The new republicanism, part 1

The meaning of republicanism is often reduced to an argument over the means of acquiring heads of state: aristocratic inheritance or election? Conversations and debates in Britain and nations with historic ties to Britain via empire and mass migration, such as New Zealand and Australia, are typical in this regard. In the public arena, republicanism is anti-monarchism and little else.

In fact, republicanism is very much more than this one-dimensional debate might suggest. Drawn from a tradition going back to classical Greece and Rome, the foundational notions of republicanism – public politics and self-government – underpinned the struggle against feudalism and absolute monarchy, and were brought to the fore in the works of Rousseau, Paine and many others.

A recent resurgence of interest in these ideals has become known as neo-republicanism. An article by Richard Dagger (2006) provides a useful summary of four important ingredients of a 21st century republic: political equality, freedom as self-government, deliberative politics, and civic virtue.

Just to avoid any doubt, this discussion of republicanism has nothing to do with the US Republican Party. (Heaven forbid!) In fact, though Dagger writes from an American perspective, some of his ingredients of a republic and the economic policies that follow from them would, I feel sure, seem extraordinarily radical in that context. They seem less provocative to me, having lived with a tradition – or perhaps, these days, just a memory – of social democracy.

In another post I discuss how neo-republicanism connects with green politics. Here I want to look at Dagger’s four ingredients of a republic in more detail.

Political equality: A belief in “the equal and intrinsic worth of all persons” leads to the understanding that “every citizen should stand on an equal footing, under the law and in the political arena, with every other” (p.154). This statement is interpreted broadly. Thus Dagger (quoting Michael Sandel) notes that “Growing inequality does damage to the sense in which democratic citizens share a common life” (p.154) and suggests that limiting wealth inequality is an important republican aim.

Freedom as self-government: For republicans, freedom is not the libertarian ideal of ‘being left alone’ by an interfering state, but freedom from “dependence on or domination by those who are in a position … to lord it over them.” Thus republicans may wish to “relieve women from subjection to men, workers from subjection to employers, and members of some racial, ethnic, or cultural groups from subjection to others – all in the name of both equality and freedom” (p.155). Freedom therefore becomes a matter of “living under the rule of laws that one has a voice in making” (p.155).

Deliberative politics: To ensure the political equality of self-governing citizens, the republic must “provide opportunities for equal citizens to govern themselves in a deliberative manner” (p.155) through debate and discussion. This means “rejecting the so-called economic model of politics, according to which individuals and groups bring their preferences, already fixed, to the political marketplace, where they use their political capital and bargaining power to strike the best deals for themselves” (p.155).

Civic virtue: Dagger insists that deliberative politics will only succeed “if there is a sufficient supply of civic virtue; otherwise, debate and deliberation will be little more than a vain display that merely distracts attention from the ‘real’ politics of bargaining for personal advantage” (p.155). Ties to family, community, city, nation or people generate a moral force that Dagger sees as essential to this civic virtue – a recognition that we are each not mere atomized self-absorbed consumers but part of a society that we each contribute to positively and actively as citizens.

Having sketched out this basic framework for a republic, Dagger comments that “an adequate political theory must also have something to say about economic matters” (p.156) and this is what concerns the rest of his paper. His focus in particular is on the role of markets and property in the republican economy.

According to Dagger, markets play an important but constrained role in the republic: “markets are fine in their place, but not when they spill into, and corrupt, other parts of life. In particular, neo-republicans must doubt that the market will always work toward the accomplishment of political equality, freedom as self-government, deliberative politics, or civic virtue” (p.158). Short of abolishing markets altogether, the options are “to look for ways to limit the political effects of wealth, or to limit the disparities in wealth that flow from markets” (p.158).

The republic is also seen as a property owning democracy. Quoting liberal philosopher John Rawls, Dagger argues that property ownership resonates with republicanism because “its intent is ‘to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality’ ” (p.161).

From these principles, Dagger develops five key features of a republican economy:

1. Taking the character of work and the workplace seriously: The efficient production and distribution of goods and services should not come at the expense of self-governing citizenship. Republican employment policies will prohibit firing of employees without just cause, may “encourage people to go into business for themselves or to form cooperative enterprises” (p.162), and may encourage workplace democracy.

2. Taking community seriously: Economic decisions should be assessed for their long-term impact upon the community. The republic should “look for ways to protect communities against the ravages of market competition” (p.163) including support for locally owned businesses over multinationals and for small main-street retailers over ‘big-box’ outlets. Republicans should prefer fair trade over free trade, “with the preservation of community … figuring prominently in the definition of trade that is fair” (p.164).

3. An inheritance tax: This tax must be “enough to check the possibility that inherited wealth will lead to political inequality and put some people in a position to dominate others” but should not undercut the community “by making it extremely difficult to keep a farm or small business in the family” (p.164).

4. A progressive consumption tax: Taxation is shifted from income to expenditure in order to encourage saving and the independence that follows from it. Consumption taxes are often seen to be hard on the poor, which is why a progressive tax is proposed: “the tax may take effect only when one’s expenditures go above a certain level deemed sufficient to meet one’s (or one’s family’s) basic needs; and then, above that level, the tax rate increases as expenditures for consumption increase” (p.165). It is possible that a progressive consumption tax may render an inheritance tax unnecessary.

5. A guaranteed minimum level of social support for citizens: This is required to facilitate political equality and self-government, and would be likely to take the form of a conditional basic income or a basic capital grant. The basic capital grant is seen as attractive, providing the material basis of freedom and independence through the ability to finance education, time off from work, setting up a business, or caring for dependents, for example.

There is plenty in Dagger’s programme that will echo with greens, particularly those with an interest in social justice/social responsibility. The idea of a progressive consumption tax is, I think, a particularly green one. But there is no explicit connection to the natural world and the ecological crisis in Dagger’s paper. In the second part of this posting (here) I take a look at some work that is making direct connections between neo-republicanism and green politics.


Richard Dagger (2006) Neo-republicanism and the civic economy Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 5(2), 151-173.

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