Republicans, virtue and the values of the market

DW logo small.png

Republicans are often accused of being inconsistent, or even incoherent, in embracing free market policies that are incompatible with their own ideas about civic virtue. But is this accusation fair?

Alan Coffee
21 March 2014

Republican thinking has, in recent years, become a prominent feature of social democratic (and perhaps wider left) political debate. Its attractions are clear. Republicanism offers a robust protection of individual rights and freedoms that is combined with a communitarian commitment to civic virtue, social equality and an idea of the common good.  In venturing to accommodate all these values within a single framework, republicans stand ready to fill the intellectual void left by the disaffection with socialism while resisting the excesses of unconstrained free-market, or ‘neo-liberal’, policies (White 2007). That said, in steering this middle course, the majority of present-day republicans have nevertheless accepted the central, and indispensable, role that the market plays in modern economic and political life. Such a rapprochement, however, has struck a number of critics as odd. Is this combination – markets and republicanism – plausible?

Current republican theory draws heavily for its conceptual resources on a classical past that pre-dates capitalism. As the influence of the market grew, republicans were vocal in their opposition (as we find in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Richard Price and Mary Wollstonecraft, for example). As Jessica Kimpell notes in her post in this series, the central republican objection was that the commercial values of a market economy undermined the ‘civic virtue’ necessary for the viability of the free republican state. Republicans are not the only ones, of course, to recognise the importance of civic virtue in holding political communities together. John Locke, often regarded as a founding father of liberalism, frequently emphasises the need for citizens to show moral character and restraint, while still laying down the foundations for a commercial way of life. Amartya Sen, today, makes the same points, while other liberals such as Will Kymlicka stress the role of the state in fostering common civic virtues. Traditionally, however, republicans went much further than this according to Kimpell. The classical view was that the values and structure of market-based society were simply incompatible with virtue, and without virtue, she concludes, ‘the entire [republican] project fails’. If this is true, neo-republicans face a serious challenge.

What is civic virtue?

As things stand, the market isn’t going away, and so if they want their project to be the next ‘big idea’, republicans must have a response. The first thing that must be done, is to clarify what is meant by ‘virtue’, since this is a confusing term that has a number of senses. Despite the moralising connotations of the word, exacerbated no doubt by the puritan tone of much of the eighteenth century republican writing that has inspired today’s protagonists, virtue in its political sense just means a commitment to support the institutions of the state, and of our communities, that make our freedom, security and prosperity possible. There is no fixed definition of what this entails. At the minimum citizens should obey the law and make the effort to vote, for example. Beyond this, we ought to take the time to be informed about the important issues that affect us all, and to take the opportunity to hold our elected representatives to account.  Going even further, we might take part in activities that benefit our community or make sacrifices such as accepting necessary taxes or exercising restraint in the way we use government services.

Put in this way, however, the grand republican claims about virtue seem overblown. Many people would, of course, agree that it would be a good thing if the majority of citizens behaved in these ways and might possibly feel rebuked themselves for not being more involved. But this would hardly mark out anything distinctive about republicanism, or justify claims about its importance. I would agree. Promoting ‘virtue’ in this sense, however, is not the real republican preoccupation. Fundamentally, republicans are concerned with freedom – the freedom for individuals to act independently, on their own terms and in their own names. This kind of freedom, republicans say, is both an individual and a collective phenomenon, captured in the old slogan that to be free is to be ‘a freeman in a free state’. Our individual freedom, in other words, is bound up with, and predicated upon, the freedom of the whole which includes everybody else’s freedom.

Everybody’s freedom is interconnected

Here the republican claim is distinctive. On most alternative accounts of freedom, people are said to be free insofar as they are able to do the things that they want to do, which is not something that is necessarily tied to whether or not others are also free in this way. Republicans, however, see a causal connection between the freedom of the one person and the freedom of another. In other words, whether or not you are free has a direct influence on my own freedom. (That republicans see a relationship between personal and collective freedom also helps explain why they are committed to the combination of individualism, communitarianism and egalitarianism mentioned earlier.) Within this framework, virtue has a much more restricted scope. Republicans are only concerned with what citizens do to the extent that it either preserves or undermines the balance of freedom within the community. And their emphasis is not so much on the positive promotion of virtue as in preventing its erosion (or in Machiavelli’s language, in preventing its ‘corruption’).

The key question, then, is whether or not the market in society promotes or undermines freedom. Some people may find this question bizarre. The market is often seen as an essential aspect of freedom itself, as the means by which free people interact and coordinate their activities. In embodying values such as openness and equal opportunity, the market is also frequently regarded as being as indispensable to a free way of life as democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. It was, after all, capitalism that was emblematic of the ‘free world’ during the Cold War, in contrast to the socialist planned economies. Republicans, of course, need not deny the benefits the market brings. Nevertheless, they have a particular test regarding what it is to corrupt virtue, and thereby inhibit freedom.

The corrupting effects of power

Republican freedom is not primarily a reflection of things a person is able to do, so much as of the relationships of power in which he or she is embroiled. This is why freedom is equated with ‘independence’. Free people shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of others for how they act, but should be in a position to decide for themselves. There is nothing in this conception that implies that we ought to be self-reliant or wilfully individualistic, like John Wayne perhaps. Republicans recognise that our personal, emotional and social lives are intimately interconnected. Children, for example, rely utterly on their parents to bring them up. But a child shouldn’t depend on its mother or father deciding to look after it. Every child has a right to be cared for. Similarly, in marriage, husbands and wives need each other very much. But we are very grateful now to live in an age where a wife doesn’t depend on her husband’s discretion for her own wellbeing. She is an independent citizen in her own right.

Dependent people are unfree, republicans say, because they are not in a secure enough position to make the best decisions in light of their own ideas, beliefs and values. Instead, they must placate and humour those who hold power over them. Without pensions of their own, for example, many elderly people would have to curry favour with their children, neighbours and carers. And without employment rights, workers would often find themselves putting in excessive hours at the expense of their personal lives simply because they feared what their bosses could do (see Philip Pettit’s work for a very clear elaboration of this concept, though he uses the term ‘dominated’ for ‘dependent’).

To provide the services and maintain the institutions that prevent dependence, of course, requires the commitment and support of the population. Citizens must trust one another, for example, and exercise personal restraint in not claiming benefits they do not need. Here the republican analysis of the effects of dependence is subtle. Dependence, they argue, creates incentives that alter the way that people think. A dependent person, for example, is not motivated to take a tough stand on a moral issue, if this would draw unwanted attention and incur the wrath of someone in power. Far better to keep one’s head down. Vulnerable people, as Mary Wollstonecraft noted in the case of wives in the eighteenth century, become adept at using cunning, deceit and flattery in order to ‘govern their tyrants by sinister tricks’. Her rationale was telling, ‘without rights’ she said, ‘there cannot be any incumbent duties’. People in a position of dependence cannot be relied upon to behave virtuously. Why should they? Their first thought is simply to do whatever it takes to secure their needs. In this way, republicans maintain, dependence corrupts virtue. By putting people on an unequal footing, it creates an antagonistic motivational structure in which virtue is replaced by rational self-interest.

It isn’t only the dominated that are affected. Powerful people come to regard those they control with suspicion, knowing that they cannot be trusted. Their first thought is to protect their position of advantage rather than to help others less fortunate. They may also come to be surrounded by sycophantic lackeys and yes-men that always tell them what they want to hear rather than giving them the hard truths. (A corporate executive, for example, will fail without having the right information, and to succeed a general must know the real state of the army’s strengths.) Left unchecked, republicans argue that patterns of dependence in society have a tendency to spread themselves. By altering people’s motivations (and so corrupting their virtue), there is a knock-on effect as people interact with more and more people on an unequal basis. 

Back to the market

Republicans, then, have no particular attitude towards the market economy itself. They are only concerned with whether or not it is prone to create or diminish patterns of dependent relationships in society. It seems clear that it may do both. If jobs are provided that give people an income, if wealth is generated that allows people to save, and if competition spreads opportunity based on ability rather than favour, for example, then the market is certainly to be welcomed since these are all likely to increase people’s independence. But if, on the other hand, capital builds up disproportionately in the hands of a very few corporations who control the market, or certain wealthy individuals are able to buy influence in parliament or circumvent the law, then republican concern would be justified.

A deeper worry for republicans might be whether the individualism and reward of self-interest implicit in a market-orientated society are themselves incompatible with the dispositions that support the welfare and other provisions that protect against dependency. There is no doubt that this is a serious question, not just for republicans but for anyone concerned with state protection for the vulnerable. To the extent that this is an empirical question, there is no clear-cut evidence either way. The long history of republican politics and commercial society in Holland, England and the United States, however, suggests that the two can co-exist in some form of alliance.

I suspect there is no definitive answer on how republicans ought to view the market. Certain principles, nevertheless, are clear. An unregulated laissez-faire policy is ruled out. Basic welfare provision, in the form of income support, pension rights, disability allowance and paid parental leave is required as a safety net warding off dependence. Employment rights, paid holiday and equal opportunity legislation would also be needed. In the wake of the recent global financial crisis, we can also see now that, without oversight, the activities of a small number of key institutions can have a devastating impact on whole economies, effectively making everybody else dependent on the decisions they make.

However, between the dual spectres of neo-liberal neglect and strong state control, there is plenty of room for debate. Like most political theorists I have my own views about where the balance should be struck. Ultimately, however, this is a question that must be resolved by a democratically-empowered citizenry through collective public deliberation, subject only to the proviso that no decision can be taken that gives rise to more dependence than it reduces.

Seen through the lens of preserving independence, then, republicans are right both to embrace the market, and to fear it. But they have no reason to avoid it.



White, Stuart, ‘Is Republicanism the Left’s ‘Big idea’?’, Renewal 15 (1), 37-46. 2007.

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.



Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData