Libertarianism (Classic Liberalism) vs. Republicanism – A Defense of Libertarianism

Mill PortraitTwo major philosophical positions on political and social justice are libertarianism and republicanism.  John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty is one of the most influential works on libertarianism and Phillip Pettit makes a strong case for republicanism in his work Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government.  In this article I will show that libertarianism makes a more consistent and compelling argument for individual liberty, which in turn promotes social justice.

In order to make a distinction between libertarianism and republicanism, non-interference and non-domination will be examined.  Mill describes libertarianism as a form of non-interference, which is the belief that one should be able to do as they please so long as they are not interfering with others, and one should be free from interference by others.  Mill has two main arguments on why this type of liberty is so essential, autonomy and individualism.  Autonomy, according to Mill, is being able to choose ones goals without interference, and one should be able to pursue the chosen goals without interference.  For example, if ones goal is to become a mathematics teacher there should be no outside force obstructing his path in pursuit of becoming a mathematics teacher.  Of course, it is assumed that the pursuance of ones goals does not interfere with someone else’s pursuance of their goals.  Individualism is important because it promotes progress.  If everyone conforms to the common belief then there will be no one to find the downfalls of the common belief.  For example, when the Pythagorean mathematician Hippasus of Metapontum discovered the existence of irrational numbers he was thrown overboard to drown at sea.  It is easy to see that this is a bad situation because the existence of irrational numbers creates a whole lot of interesting fields of mathematics that further increases humanity’s knowledge of the universe.  Therefore, if the majority has the ability to interfere with the minority in order to subdue opposing beliefs, new truths will be left off the table when debating justice or liberty.  Another example where individualism is important to consider is during state and federal election cycles.  More often than not debates between potential republican nominees are over very similar things and are essentially debating different versions of the same policy.  However, if there is one candidate that has very different opinions, if his views are closer to the truth and our constitutional principles but were subdued due to being the minority the public would be worse off for never hearing his opinions.  Thus, autonomy and individualism are important facets of liberty.

Mill would believe there are very few legitimate justifications for government intervention.  Basically, he would only be in favor so long as it promotes the type of freedom as stated above.  If a simplified society is examined, the type of government intervention that is legitimate is very clear.  Imagine a three-person society governed by a single agency.  If two people were engaging in a voluntary transaction, it would only be legitimate for the government to interfere if the third person were harmed by the transaction.  If a person is acting alone, the government has no right to step in and stop the act so long as he is not interfering with the other two people.  Obviously any voluntary transaction that takes place between all three individuals is allowable.  Now imagine if the three-person society takes place on an island with rough terrain and the three people living on all different corners of the island.  The governing agency would have a legitimate justification for some sort of taxation that will be used to pay for a form of transportation to decrease transaction costs between the individuals, i.e., the government can create a tax on X so that the efficiency of transactions increases to an equal or greater amount of the taxes.  One last thing that Mill would believe the government is justified doing is creating a tax on Y to pay for a national defense system.  It is hard to imagine how a defense system would be formed in such a simplified society, but the point is that a national defense system is one justified role of the government.  Would the government have any right to help the person whose area of the island is less endowed than the others?  The answer is no if it interferes with the other two citizens.  The discussion will clearly become more complex as the assumptions of the simplified society are relaxed, but the same basic principles of non-interference apply.

Non-domination as described in Pettit’s work Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government will be examined.  The difference in non-domination and non-interference is that under non-domination principles one can be interfered with as long as the interference is not arbitrary.  If the laws that are interfering with the citizens are arbitrary then according to Pettit, the laws become the instrument of the governing agency’s will.  If this happens we have a regime of an absolute King in which the citizens become slaves and are entirely deprived of their freedom. (Pettit, 36)  Now the question is who decides on the arbitrariness of an issue and what is arbitrary?  The answer is the officials that are elected by the public through a democratic process.  These officials should not have arbitrary power that is stated in a proper constitution.  These officials should also not be able to pass any laws that allow one group of citizens to dominate another group of citizens, or for one group to arbitrarily interfere with another group.  This point arises in one of the initial questions of what is arbitrary.  Pettit says the following:

While the law necessarily involves interference-while law is essentially coercive-the interference in question is not going to be arbitrary; the legal authorities will be entitled and enabled to interfere only when pursuing the common interests of citizens and only when pursuing these in a manner that conforms to the opinions received among the citizenry.

By this Pettit means laws are not arbitrary as long as the citizens are not dominated in any form.  The inferior persons choice options should not be narrowed, nor should the interferer change their judgment.  It is also clear that in order to not be arbitrary it must be accepted amongst the majority of the citizenry, but still within the realm of the drafted constitution.

From the definitions alone there is not a clear distinction between non-interference and non-domination, but Pettit gives examples of being dominated while not being interfered with that paints a clearer picture.  His example of being dominated only is known as the benevolent slave owner.  He claims that if there is a slave that has an owner that allows them to do as they please they are not technically being interfered with; they are however, being dominated.  This slave is just as free as the slave with an unkindly master, so therefore according to Pettit freedom requires the absence of domination, not just the absence of interference.

These two philosophies are very prevalent in the current political climate of America.  Most politicians adhere to Pettit’s definition of republicanism and some hold to Mill’s definition of libertarianism. There are some clear overlapping policies endorsed by these politicians and there are also some very distinct differences.  For example, all politicians believe in the basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and other things that do not interfere with others, but these freedoms are also making sure that no group can dominate another.  Other freedoms beyond America’s Bill of Rights can start to become less clear.  For example, both a republican and liberal will be in favor of some taxes in order to pay for the basic necessities that a government must, or at least traditionally provide, i.e. roads and a national defense.  A republican however, can claim a government should provide many more things so long as it is not arbitrary.  For example, a libertarian would never believe that it is the government’s responsibility to provide its citizens with health care, just that the government doesn’t disallow people to receive health care or that the government doesn’t interfere with ones pursuit of receiving health care.   A republican on the other hand could claim that insurance companies and hospitals dominate the citizen’s life in that if the citizen cannot afford health care they have a higher chance of dying.  Then there is an argument that the government should step in and socialize health care.  Another area in which the libertarian and republican might differ is legalization of all drugs.  A libertarian would say if someone is doing drug M in their home, and doing this drug does not interfere with the life of anyone else there is no reason for the government to interfere with this person’s life.  But, a republican could claim that criminalizing drug M is not arbitrary because it is protecting the citizen from being dominated by a substance. Furthermore, it decreases the availability of the drug and should ultimately decrease its usage by the citizens.  Another issue these two philosophies will differ in is the presence of labor unions.  A libertarian would say that as long as the working conditions are came to by a voluntary agreement, the agreement is just and fair according to the two parties.  A republican would not agree with this because then the employer will dominate the employee.  Thus a labor union will protect the employees working environment, make sure the employee has a fair wage, make sure the employer can’t fire the employee in order to hire cheap labor and provide the employee certain benefits such as health insurance.  There are many more things that a republican would argue for that are beyond the scope the rights provided by a libertarian.

Now that the differences and similarities have been explained, it will be shown that libertarianism is a much more consistent view if individual liberty.  The example of the simplified society clearly points out the type of laws and institutions that a libertarian would be in favor of, but if the same example is looked at through the republican definition of liberty it gets much more complicated.  As pointed out, the governing agency would still have the responsibility of forming a tax code that pays for a national defense and a transportation system for the citizens, the voluntary exchange principle would be the same, but the example of one person having a less endowed portion of the island is a bit unclear. As pointed out, the libertarian island would not expect the government to intervene, but the republican government could claim it needs to intervene and it is not arbitrary.  If one person is less well off in the three-person society, they are going to be at the whims of the other two, and in a sense dominated by them.  Therefore the government needs to step in and help them not be dominated.  It is unclear how they will help, but nonetheless the government must take from one or the other citizens, or both.  Since the other citizens are now forced to work for the government in order to help the less well-off they are being interfered with and dominated by the government.  They are not choosing to help the other, thus they are being told what to do with their time.  Because they are being told what to do with their time they are disallowed to choose freely how they want to spend their time and therefore being interfered with.  So the government makes a claim of non-arbitrary interference for the benefit of one citizen, but now it is dominating and interfering with at least one other citizen.  Now the argument of whose rights of not being dominated are more important must be had in order to resolve this issue.

If complications arise in the simplified society many more complications will arise once the assumptions are relaxed.  For example, the labor unions as mentioned above would cause complications.  One can make an argument that if labor unions are formed then the employees are dominating the employer.  Then one must ask why the employee’s rights are more important than the employers, just because there are more of them?  Furthermore, if we look at past experience it can be seen that industries with high labor unions are ran inefficiently.  These inefficient industries lower the standard of living because prices must rise; profits will be lowered, and ultimately if these industries do not want to go bankrupt there must be some sort of trade restrictions to stop foreign firms without unions to dominate the unionized domestic firms.  Due to higher prices and more trade restrictions simple economic models can show the dead weight loss to a society.  Furthermore, as Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction points out, a firm must have profits in order to invest in research and development in order to have technological innovations which further increase standard of living.  So now in order to protect the employees, the standard of living of an entire country is lowered by raising costs, increasing trade restrictions and slowing down the rate of technological progress.  This is just one of the issues a republican must tackle when they are arguing that non-domination is the best road to freedom; there are many more issues they must work very hard to prove that the interference is not arbitrary and that the interference would in fact create more freedom.

Another problem with Pettit’s non-domination is that it is assumed that one can be dominated while not being interfered with.  The example of the benevolent slave owner violates the Mill’s principle of autonomy.  If a slave has a benevolent owner, they are not free to pursue their goals without being interfered with.  Using the same example as before, a slave cannot become a math teacher even if their owner is benevolent to the highest degree, and if they can become a math teacher, they are not a slave.  Therefore the assumption that non-domination is more important than non-interference is not coherent with the ideal that Mill presents.

Based on the evidence presented, one must conclude that libertarianism is the most consistent form of individual liberty.  It is a clear and concise way of defining freedom.  It gives everyone equal rights without the chance of the government picking winners or losers, as in the case of the union example.  Therefore if a nation wants to progress it must promote social justice through libertarianism.


– JW




  • Mill, J.S, On Liberty
  • Pettit, Phillip.  Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government.
  • Van Den Berg, Hendrik.  International Economics, 1st edition.

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