Can Liberal and Republican Political Theory be Reconciled?

Notes from ‘Liberalism and Republicanism: Public Policy Implications’ (13 February 2013, UCL). 

In recent years there has been a growing interest among political theorists and philosophers in republican political thought. Influenced by the works of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, proponents of this tradition typically claim it as a critical and superior alternative to mainstream liberal political theory. Yet it still remains unclear whether these two traditions are genuinely antagonistic. Historically, there is a considerable overlap in the canon of republicanism and liberalism. Theoretically, while past debates focused on different conceptions of liberty, contemporary work reveals some common ground between the two traditions.

Last February, some of my fellow PhD students (Sara Amighetti, Nick Martin and Volkan Gul) and I have organised a conference to explore this supposed common ground. Do the labels of ‘liberalism’ and ‘republicanism’ designate distinct positions in political theory, or on closer inspection does one position merely collapse into the other? Are they, perhaps, different strands of a common approach? If so, how might we tell them apart? And if we can tell them apart, which theory is better? More specifically, given that our department has a strong public policy focus, we aimed to address the recurrent questions in this theoretical debate through the prism of public policy.

The first panel of the day, chaired by Richard Bellamy, focused on rights and punishment. Christopher Hamel (Université Libre de Bruxelles) aimed to bolster the republican position by arguing that there are no good reasons to view rights as requiring a liberal, rather than republican, framework. However, Nicholas Kirby (Oxford) threw down a challenge to the republican concept of freedom by highlighting a possible internal inconsistency: the republican justification of criminal law is that as a probable deterrent it increases the freedom of would-be victims, but the republican rejection of liberal freedom is exactly that it turns on such probabilities and therefore lacks resilience. Similarly, Andrei Poama (Sciences Po/Yale) argued that when republicanism insists on equal legal treatment, it collapses into a liberal justification of punishment.

Cécile Laborde headed the second panel on the topic of neutrality and perfectionism. Gregory Whitfield presented a paper jointly written with Frank Lovett (both Washington University, St. Louis) defending republicanism against the charge that it is illiberal in the sense of justifying political institutions that promote an objective view of the good life. Greg Walker (Open University) then staked out a position for the reconciliatory camp as he argued that mainstream liberal and republican approaches are compatible and should both inform public policy; in support, he demonstrated how both approaches might justify same-sex civil marriage. Conversely, Tom Hannant (Queen Mary) argued that we should maintain a division between the two theories’ approaches to public policy, even if their recommendations are often similar, as changes in the factual situation might lead them to adopt opposing positions in the future.

In the third panel chaired by Albert Weale, speakers focused on the issue of non-arbitrary power and social protection. Alan Coffee (King’s College, London) elucidate the distinctive policy implications of an older, richer notion of republican independence, as opposed to the concept of non-domination, which, ironically, dominates much of the contemporary literature. The speakers then turned their attention to issues of distributive justice and political economy with Adam Fusco (York) arguing that, in spite of their different theoretical justifications, a republican civic economy would share many features with John Rawls’ influential liberal account of a property-owning democracy.

The fourth panel, chaired by John Filling, followed this theme. Maria Dimova-Cookson (Durham) followed this with a sustained attack on Philip Pettit’s concept of republican liberty, arguing that it internalises social justice in much the same way as L.T Hobhouse’s early twentieth century liberal account of freedom, but unlike Hobhouse, Pettit fails to address the continuity between freedom and wellbeing.  Simon Cotton (Princeton) argued that the most systematic republican theory of distributive justice, which he identified in the work of Frank Lovett, cannot theoretically support the egalitarian policies that it proposes. Specifically, he maintained that the republican goal of minimising domination was indeterminate between a number of intuitive and counter-intuitive policy proposals, and therefore tacitly relied on other values to prioritise the former over the latter.

I have at the pleasure of chairing Stuart White‘s keynote lecture, ‘The Relevance of Republicanism’, which I will attempt to reconstruct here. White argued that to be relevant, republican political theory must include a republican approach to the economy. Interestingly, he argued for a dialectic synthesis of different republican perspective, each compensating for the flaws of the others. First, and most famously,  neo-Roman republicanism maintains a Skinner-Pettit notion of  liberty as non-domination. But as Jessica Kimpell argues,  neo-Roman republicanism is anachronistic and utopian, fit for city states but not for the modern polity. So the second strand of republicanism is brought to the fore – the commercial republicanism of the 18th and 19th century, which accomodate the modern state and the market (think Constant and Tocqueville). Rawlsian ‘liberal republicanism’ steps in to help specify the distributional objectives of a republican economy and to provide a conception of legitimacy. Yet this still remains an ideal theory in need for a theory of transition. Thus the fourth strand of republicanism, ‘labour republicanism’ provides the platform for social movements to work towards the transition to a well-ordered republican society.

The full programme below.

9.15-10.45 – Panel 1: Rights, Law and Punishment

Chair: Prof. Richard Bellamy

Christopher Hamel (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Reworking Pettit’s republicanism on individual rights

 Nikolas Kirby (Oxford)

The disappearance of republican liberty: what is the difference between a disinterested gentle giant and a deterred criminal?


Andrei Poama (Sciences Po/Yale)

Not just republicans: two problems for a republican theory of punishment

10.45-11.15 Coffee break


11.15-12.45 – Panel 2: Social Values, Neutrality and Perfectionism

Chair: Prof. Cecile Laborde

Gregory Whitfield (Washington University in St. Louis)

Perfectionism, liberal neutrality and republicanism

Tom Hannant (Queen Mary, London)

In defence of distinction: a case for maintaining a division between liberalism and republicanism in theory and practice

Gregory Walker (Open University)

Liberalism, republicanism and same-sex marriage

12.45-13.45 Lunch

13.45-15.15 – Panel 3: Non-Arbitrary Power and Social Protection

Chair: Prof. Albert Weale

Alan Coffee (King’s College, London)

Republican Independence as Equality and Virtue. Part 1: Internal Diversity

Adam Fusco (York)

Freedom, the market, and citizenship: A republican sketch of the civic economy

15.15-15.30 Coffee break

15.30-17.00 – Panel 4: Justice in the Economic Sphere

Chair: Dr. John Filling

Maria Dimova-Cookson (Durham)

Liberty, welfare and social justice in the context of Pettit’s republicanism and Hobhouse’s new liberalism

Simon Cotton (Princeton)

Lovett’s conception of non-domination and its implications for distributive justice: an egalitarian critique

17.00-17.30 Coffee break

17.30-19.00 Keynote speech

 Dr. Stuart White (Oxford)

The Relevance of Republicanism

Chair: Lior Erez (UCL)


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