Powerful Freedom - RSA

Powerful Freedom


  • Enterprise
  • Creativity
  • Institutional reform

Philosophies emerge to fit the times. The seventeenth century was made for Thomas Hobbes, the eighteenth century for John Locke (and Rousseau in France), the nineteenth century was tailor-made for liberals, and the early to mid-twentieth century for social democrats before a re-birth of classical liberalism in the century’s latter decades. What of this era, a time of creative change and weakening hierarchies?

There are three main contenders. Firstly, is a version of liberalism which emphasises ‘freedom from’ or ‘non-interference.’ At its most extreme, this could become a form of libertarianism but liberalism is mainly a less isolationist creed. It has dominated in the last few decades in the developed world.

The second contender could be a new communitarianism. Michael Sandel is the best known advocate of modern communitarianism. It is essentially the creed of the Red Tory and Blue Labour factions in the Conservative and Labour parties respectively. Communitarianism pursues a ‘common good’ or virtues and seeks to define the world by moral axioms based on these virtues. It may be that this philosophy finds tensions with the ‘power to create’ –the freedom and power to turn your ideas into reality - as community virtue could weigh down on individual initiative.

Yet, the same goes for classical liberalism. It may well underpin a more creative world than communitarianism is likely to feel comfortable with but there’s a drawback. This drawback is power. There is little in the liberal creed to prevent domination of the weak by the powerful or the concentration of power and resources. Coercive or asymmetric relationships emerge between the employer and worker, between different citizens with access to different resources (see modern dollar-driven American democracy), between professionals and those who rely on them, between the state and the citizen, and between big business and the consumer. Liberals such as John Stuart Mill sought to mitigate these effects through utilitarianism which justified re-distribution on ‘happiness’ grounds. So liberalism confronted power imbalances mainly by papering over the cracks.

If we are serious about safeguarding and promoting the ‘power to create’ then there needs to be a new approach for these times that realises the shortcomings of both liberalism and communitarianism. In fact, we need to resuscitate an old way of thinking and apply it to our times. That way of thinking is republicanism – powerful freedom. As Philip Pettit explains in his brilliant new book, Just Freedom, republicanism is defined by a single aim: freedom comes through an absence of domination. And we need to create institutions that safeguard such powerful freedom as opposed to coercive freedom (my words) of classical liberalism.

Republicanism is easily confused with both liberalism and communitarianism. Indeed, both liberals and communitarians often use republican-style language. Republicanism accepts the need for virtue as communitarianism does but virtue is simply those institutions, processes, and norms that prevent domination. And it has a language of freedom much as liberalism does. But unlike liberalism, republicanism is more determined to confront domination. It does mean supporting the weak against the strong and not just compensating them for their weakness. Pettit draws a beautiful distinction between the freedom of the heath where we are more solitary and the freedom of the city where we live in complex cultures. Republicanism is about freedom in a complex society. That is the type of society in which we live.

What does this mean in practical terms? Let me look at three contemporary debates: the legalisation of assisted dying, the prevalence of low pay and how best to cast the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The communitarian would be likely to emphasise the sanctity of human life as a moral axiom. Assisted dying would offend this axiom and so the communitarian would be unlikely to accept assisted dying. The liberal would be more likely to see life and death as a choice. They would want to make sure the individual was of sound mind and it was their choice alone but, if a person was in pain, they would be more likely to accept that they could legally choose to die. The republican would be torn. They would see as problematic a legal system that dominated an individual to the extent that they would have to endure excruciating pain. However, there would have to be exceedingly tough safeguards that ensured any individual choosing assisted dying had not been unduly influenced in their decisions by doctors or family members. The safeguards would have to be exceedingly robust. The republican could turn either way depending on that proviso.

Now, let’s take the example of low pay. The communitarian could see that the dignity of work was a virtue and a worker should have a defined relationship with society and a living wage would be part of it. The liberal, especially at the more social end of the liberal spectrum, would be more likely to see the tax and benefits system as a means of alleviating poverty. More classical liberals would see too much interference in market mechanisms counter-productive. Republicans would spot coercion straight away and would seek to act to create pragmatic institutions where trade unions or living wages to redress the balance. The freedom to live a ‘good life’ (defined in context of any given time/society) in return for a reasonable amount of labour is critical so as not to be subject to the domineering wealth and power of others.

Some of these ideas will inform the work that Adam Lent and I are planning to do on recasting the relationship between people and the state. What could encapsulate powerful freedom more than the ability to influence the services you use on the basis on power over the resourcing of those services? As long as the state is an active agitator for quality and innovation then the whole relationship could be flipped – people would have real power. Moreover, has the time come, in an age of rising micro-business and labour market flexibility, to think seriously about giving people a citizens’ income as a creative resource? Powerful freedom provokes some radical new ideas that may have previously seemed unimaginable – certainly in the world of the communitarian and the liberal.

The point is simply that we have a choice – and it is choice – about whether we encourage people to be active participants or passive recipients. Powerful freedom values the former. Companies, organisations and institutions have a dynamic role in changing the behaviours of those they should serve. They can either deploy a ‘get what you are given’ approach or devolve power and resources to open themselves up to challenge. Our research into a new relationship between the people and the state will start off from the conviction that we have a radical opportunity to tip the balance.

Philosophies very rarely make their way into the world of real politics unscathed or undiluted. However, we do need some philosophical guide for these times. Republicanism is too often defined in negative ways, ie ‘freedom from domination’. It could be more positively framed – the power to resist domination. When we have that freedom then our creative energies crackle and spark. The power to create becomes a democratic rather than elite endeavour.

Please contribute to our thinking on recasting the relationship between people and the state here.

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