Unless you genuinely consider yourself an anarchist or a communist, or some other particular extreme, chances are your general philosophical position regarding the relationship between the individual, society and the state, will fall into one of two categories: neo-liberalism or neo-republicanism. They are essentially the modern manifestations of two different traditions that inform one about what freedom is, and what role the state has in its maximisation.
The neo-republican approach has its roots in ancient Rome, and sees freedom as something dependent on the law. This then places emphasis on how the law is formed, and what effect it has on the population. Constitutional and democratic avenues should ensure power is dispersed as widely and as fairly as possible in order to create a law that is representative of the people it governs.
A successful society that is deemed free, in the neo-republican sense of the word, would have a law that is created by the people and which belongs to the people. The ‘health’ of the society and its democratic institutions is emphasized. Individuals should be protected and empowered by the law, to allow them to be sovereign within their private spheres. And this law is considered to be a public affair, something everyone has a degree of input into; as opposed to it being the affair of an elite entity completely alien to the hopes and desires of the individual. Succinctly, the individual is free because they have a say in the law, and that law enables them to be free.
Before elaborating on the neo-liberal position, it should be noted that the term is to be interpreted with some caution. At present, it is often used in a reproachful way by opponents of those who consider themselves classical liberals or libertarians. However, in order to satisfy the need for a meaningful distinction to neo-republicanism, it is useful to think of those considering themselves as classical liberals or libertarians – or any other position generally consistent with the liberal tradition – as falling into the modern category of neo-liberal.
The liberal tradition is much younger than the republican tradition – it has its roots in 18th century Britain. It has two basic premises and a conclusion as follows: freedom is the absence of coercion, but all laws are coercive, therefore freedom is maximised when laws are minimised. It rejects as idealistic the notion that freedom can be achieved via representative government acting in the interests of every individual. Rather, by equating freedom with choice, and thus positing that it is then individual choice that is the overarching principle or goal, it concludes that focus must be on minimising the coercive power of the state that destroys individual choice.
It is therefore obvious why markets are viewed so favourably in the neo-liberal movement. In their ideal conceptualisation, markets are mechanisms by which individuals come together to exercise free choice to the betterment of everyone. It is irrelevant if decisions are made under non-coercive duress from imbalances in bargaining power. Also irrelevant is the social and political background to a situation in which an individual is required to make a decision. For example, the state should not concern itself that on average women are paid less than men. Since the sole concern is that the individual is not being coerced into making a particular decision, the state should only take action if women are being directly coerced by employers into lower paid employment.
Thus, it should obviously be noted that the principle is flexible enough to allow for laws that, although coercive by their very nature, prevent coercion of a greater degree. Freedom is not maximised in a total absence of coercive law. Generally, the neo-liberal movement calls for as small a state apparatus as possible, while acknowledging that no state at all – and therefore no coercive laws – is impossible, let alone desirable. For example, the movement generally accepts the state’s role in protecting individual property rights. But outside of a few permissible government functions, it is claimed that markets can provide the most effective and freedom-maximising means to organise the vast majority of societal needs.
For a neo-liberal, even if markets cannot deliver a perfect outcome in some area, the expansive distrust of the state means that government failure is generally presumed to be a greater risk than market failure (thoughts welcome below). Therefore government intervention in the economy, and often even society more broadly, is largely unwelcome. Whereas for a neo-republican, strength in democratic institutions should foster a trustworthy and competent government capable of repairing market failures.
To give a concrete – although admittedly obvious – example of these two approaches in conflict, consider the gun control debate. For someone sympathetic to neo-liberal ideals, it makes sense that they should reserve the right to purchase and own firearms if they wish. They are exercising individual freedom, and unless they use that firearm to impinge on someone else’s liberty, it is unjust if a government coerces them into giving it up.
Alternatively, a neo-republican approach would look at society as well as the individual. Because it regards a free society as one in which the law is a design of the people, directed towards protecting and empowering individuals, it would question whether or not lax firearm laws are, on the whole, protecting and empowering people, or endangering and disempowering people. If the answer is that they are having an overall negative effect, then society is deemed freer if the laws are tightened.
Although it is not always the most constructive tactic to analyse real-world issues through a purely ideological lens, having an understanding of the guiding principles and underlying values at play can prove useful to a certain degree. It is also important to note that semantic inconsistencies have the potential to confuse these approaches. For example, in the US the terms liberal, progressive or social democrat would all roughly fall into the neo-republican camp, while the terms libertarian and conservative would typically fall into the neo-liberal one. And in Australia, the meaning of the word liberal is reversed. However, outside of the extremes mentioned in the opening, it does seem that many, if not most, political disagreements about individual freedom in modern developed countries can be understood along the divide outlined in this piece.
In conclusion, one’s approach to many of these disagreements essentially boils down to whether one believes that freedom is defined by minimising the coercive power of the state, or whether one believes that freedom depends on the law’s ability to protect and empower the individual. To break it down further, it is whether one generally sees the law as a problem, or as a solution.
‘A brief history of liberty – and its lessons’, Professor Philip Pettit