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Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government.

By Philip Pettit. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 304p. $29.95.

Laura J. Scalia, University of Houston

For generations, scholars understood classical liberalism as including nonarbitrary governments that were relatively unobtrusive and strongly committed to individual rights and liberties. Intellectual giants such as John Locke and James Madison were considered among the most important spokesmen of this tradition. Sometime in the twentieth century, (at least American) liberalism took on alternative meanings. For some, like Frederick Hayek, it tolerated only a minimalist government. For others, like Herbert Croly, it became the tradition of economic redistribution and big government. For still others, John Stuart Mill became the role model, with liberal government becoming one that accepted any and every alternative life style. In American politics, early classical liberalism became the foundation of conservatism. In scholarship there and abroad, it appears that this early tradition is now taking a different route.

As the subtitle implies, Republicanism offers a theory of freedom and government. The author's aim is to reintroduce important features of what Pettit terms republicanism. He does so in the hope of convincing others that this tradition values a freedom which is superior to and more practical than other contemporary notions. With this in mind, he divides the book into two main sections, the first describing the liberty ideal and the second explaining how it would be put into practice. In the first section, Pettit offers a crisp, clear definition of republican liberty: It is freedom from domination and arbitrary interference; it is the antonym of slavery. He contrasts this with Berlin's preferred notion of liberty as freedom from interference, a negative conception that Pettit finds troubling; as he sees it, it proclaims the slave free in cases in which his master likes him and chooses not to interfere with his daily life. Pettit prefers the republican conception of liberty because it supposes that someone who experiences nonarbitrary legal interference is nonetheless free. Anyone who thinks carefully about this issue will no doubt agree that Pettit is trying to recapture an important sense of liberty, different from negative liberty and certainly ignored by libertarians and various scholars of liberty. He rightfully finds his preferred conception a practical and useful way of understanding liberty, for it allows us to think beyond freedom as the absence of impediments, that is, as theoretically antithetical to law and power. If we can agree that liberty can and should include nonarbitrary, legally bounded interferences, then we can agree that there is such a thing as good government. In other words, we can agree that well-formed states can and do support liberty, provided, of course, that they are able to avoid becoming dominating forces.

The second part of Pettit's book describes features that help government avoid its miserable tendency to dominate and become arbitrary. Here, the author discusses the kind of institutional mechanisms and citizen predispositions which would allow his beloved republican freedom to prosper. To put it briefly, Pettit believes liberty has the potential to thrive in governments that follow established laws, disperse and limit the power of the majority and their elected officials, allow for open contestation and unimpeded political debate, and are supported by a vigilant citizenry. For him, that means establishing a constitutional form of government much like the one in the United States today, albeit with some interesting new twists. For example, he argues that ongoing contestability should be more highly regarded than popular consent. He seeks to extend into the political realm the economic system of rewards and the jury system of screening. Finally, he depicts a vigilant citizenry as one in which individuals are civil to rival interest groups but nonetheless willing to manifest disapproval when necessary for liberty's sake.

Pettit claims that he has put forward a "challenging conception of the ideal" (p. 11). He has. Careful readers will find many interesting and novel ideas in the book, but many will have difficulty wading through the text and finding the great insights. This will especially be the case for readers who are sticklers for good grammar. In an attempt to avoid gender-specific pronouns, Pettit repeatedly matches singular nouns with plural pronouns. (For example, a three-page subsection of chapter 3 includes ten phrases such as: "The dominated ... person is someone with reason to watch what they say," p. 91). What a pity that the author and Oxford University Press did not seek an alternative gender-neutral strategy, for this bizarre style certainly distracted me.

Those who have steadfast views about what ideas or persons rightfully belong within the liberal or republican tradition also will have difficulty extracting the true pearls in the argument. Pettit says that he recovered his "distinctive" republican ideal from many historical authors, over "very different periods and very different background philosophies" (pp. 11-12). Yet, he never really distinguishes his republican vision of liberty and its accompanying government mechanisms and citizen predilections from the liberal conception of liberty, government, and good citizenship. Nor does he explain why he omits features traditionally associated with the republican tradition. For example, he uses authors such as John Locke (pp. 40, 62, 100, 225,266), James Madison (pp. 212, 221), Alexander Hamilton (pp. 100-1) and John Stuart Mill (pp. 62, 139) as authoritative spokesmen of his republican ideal. He implies that liberals accept slavery (p. 22) and that republicans do not (pp. 31-5). Historically, both kinds of regimes have tolerated slavery, but only the latter used its own language to justify it (e.g., Aristotle). Moreover, Pettit describes republican virtue as citizen vigilance (chapter 8). He associates that tradition with equality and tolerance (chapter 4). Though there may be no a priori reason to reject the possibility of such connections, clearly, liberalism has long been the language of equality, tolerance of ideas, and jealous virtue, whereas republicanism has endorsed hierarchy, homogeneity, and noble self-sacrifice.

Perhaps the author would not be seriously troubled by these criticisms. He finds the use of masculine pronouns sexist (p. 71). Moreover, he admits he is no "historian of ideas" (p. viii) and that "if historians of ideas find [his historiography] misleading, they should regard the more substantive historical suggestions as simplifications that are justified only by the color they give to [his own] philosophical claims" (p. 11). Thus, for those who can easily accept these premises, the book's compelling features are easier to find. Many readers will find themselves in my position, however. They, too, will applaud Pettit's attempt to redepict liberty as freedom from domination and arbitrary government, and they will agree with him that the best means to achieve such liberty is to create a limited constitutional government and encourage civility and open debate among citizens and leaders. Yet, they will find the book unsatisfying as they wonder why he insists on calling his entire opus of ideas distinctive and republican instead of what it is: a twentieth-century take on the admirable features of classical liberalism and watered down republicanism.

In the end, however, there may be some merit in Pettit's renaming technique. Scholars now have trouble deciding who or what ideas deserve the liberal label. Perhaps the ideals we truly value would gain from a new and distinctive title. Nevertheless, such a move should be made explicit and deserves explanation. Else we will be left in even more confusion, unaware why early liberalism has become republicanism, and why republicanism has lost its earlier affinities to necessary exclusions, self-sacrificing, noble virtue, and homogeneous participatory government. Most important, we will end up masking the real issue which concerns Pettit and many scholars today: Is there a sense of liberty that is both worthy of human dignity and politically viable? On this point, Pettit has much to say and ought to be taken seriously.
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Author:Scalia, Laura J.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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