Republicanism (1)

People have been talking about New Zealand becoming a republic, here, here, here, and here.

I think New Zealand should become a republic, for all sorts of reasons, but especially because I think that the account of freedom that lies at the heart of republicanism is compelling.

In standard liberal theory (think of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill), freedom is construed as freedom from interference. You are free to the extent that nobody interferes with you. However in republican political theory, freedom is freedom from domination.

Think about a slave with a kindly master. The slave gets to live where she likes, eat what she likes, do whatever work she likes, just because the master happens to be kindly. Under the standard liberal accounts of freedom, this slave would be free, because she was not subject to interference.

The master however, can at any time reassert his power. If he so wishes, he can tell the slave where to live, what to eat, what work to do. He is even able to physically assault the slave, and she has no recourse against him. So in order to keep him happy, to avoid incurring his displeasure and losing the chance to direct her own life, she must keep a weather eye out for him, ingratiate herself with him, make sure that she doesn’t offend him, kowtow, and doff her cap. Even though he does not interfere with her choices, he nevertheless dominates her, and she constrains her choices because of that domination. She cannot stand tall, and look him in the eye. Under the republican account of freedom, this slave is not free.

I find this account of freedom compelling, because it taps into a sense of standing. A free person is one with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. It is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social setting. In Philip Pettit’s phrase (see below), it is the freedom of the hearth, not the freedom of the heath. And it is an institutional sense of freedom. In the liberal account of freedom, the slave with the kindly master is free, but that is just a contingent state of affairs. It is just because the world happens to be that way, rather than because anything guarantees that the slave is free. However the republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

It’s this understanding of freedom that underpins my commitment to republicanism, and to New Zealand becoming a republic. Even though in practice we are not required to bow our heads before the monarch, in theory we must. That seems absurd, especially when that monarch lives on the other side of the world. But worse than that, we have no say in who our monarch is. We have no choice about the next king or queen: we must simply accept whoever the House of Windsor gives to us. Ridiculous.

Being a free people entails being able to choose our rulers, and being able to get rid of them if we don’t like them. For all practical purposes we are already a republic, but that last little bit of subservience remains. Someone else chooses our ultimate ruler, and we can’t stand tall, and look her in the eye.

In the past, when I lectured in Political Theory, I found that my female students, and my Maori students, “got” republicanism, from the inside. That’s not to say that many of my male students didn’t find it fascinating and compelling too. Nevertheless, something in the republican account of freedom gave female and Maori students an “Aha!” moment of recognition.

More on that another time.


I worked on republican political theory as part of my doctoral work. I picked up republican theory in its late 20th / early 21st century form, and applied it to the issues of how we can devise institutions that allow multiculturalism to flourish. The version of republicanism that I worked with was that developed by Professor Philip Pettit, especially in his book, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford University Press, 1997. Professor Pettit supervised my thesis at the Australian National University. In writing this post, I have drawn on my doctoral thesis, and on Philip’s work. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on republicanism.


2 responses to “Republicanism (1)

  1. In standard liberal theory (think of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill), freedom is construed as freedom from interference.

    Well, yes and no. Yes, in that freedom is normally considered in what Berlin called its negative sense. And no in that it can always be flipped around into a positve sense of the freedom to live your life as you want to.

    Historically, liberalism has also divided between the purely negative classical strand (which reaches its ultimate absurdity in modern Libertarianism, which holds that you can be perfectly free while property relations make you unable to leave your house, or even move from the ground on which you stand), and a strand which admits some aspect of positive freedom (in that the freedom to live your life as you want implies that things like poverty or sickness can be a constraint).

    That said, neither really captures your idea here that dignity and political equality are an important part of autonomy. And the way some modern classical liberals talk, they seem to think the exact opposite.