August 23, 2018


False Concepts of Liberty (WIN MCCORMACK, August 23, 2018, New Republic)

A few years ago, at a panel discussion I attended among labor leaders about the condition of unionism in America, one of the speakers launched into a diatribe against the Koch brothers and their funding of anti-union "right to work" laws. The brothers' arguments in favor of them, he said, were predicated on a phony concept of individual rights and totally insincere--designed to mask their real purpose of wreaking havoc on the American labor movement. I responded that it doesn't matter whether the Koch brothers are sincere. They are making a political argument, and anyone who wants to defeat it needs to make a political counterargument against it.

The counterargument I suggested depends on restoring the moral framework of civic republicanism. Alongside the liberal tradition, which concerns itself predominantly with the idea of individual liberty, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, civic republicanism constitutes a second foundational tradition in American political thought. It centers on the idea of citizenship, embodying what some have called "communal liberty." The central concepts of civic republicanism are "the public interest" and "the common good," exactly the lodestars that guide unions in representing their members.

Of course, republican liberty requires that the public determines the public interests and adopts a legal framework to vindicate them and then we are universally bound by it. At one point, during a depression, the public determined that unions should have power over businesses. This period resulted in the stagflation of the 70s. During the long post-inflation boom, we have determined that unions should no longer have that power.  Arguments against the results of republicanism are ultimately just arguments against liberty.

The Theory of the Republic (Maurizio Viroli, Machiavelli's Prince and the Discourses)

If we now analyse Machiavelli's works, the first point that needs to be stressed is that Machiavelli's republicanism is above all else a commitment to the vivere civile. Any form of government, including republican or popular government, which does not fulfil the requirements of civil and political life is either a tyranny or a corrupt republic - that is, the two worst calamities that can befall a people.

In full agreement with the tradition that I have outlined [in the portion of the text we have excluded], Machiavelli regards the rule of law as the basic feature of civil and political life. In the Discourses, he in fact contrasts political life ('vivere politico') with tyranny, understood as authority unbound by laws ('autorità assoluta'), and opposes armed violence to 'civil modes and customs'. In the Florentine Histories he contrasts civil life ('vivere civile') with 'sole authority' ('unica autorità'). Elsewhere, he opposes political life to corruption: in order to obtain glory, he writes, a man must use different methods in a corrupt city ('città corrotta') from those he would use in one which lives politically ('politicamente'). A corrupt city, he explains, is precisely one where laws are disobeyed ('le leggi bene ordinate non giovano'), where 'are found neither laws nor institutions which will suffice to check widespread corruption'.

When he speaks of rule of law, Machiavelli means, first of all, observance of the principle of legality - that is, the principle which prescribes that men's actions are to be judged on the basis of general rules which apply equally to all actions of the same type and to all individuals of the group concerned. Like the jurists, he sees the generality and the impartiality of the law as the basis of civil life. The laws, be says, 'make [men] good' - that is, compel them to serve the common good and refrain from barrning their fellow-citizens, as civil and political life demands. A wise legislator must frame the laws assuming that 'all men are wicked', and that they will always behave with malignity, if they have the opportunity. The law is therefore necessary, and, once it is in place, it must be obeyed without allowing for privileges or discriminations. As be strongly asserts, crimes have to be punished regardless of the personal and public merits of the criminal. No well-ordered republic ('republica bene ordinata'), he writes, 'allows the demerits of its citizens to be cancelled out by their merits; but, having prescribed rewards for a good deed and punishments for a bad one and having rewarded someone for doing well, if the same person afterwards does wrong, it punishes him, regardless of any of the good deeds be has done'. Should this principle of legal justice be disregarded, be concludes, and the wording is important, 'civil life will soon disappear' ('si resolvera ogni civiltà').

Machiavelli's commitment to the principle of legality is apparent also in his strong admonition that to remain well ordered, and to prevent corruption, a republic must be sure that punishments are always inflicted according to the law by legitimate public authorities, never by private citizens acting outside the law. Coriolanus, who commanded not to distribute corn to the people in order to diminish their political power, was saved from popular fury by the tribunes, who summoned him to appear in court. Had the mob lynched him, Machiavelli remarks, his death would have been a wrong inflicted by private citizens on a private citizen ('offesa da privati a privati'). This violation of legality would have caused fear and mistrust in the efficacy of the law to provide for adequate protection. As a result, citizens would have formed factions to protect themselves, thereby causing the downfall of the republic. But, since the whole matter was settled by public authorities in full respect of the law - that is, in an orderly way ('ordinariamente'), the Roman Republic did not suffer serious consequences.

When he speaks of rule of law, Machiavelli always means rule of just laws - that is, laws and statutes that aim at the common good. It is the law understood in this sense which is the foundation of true civil life and of the liberty of the citizens. As the anonymous speaker of the Florentine Histories eloquently explains, to restore a 'free and civil life' ('vero vivere libero e civile'), Florence needs new laws and statutes that will protect the common good and replace the rule of factions, which imposes 'orders and laws made not for the public but for personal utility', 'not in accordance with free life' but by the ambition of that party which is in power'. In the Discourses be stresses that, when the Roman Republic became corrupt, 'only the powerful proposed laws, not for the common liberty, but to augment their own power'.

The best government is that which is more apt to secure the rule of law and the common good. It is precisely from this angle that Machiavelli discusses the comparative merits of different forms of government. A political life can be ensured either through a republican government or through a monarchy, provided that, whoever the sovereign is, is bound by laws. Between the government of a people 'chained' ('incatenato') by the laws and that of a prince 'bound by the laws' ('obbligato dalle leggi'), Machiavelli firmly believes that the former is better than the latter; but the fundamental requisite in order to have a political life is that the sovereign, be it one or many, is under the law, because a prince 'who can do what be pleases is mad' and a people 'which does what it likes is unwise'.

In his defence of the superiority of republican government over monarchy, Machiavelli restastes the classical argument that, if deliberations on matters of general interest are entrusted to the many, it is more likely that the common good will prevail over particular interest. 'I claim', he writes in the Discourses,

that the populace is more prudent, more stable, and of sounder judgement than the prince. Not without good reason is the voice of the populacc likened to that of God; for the opinion of the people is remarkably accurate in its prognostications, so much so that it seems as if the populacc by some hidden power discerned the evil and the good that was to befall it.

And in Book II of the same Discourses, be puts the point even more forcefully: only in republics is the common good 'looked to properly', because only in republics are the deliberations that are conducive to the common good carried out no matter if they hurt this or that private person. In a principality just the opposite is true, for what the prince does in his own interest usually harms the city, and what is done in the interests of the city 'harms him'.

Posted by at August 23, 2018 10:01 AM