Following on from my last post,the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in New York State, recently re- posted an item on Arendt and Friedrich Hayek, ‘Vigilance in the Name of Freedom’. Arendt (1906-1975) was the German-American political theorist who played a big role in advocating a position descended from antique republicanism. That is she argued that freedom depends on political action, on the best kind of political judgement in life, and not just limitations on the power of the state. The post at the Hannah Arendt Center blog brings that position into comparison with Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’. There Hayek argues that conservatives are too dependent on authority, in the sense of obedience to political authority and in the sense of arguments from authority. The suggestion of the post, and an apposite one to my mind, is that Hayek’s vision of a forward looking liberalism is very compatible with Arendt’s form of republicanism, which is also deeply concerned with limits on state power. As the post points out, Hayek did not like the word ‘libertarian’ with he though implied something more radical and more rapid in its implementation than what he favoured. Nevertheless, he is a major influence on market libertarianism of all kinds,and we can perhaps accommodate his concerns by labelling him a ‘soft’ libertarian. That is a better solution than Hayek’s occasional own preference for terms like Whig and Old Whig, referring to British politics before the mid-nineteenth century. The term Old Whig could refer to supporters of Parliamentary power before the English Civil War (also known, and more accurately, as the War of the Three Kingdoms) of the 1640s and 50s, but Hayek probably had in mind to Edmund Burke’s reference, during the time of the French Revolution, to the position of the previous generation of Whigs.
Discussions about liberty from the state (libertarianism) and a culture of active political liberty do belong together. They can certainly be found together in ancient republicans, early modern republicans and in classical liberals. The shift towards an anti-political or a-political liberalism really emerges from reactions to the American Revolution, and then even more so to the French Revolution, and then to late revolutionary episodes.
In recent discussions of republicanism, the more normative (discussion of universal principles) side has been dominated by Philip Pettit; and the historical side has been dominated by Quentin Skinner. There is much to recommend them as a normative theorist and as a historian of ideas, but they both try to equate republicanism (which they also call Neo-Roman liberty) with social democracy and the kind of ‘egalitarian liberalism’ to be found in John Rawls. The relation between Rawls and Hayek style liberalism is a complex one I won’t go into right now, but in general we can say that Rawls’ influence has been towards greater of lesser restraints on, and redistributions of, the income and wealth distributions produce by a market economy. There is no reason to think that this is part of the general republican tradition. Along with the exclusion of ancient Greek republicanism, attempts to make monarchy and democracy equal for Machiavelli, and so on, the Pettit-Skinner version of republicanism has entrenched a peculiar reading of republican tradition in general, and of particular moments in that tradition. More republican theory using Hayek, Arendt or both, would be a great development.