political institutions) and, in Just Freedom, also for the relations among different states (the republican conception of sovereignty).

To illustrate the distinctiveness and attractiveness of freedom as non-domination, Pettit begins with the familiar idea that to be free means to be free to choose as one wants. But this, he persuasively argues, needs to be qualified further. It should not be understood merely as being free from interference with an actually preferred option for then an agent could simply adapt preferences and only choose options that are feasible to realise. A prisoner that progressively changes his frame of mind and adapts to enjoy life behind bars without ever attempting to escape does not thereby become free; there is a difference between getting what one wants and wanting only what one can get. Freedom of choice, according to a standard liberal critique of this argument, is not secured through mere non-frustration of one's actually preferred options but requires a more robust guarantee against interference with any of the options one might want to pursue (regardless of which one they end up pursuing). Yet the requirement of republican freedom is even stronger than that. To be free means to have the room and resources i) to enact the option one prefers (freedom as non-frustration); ii) whatever one's preference over those options (freedom as non-interference) and, crucially for the theory's purposes, iii) regardless of how any other might want to direct one's preferences (freedom as non-domination). To be free in this third sense means to be able to choose without being subjected to the uncontrolled power of others, even if those others might never actually exercise that power to undermine one's preferred choices. The mere vulnerability to having preferred options removed, replaced or misrepresented through the potential interference of an uncontrolled external will, is a grave enough wrong to warrant republican remedy (beyond the guarantees of non-frustration and non-interference). For just as it is problematic to think that one can render oneself free by merely wanting only what one can get, it is problematic to think that one can render oneself free by ingratiating those who control access to certain options so as to make them well-disposed towards an agent and unlikely to rule against their preferences.

Varieties of domination

What freedom as non-domination requires, then, is resourcing and protecting an agent's freedom so that robust guarantees against domination are put in place. The burden here is obviously to target the detrimental effects on freedom caused not only by the invasive intervention of other agents but also by the effects of practices and patterns that are not themselves the result of the exercise of any particular dominating will, but might emerge from the aggregate effects of agents' unintended cumulative actions. To make this point sharper, we might draw a distinction between interactional and structural domination. While the former takes place when a powerful agent (individual and collective) exercises their will in an uncontrolled way that invades the freedom of another, the latter is clear in cases of asymmetrical distribution of power (e.g. the power of men in a patriarchal culture, that of employers in a capitalist economy, or that of religious leaders in a theocratic society), where such invasions on freedom are triggered by compliance with widespread social norms which are not necessarily themselves caused by any malign agent exercising their will.

One distinctive feature of Pettit's account is its repeated emphasis that the neo-republican theory contains adequate resources to diagnose and remedy the effects of both kinds of domination mentioned above. However, for his argument to succeed, more needs to be said on the distinction between vitiation and invasion invoked to explain what counts as a hindrance to freedom and how it bears in each of these cases. To explain briefly: while vitiation is understood as a generic hindrance of the capacity to make choices in general, invasion constitutes a different kind of hindrance to a specific exercise of the will. The example Pettit uses to illustrate this difference is useful here: if I am unable to drive my car in the city because I am short of fuel, the engine has failed, or the car is damaged, my freedom is curtailed but in a generic way, due to vitiating factors that prevent me from using the car for any purpose. If on the other hand I am unable to drive into the centre because there is a congestion charge, traffic laws restrict me from circulating at a certain hour, and so on, my freedom is curtailed in a more specific way and we are in the presence of invading factors. Now, as Pettit clearly understands, structural injustice is best understood as the result of vitiating rather than invading hindrances: structures interfere with the capacity for choice in general, not with a specific exercise of it.

Moreover, structural injustice typically tends to emerge as the result of the unintended consequences of independent actions in which the moral failure at stake is more one of omission (failing to remedy) rather than direct causal contribution to the reduction of freedom. But to really account for structural domination as a kind of domination that is distinctive from interactional domination, we would have to be able to explain how, regardless of the beliefs, intentions or pro-attitudes of the agents that operate within certain structures, the curtailment of people's freedom of choice is a distinctive kind of moral failure from that occasioned by the uncontrolled exercise of the will of powerful agents. We would have to say that vitiation, the kind of interference that such structures enable, is not only a distinctive type of hindrance but also a distinctive type of wrong, a wrong independent from and irreducible to the wrong of invasion. Now, of course Pettit acknowledges that the line between these two types of hindrances is difficult to draw. Indeed, he often insists that there are cases in which failures to assist can be indistinguishable from invasive interferences with free choice (PT, 73), especially against the background of a pattern of expectations that assistance will be available. Yet it is not clear whether a structural hindrance on freedom would count as a form of domination even when the link between vitiation and invasion is not so clear-cut. And without that further argument, I remain uncertain that structural domination (understood as a distinct type of domination) is really accounted for in the neo-republican theory.

Another reason for scepticism along those lines is related to the constraints Pettit places on the circumstances under which freedom of choice can be resourced and protected. As he argues, one is not required to be able to choose as one wishes: i) regardless of the preference of others on independent or orthogonal matters; ii) regardless of what count by accepted standards as the constrained or involuntary preferences in which others have a degree of discretion and can be moved by pro-active attitudes, and iii) regardless of the preferences of others whom one voluntarily invests with the power and right of shaping one's choices (JF, 49). But, again, here vitiating hindrances resulting from structural norms are particularly pernicious precisely because they shape preferences and constraints in such a way that agents embedded in them have very little discretion to act and choose otherwise (think about the effects of paternalistic conventions and norms in a sexist culture). If agents at risk of being dominated are not resourced and protected despite the widespread lack of pro-active attitudes on the side of potential interferers, it is difficult to see how their freedom will be robustly entrenched. Pettit's example of a bank denying a loan to a needy client with a suspicious credit history is particularly interesting in this regard. The bank, he argues, is justified in denying the loan because its preferences or those of its officials are pre-empted by the constraints of that policy, 'the bank is merely doing what banks have to do', 'it operates like a force of nature, not like an agent whose attitudes toward you can determine how you fare' JF, 51). And yet, the point of the distinction between structural and interactional domination is that it allows us to see how in replicating a pattern of norms and rules that hinders people's capacity to make choices, those embedded in such structures reconcile with those forces of nature, doing just what they have to do, with the result that a critical scrutiny of their dominating potential is concealed from view (think about Marx's familiar critique of the fetish character of commodities). Yet Pettit's second constraint on when to resource and protect freedom seems not only to absolve but actually facilitate this attitude.

A statist bias

The second level at which the defence of freedom as non-domination moves is institutional. Pettit's account of social justice and political legitimacy (both domestic and international) explains the requirements of resourcing and protecting people's freedom of choice both in their relations to each other (to avoid dominium or uncontrolled use of private power) and in their relation to institutions (to avoid imperium or uncontrolled use of public power). With regard to the first, Pettit defends an interesting account of social justice in which people's basic liberties are entrenched in a mixed constitutional regime through the provision of infrastructure necessary to guarantee the exercise of such liberties, insurance against various ills and insulation against the danger posed by others. Freedom of choice is robustly protected against domination if republican institutions pass what Pettit labels the 'eyeball test', requiring that people's freedom of choice be resourced and protected in such a way that they can look each other in the eye without fear or deference from their potential interference. Legitimacy, on the other hand, demands that state power be subjected to the equally shared control of all the people. Freedom is robustly secure if decisions that do not reflect their preferences could only be ascribed to what Pettit calls 'tough luck' rather than a malign will that systematically undermines these preferences.

One might object here that the state is a dominating institution regardless of how one sets up relations in it. But Pettit dismisses this familiar anarchist critique arguing that, since the state is necessary to construct just political relations, we should see its rationale as a matter of 'historical necessity on a par with living under the laws of physics' (PT, 161). Now, whatever one makes of the anarchist argument, we might still expect a theory of freedom as non-domination to be more sensitive to the circumstances of injustice that have historically characterised the emergence of the state and their ongoing implications for the generations of people whose alternative forms of life were disrupted by the imposition of this form of rule (for example through colonialism and imperial domination). Presenting the necessity of the state as a natural force that can neither be legitimately challenged from within (in the way anarchists do) nor from without (witness Pettit's endorsement of the right to exclude immigrants as necessary to what states are functionally required to do) seems to undermine the critical potential of the theory. For it deprives neo-republicanism of normative resources for reflecting critically on questions of rectification for past historical wrongdoing and also of ways to cope with the ongoing structural hindrances on freedom that failure to remedy such historical wrongs might have generated and would continue to generate if left unaccounted for (the forced nature of certain migratory flows might well be one of those).

This statist bias becomes especially pernicious when we get to the prospects of securing non-domination in the international sphere. Here, Pettit endorses an ideal of globalised sovereignty which is said to have both depth (it is not limited to merely securing freedom from actual intervention) and breadth (it seeks to resource and protect the sovereign liberties of all representative states, consistently with that of others). He emphasises the importance of multilateral international arrangements and global institutional reform to guarantee freedom from domination. But this part of the theory is still under-developed when it comes to reflecting on the conditions under which such liberties could be entrenched, especially if one compares it with the rich proposals Pettit puts forward in defending the institutional requirements of popular control within the democratic state (e.g. his excellent analysis of the importance of the mixed constitution, the ideal of contestatory citizenship, and the role of assemblies to guarantee robust freedom). For example, 'the straight talk' test that sovereign peoples have to pass in order to ensure that their contributions in shared global matters are free from timidity or deference, requires in the case of vulnerable people the mere 'assistance' of democratic states to help them relieve poverty and oppression. One difficulty with this view is that it relies on a rather one-sided diagnosis of the causes for global poverty and injustice, ignoring both issues of historical injustice and structural responsibilities of powerful states for the plight of the poor (indeed this is a familiar critique of John Rawls' proposal of the duty of assistance in The Law of Peoples (1999), to which Pettit's account is clearly indebted). Another difficulty is that Pettit thinks that the duty of assistance must be voluntarily endorsed by the democratic publics of representative states before it can impose burdens on their citizens, and here one might wonder why this is the case, especially given his enthusiastic endorsement of taxation for redistributive purposes in the domestic sphere. But finally, and more damningly for the neo-republican theory, the duty of assistance as a means to resource and protect globalised sovereignty plunges us back to the world of donors and recipients, contributors and beneficiaries, benevolence and recalcitrance, which is precisely what the ideal of freedom as non-domination rightly seeks to avoid. In other words, the duty of assistance is not only inadequate to grasp the roots of current evils threatening the globalised world but also produces remedies that seem at odds with the very ideal of freedom as non-domination that it seeks to resource and protect.


Rawls, J. (1999) The Law of Peoples, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press

Lea Ypi is Associate Professor in Political Theory at the London School of Economics.
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Author:Ypi, Lea
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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