Neo-Roman Liberty versus what exactly?

A follow up to the last post wherein I suggested that Neo-Roman liberty as defined by Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner claims to be directed against Hobbes and against Utilitarianism, but may be is not.

Hobbes, the 17th century political philosopher (amongst other things) was a critic of all the ancient republics and dismissed the claims of modern city republics to have more liberty than monarchies, picking out the Italian city republic of Lucca, which flew a banner bearing the motto ‘libertas’, for particular scorn on this matter.  His objects to antique republicanism include: the suggestion that there is no state in ancient political thought, so that they have missed the Hobbesian concern with the enforcement of the covenant in which citizens give coercive power to the state; the suggestion that the coercion exercised by republics to enforce laws is in now way more intense or damaging to individual liberty than the coercion exercised by monarchies; the ways in which the idea of a republic promotes subversion of the sovereign body; the confusion introduced by ancient authors who claim sovereignty can be, and should be shared, between some combination of monarchy, aristocracy and people. 

The ‘Neo-Roman’ opposition to Hobbes extends to Utilitarianism in a seemingly seamless manner when we con side that Utilitarianism in its original form was closely linked with the political Radicals of early 19th century Britain, that is advocates of free trade, extension of democracy, and small government.  The first complete edition of Hobbes was produced by a Radical of the name oıf Molesworth.  The point of Pettit’s and Skinner’s opposition to Utilitarianism in political theory is that it puts the focus on the consequences of laws and government actions for the welfare of the greatest number, rather than on political institutions and participation in them.  The real important figure for the Pettit-Skinner criticism of Utilitarianism is however not one of the two key early Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the now largely unread ethical theologian William Paley.  His apparent indifference to institutions and participation was supposedly the basis of 19th century liberalism.  Pettit-Skinner oddly don’t mention Joseph Butler the ethical theologian of a pro to-Utilitarian inclination whose collected works were edited by William Gladstone, the great Prime Minister and Grand Old Man of liberalism in 19th century Britain.  Butler is now read about as often as Paley.  

However, plenty about 19th century radicalism and liberalism does not fit with the Pettit-Skinner representation.  For clarity I should perhaps add that the Liberal Party emerged in Britain in the 1840s from the convergence of Radicals, Whigs (aristocrats inclined to parliamentarianism and theories of popular sovereignty), and Peelites (free trade Conservatives).  The Radicals did not provide governmental leadership as their Members of Parliament did not become ministers, but they did provide intellectual leadership until roughly the 1870s, when New (interventionist state) Liberalism grew in influence and Radicalism came to be associated with that position.  Getting back to the original Radicals, they were not indifferent to institutional reform and popular participation since they promoted expansion of the franchise beyond the property owning classes, and were associated with popular opposition to the Corn Laws (which raised the price of bread by taxing imported corn).  W.E. Gladstone who moved from ultra-Toryism via Peelism to a very Radical leaning liberalism, was himself associated with expansion of the franchise, a greater role for elected local government, and self-government for those parts of the Empire which most like Britain through dominion status.  Mr Gladstone was a enormously charismatic public speaker attracting enormous crowds, who on one occasion waled up Mount Snowdon in Wales to hear the People’s William in full oratorical flow.  

Turning to the philosophers, Bentham moved from Toryism (innately sceptical then and now of the benefits of political reform) to radicalism, which was in favour of such reform.  Mill’s political thinking may have been influenced by Hobbes, but it was also influenced by the enthusiasm for the ancient Athenian republic to be found in the History of Greece by the radical lawyer and historian, George Grote.  Pettit recognises Mill as a possible member of the republican side in political theory, and takes a similar attitude to Alexis de Tocqueville who was a major influence on Mill.  

Pettit and Skinner have both written at length on Hobbes.  Pettit’s book Made with Words seems particularly at odds with the Pettit-Skinner view of the history of political thought since he emphasises the ways in which Hobbes puts language above force in his political theory.  Political institutions rest on discussion and agreement with reference to contract and covenant, and the existence of such institutions encourages communication and discussion about matters of public interest, encourages the very idea of a public with common interests to discuss.  Pettit describes these aspects of Hobbes in terms which embed Hobbes in the public reason of John Rawls and the discourse ethics/communicative action  of Jürgen Habermas.  Hobbes becomes the intellectual originator of theories of public participation in the conditions of modern democracy, as opposed to the face to face communication of Athenian democracy in which all citizens met in one place as an ecclesia discussing laws and state actions.  

Neo-Roman liberty is a polemical concept designed to exclude ‘liberalism’ from republican ideas of institutions and cultures of political liberty.  The polemic against ‘liberalism’ is really an assault on classical liberalism and libertarianism; it is clearly not an assault on egalitarian or left liberalism, which typically draws on Rawls and Habermas.  As the history of Radicalism in Britain shows it is a polemic with shaky grounds, though there is a streak of anti-politics in libertarian thought which fits with the Pettit-Skinner polemic.  However, that is not the full story of libertarian or classical liberal thought.  


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