America's founders baptized her in the rhetoric of personal liberty. Jefferson, when listing the rights of all people in the Declaration of Independence, put liberty second only to life. Nathan Hale and the state of New Hampshire declared that liberty was actually worth more than life. And ever since, freedom and liberty have been central concerns in American public discourse.
That might help explain why, as Professor Corey Robin writes in the most recent issue of The Nation, "conservative ideas have dominated American politics for thirty years." The right has virtually monopolized the rhetoric of freedom, and the left has failed to offer up a single competing vision.
Robin's article, called "Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom," is a proposal on how best to correct this. And the left-wing schematic of liberty he offers up isn't a bad start. He writes:
We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.
It is, as I said, a start. The challenge for left-leaning political philosophers and theorists is to convert Robin's rhetoric into a fully fleshed out theory of freedom and governance. On the face of it, this would seem to be a daunting task, because Robin's conception of freedom represents a clean break from the tradition of classical liberalism that looms so large in modern philosophy.
Classical liberalism, a distinct entity from American political liberalism, most often defines liberty as non-intervention, which would seem to make its closest political ally libertarianism. (The Republican Party, and especially those Republicans who identity as members of the Tea Party, tend to talk about freedom in a way that makes them sound superficially like classical liberals. But on social issues in particular they apply the classical liberal's standard of freedom as non-intervention inconsistently at best.) Not even the forms of classical liberalism more closely associated with the left, like Rawlsianism, truly satisfy Robin's demands. Whereas Rawlsian liberalism conditions freedom as non-intervention with certain restraints, Robin insists that government intervention can actually promote freedom.
Lucky for us, there is a philosophical tradition -- less fashionable than classical liberalism -- that supports Robin's claims. It is called republicanism. (No relation to the philosophy of the modern Republican Party.)
The best introduction to modern republicanism is likely "Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government" by the Australian philosopher Philip Pettit. The book largely consists of the sort of academic philosophizing that laypeople might find hopelessly esoteric, but it also contains some thoughts on the intellectual history of republicanism that help explain most of the key concepts. Pettit writes that the fundamental principle of over two millennia of republican thought is this: no citizen is a slave, either of the state or any other entity. (Of course, many republics have had slaves. But they were not considered citizens in the formal sense.) Putting this principle in modern analytic terms, he describes it as the conviction that freedom constitutes non-domination, not non-intervention. A slave is still a slave, even if his master is benevolent and does not interfere with him. The point is that the master still has the right to reverse his policy without warning and arbitrarily project his own interests onto the slave. This, Pettit says, is domination: the ability to arbitrarily interfere in the affairs of others without being constrained by their interests or stated preferences.
Already we can see how closely this idea of freedom as non-domination tracks with the vision of freedom laid out by Robin. When he argues that a "strong government hand" is needed to ensure that employees are not put "at the mercy" of their employers, he is actually saying that the state must promote freedom by encouraging non-domination. This is, in fact, the sole aim of the ideal republican state, and Pettit strenuously encourages a "strong government hand" when he thinks it will serve that end. Whereas, in strictly classical liberal terms, any sort of government interference represents a constraint on liberty, Robin and Pettit both agree with the republican notion that, in Pettit's words, "the properly constituted law is constitutive of liberty." He takes that logic further than even many orthodox republicans, arguing that the state must "seek to reduce the influence of factors like handicap and poverty and ignorance," which condition freedom.
But republicanism, at least as articulated by Pettit, is also a relatively conservative doctrine. After all, he argues, America was founded on republican principles. And indeed, Pettit ends up building on those republican principles to advocate for a lot of things we already have: separation of powers, for example. Thus do we find that republicanism has exactly that "deep immersion in a wellspring of American political thought" that Robin wishes for.
I've only had the room here to give a crude schematic of republicanism, but hopefully it's enough to pique the interest of some fellow lefties. For too long now, the American left has had very little in the way of an articulated set of unifying first principles. Republicanism could be what we have been missing; not only does it satisfy the policy intuitions of most liberals, but it integrates them into a system that is logical, humane, and deeply American.
Ned Resnikoff is a researcher at Media Matters and a freelance writer. The above piece is not intended to represent the views of his employers.