Why I am a Confederal Republican:
“Live free or die,” asserts the official motto of the American State of New Hampshire. Such a motto may sound fanatical to our ears, but it reflects the perennial appeal of the value of freedom, which has spoken powerfully to countless generations of citizens since ancient times. Many people, especially in the West, see freedom as an essential element of a life worth living. For example, people feel they should be free to shape their own future, and not be dictated to by others about fundamental life choices. Many view their life as a personal project they are – or should be – free to direct as they will.
The meaning and value of freedom has been debated for over two millennia. The freeman, on the ancient Aristotelian-Platonic view, not only had rational dominion over his own inner life – passions, thoughts, choices – but the capacity to exercise rational dominion over the collective life of the community, through collaborative decision-making and public service. Furthermore, for the ancients freedom was vacuous if disconnected from objectively valuable ends, since these ends were what conferred meaning and worth on a human life. Only a life of virtue, embodying a sincere quest for truth and goodness, was considered truly liberating.
Many modern thinkers have abandoned the ancient notion that freedom is tied to human worth and nobility, and settled for a more formal understanding of freedom as the ability to do what one wishes, within certain legal and moral constraints. Thus, the connection between freedom and objective human flourishing, if not completely absent, has certainly receded from view.
Besides the disconnect between freedom and flourishing, another significant shift away from ancient views is the notion that individual freedom is consistent with the surrender of major decisions affecting the structure of social life to an elite class of rulers and economic ‘gurus.’ From an ancient Greek perspective, this does not make sense, for it assumes that a person can be free while operating within a socio-economic framework designed and imposed unilaterally by other agents.
To sum up, many modern theorists presume to isolate the value of freedom from the achievement of a flourishing life, as well as the right to participate actively in the construction of social order. Public discussions of freedom, as well as modern political institutions, seem to follow suit.
As far as I am concerned, these are the two pressure-points where modern political theory and practice go badly wrong. Discourse about freedom sinks into unintelligibility when freedom becomes unmoored from human flourishing. Furthermore, when our capacity to actively shape our collective life is usurped by highly centralized ‘representative’ bodies, under the pretext that they protect private freedom, liberty is reduced to the ability to exercise a profession and hobby of one’s choice, express one’s opinions, practice one’s religion, choose one’s marriage partner and associates, and engage in economic exchange without undue interference.
Of course, this is a lot more than is granted in totalitarian societies. However, it is perfectly compatible with political and economic servitude, that is, a state in which citizens surrender collective self-government and a large chunk of their income to a distant representative body, with extremely crude and limited mechanisms for holding such a body answerable for its actions.
And so, to distinguish myself from modern liberals, who think people should do what they feel like within the law, and are happy to delegate community governance to a centralized political and economic elite, I happily assume the label, ‘confederal republican.’ I am a republican – of a classical Aristotelian hew – insofar as I believe that freedom finds its perfection in the achievement of a rational and virtuous human life, which in turn requires inward self-dominion but also active and meaningful participation in the shaping of community life.
My peculiar brand of republicanism is partly inspired by 17th century German political philosopher and jurist Johannes Althusius, who conceived of politics as the “art of associating…for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life.” In my view Althusius took this principle in an excessively hierarchical direction, and was insufficiently attentive to the dangers of abuse and the need to build robust checks and balances into the system. Nevertheless, his emphasis on consensual associations as the building blocks of political order is salutary from the perspective of republican freedom, because it has the potential to take us far beyond the hierarchical and unitary model of the ancient polis.
A contemporary adaptation of Althusian principles entails that citizens can opt in and out of a wide range of associations, each with its own functionally and/or territorially limited authority, and these associations can delegate limited grants of authority to super-associations entrusted with coordinating the common affairs of many different associations. This fits with the etymology of confederal,con (together) and foedus (league, treaty), which suggests a complex and multilateral partnership rather than a consolidated union with power concentrated in a ruling center.
Confederal republicanism is not just a set of principles of institutional design, but a set of assumptions about governance and political order that need to be reflected in the mindsets of citizens and rulers alike. It has the potential to break the monopoly of states, political parties, and multinational corporations over public finance, welfare, public services, culture, taxation, and economic regulation, and create unprecedented opportunities for grassroots associations to play a more active and meaningful role in solving social and economic problems from the ground up.
Admittedly, this multilateral and de-centered paradigm of political order requires a high level of voluntary cooperation and a widely entrenched commitment to constitutionalism. Consequently, it is not a panacea for the problems of domestic and global governance in a world many parts of which lack a developed culture of freedom and constitutionalism. Nevertheless, under the right social conditions, it offers a very promising framework for the practice of republican freedom, with significant advantages if compared with the statist framework we currently live under. Indeed, even where its enabling conditions are lacking, confederal republicanism may still serve as a valuable regulative ideal for avant-garde political, legal, and cultural reforms.
Professor David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder