Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All people, made equal by the Creator, are freely endowed with these inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence rightly recognizes.
But can we all be said to enjoy equal opportunity in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if a police officer, unlike a civilian, can murder you with impunity and qualified immunity?
If a large marauding group of people, justifiably angry over injustice, is able and permitted on a mere whim to destroy your home, your business or your life, do you, as an individual, enjoy equal liberty with the group?
How free are we if preventable, treatable and curable illness dominates our ability to function equally in society compared with the momentarily healthy because of the market’s failure to ensure health care access for all who need it?
These notions of equal opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inherently reveal the God-given, innate sovereignty of every single individual person to be freely able to live fully and make whatever choices for themselves as they see fit according to their needs, desires and conscience.
Of course the boundaries of this sovereignty will be tested. Some individuals or groups will inevitably achieve the ability to assert arbitrary and capricious power over the lives, bodies, choices and options of others in order to pursue their own ends. And some will indeed exercise this power over others. In effect, some people’s enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be deprived by domination of others abusing their rights, power, and privilege in enjoying the same.
We need not list the innumerable and horrific ways we have witnessed this behavior inflicted on people at individual and systemic proportions throughout history.
Yet, wise people who have deeply understood these rights and behaviors saw the need to balance them through the institution of government. In essence, government is the physical manifestation of the proverbial social contract whereby sovereign individuals concede limits to their privilege and power in exchange for mutually guaranteeing to one another the ability to enjoy certain fundamental rights no matter what.
To achieve this, governments have taken all kinds of forms throughout history, from direct democracy to absolutist monarchy and dictatorship.
However, one framework of republican government stands out in clear contrast from all others: the civic republican framework.
What distinguishes the civic republican approach to government?
The civic republican’s aim is achieving a world where every person is free from domination. It is the core belief of the civic republican that liberty can only truly exist, and be enjoyed equally, where no dominating forces are able to harm or restrict a person’s life, body, choices or options as a result of arbitrary and capricious power. What is arbitrary and capricious power here? It is any force capable of getting away with causing harm, through abuse of its own liberties or leveraging an imbalance of power or privilege at its sole discretion, without ever actually having to answer for it or make things right going forward.
To accomplish liberty as non-domination equally and equitably for all persons and groups, the people of a society have to agree to manage their affairs publicly not by rule of power but exclusively by rule of law, whereby all persons regularly living under a set of laws actively partake in their formulation as well as their just enforcement.
The purpose of the rule of law is to establish clear, objective and impersonal boundaries where domination over anyone’s liberty is rendered null and void. The rule of law must also prescribe what actions are to be taken to regulate and prevent actual or potential dominating forces in the society. When unlawful domination occurs or arbitrary and capricious power is exerted that does harm to any individual, justice must be rendered impartially in order to restore a balance of liberty by correcting the resulting imbalance of equity among all affected parties.
Ultimately the people of such a society safeguard the rule of law and liberty as non-domination through publicly elected and administered institutions that serve as agents on their behalf. However, these institutions of republican government too must be carefully limited, lest they themselves perversely dominate through arbitrary and capricious power over the liberties they are meant to protect.
To be clear, the rule of law is not about thoughtless enforcement of whatever literal written words exist in the law. That too often could result in an unjust, legalistic tyranny. When constructed inclusively and enforced justly in the context of achieving liberty as non-domination for everyone, the proper rule of law actually encourages peace and prosperity organically because of the absence of harm and retribution from injustices that would otherwise foment disorder. In fact, to the contrary, it is the consistently blatant and uncorrected violations of the rule of law and the principle of liberty as non-domination that result in unrest, extreme poverty and other socio-economic ills, perpetuation of cycles of injustice, theft and destruction of property and, most importantly, unnecessary loss of life. This is exactly where the rule of law and liberty as non-domination can prove “right makes might,” not the other way around.
Therefore, the single most important question the civic republican would ask on any matter is, does this eliminate arbitrary and capricious power that dominates anyone’s liberty? If it eliminates arbitrary and capricious power, then it fulfills the civic republican ideal of liberty as non-domination. Otherwise, new policies and reforms must be enacted to correct this.
According to leading civic republican political philosopher, Philip Pettit, in his book Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, one can use three key tests (as paraphrased) to assess if they are enjoying the civic republican ideal of liberty as non-domination:
- Eyeball Test: The eyeball test requires that people should be so resourced and protected in the basic choices of life—in short, the basic liberties—that they can look others in the eye without fear or deference of the kind that a power of interference might inspire. When you enjoy social, medical, and judicial security, and benefit from a suitable legal and economic order, your security does not depend on the indulgence and condescension of others. You can walk tall and assume the status of an equal with the most powerful in the land.
- Tough Luck Test: The tough luck test requires that the government should support and protect its people on the basis of such equally shared control that if a collective decision goes against you, then you have reason to view this as tough luck, even by the most demanding local criteria, and not as the sign of malicious forces working against you or your kind. If the government decides to allow a waste transfer station to be built near your backyard, for example, then it does so on the basis of processes and principles of decision-making that you join with others in making; it is not the product of a coalition of hostile interests out to get you or your neighbors. Thus you can feel that the adverse decision about the waste transfer station was just bad luck, an unfortunate setback on a par with a bout of illness.
- Straight Talk Test: Finally, the straight talk test requires that the peoples of a society each have such resources and protections in dealing with groups, institutions, states and other bodies that the contributions of their representatives in collaborative and political settings can reasonably be construed at face value. They are contributions made in public exchanges where the parties each command respect; none has reason to speak in the presumptuous tones of the master and none in the mealymouthed tones of the servant. Thus, if a people’s representatives assume a different posture, say by deferring to the spokespersons for another group, for an international agency, or for a multinational corporation, then by contemporary criteria they can be accused of timidity or paranoia.
With the understanding that proper republican government ought to function as the robust public moderator of the rule of law and dismantler of dominating forces that rob people of their ability to enjoy liberty equally, almost any issue and its appropriate policy outcomes can be viewed in a more focused light. Consider what powers or forces, seen as acceptable right now, are actually exerting inequitable, arbitrary and capricious domination over people’s liberty with regard to climate change, criminal justice, education, immigration, business, property, labor, the war on drugs, national defense, health care and more. The implications and solutions to consider from here are profound and seemingly revolutionary.
Now it is important to understand that civic republicanism rises above the current conception of politics as we know it. There is no libertarian, conservative, moderate or progressive. No left, center or right. There is but one test for civic republican governance: whether liberty is enjoyed equally by all people without threat of domination. All other considerations can be evaluated as derivative from there.
It is this state of just and equal freedom that ought to be the highest calling of the United States of America and all levels of government under it. By doing so, we may finally endow everyone with the promised fruits of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution at last, once and for all.
There’s no time to waste in ensuring everyone is truly free from domination of any kind. Now let’s get to work.
Join the Civic Republican Caucus of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club to discuss further and craft policy positions that advance liberty as non-domination. Currently registration is open to anyone who is interested. Our first meeting will be Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 7pm via Zoom. Registrants will be sent a link in advance to participate.
Jonathan J. Judge is the Chair of the newly formed Civic Republican Caucus of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club. He is also former President (2008–2011) and currently serves as a member of its Board of Directors.
Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash