Freedom And Equality: In The Workplace

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

Elizabeth Anderson’s book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) is in part an application of her ideas about freedom and equality. Here’s a review in the New Yorker. Anderson takes a broad view of government. From the review:

If you exercise “public government,” you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield “private government,” the rules are not up for debate. In public government, decision-making is everybody’s business—the government “belongs” to everyone, like a public park. In private government, it belongs to the governor, as his or her private possession.

We saw this broad view with Bruce Scott here, and with Michel Foucault here. In Anderson’s terminology, the workplace is a private government, one in which workers have no say, and are subject to coercion, humiliation and domination at the whim of their employers. There are examples in the review, but you can find all you want with a bit of googling.

A contrasting view is set out in a book by John Tomasi in his book Free Market Fairness. Tomasi is a professor of political philosophy at Brown University. Anderson and Tomasi participated in a symposium on Tomasi’s book; here’s the introduction. Anderson wrote this, and Tomasi replied with this. Here’s Tomasi’s description of his book:

In Free Market Fairness, I argue that justice requires that our social institutions show respect for citizens as responsible authors of their own lives. Choosing whether to join a democratic workplace (that may offer lower pay) or a non-democratic workplace (where pay may be higher) seems to me a choice that we should seek to empower individual citizens to make for themselves. Democratic workplace requirements would deny workers a choice that many workers might reasonably make: namely, to choose a job that pays a higher wage rather one that offers the experience of democratic control. And many citizens might reasonably make that choice, not out of greed or moral stupidity, but as an expression of their own values and in pursuit of a life plan that is precious to them.

The first thing to note is that Tomasi is trying to argue that Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905) should be reinstated. Lochner concerned a New York law that prohibited bakers from working more than 10 hours a day amd 60 hours a week. The state of New York argued that this was a proper use of the police power, the general power of a state to protect the health and safety of bakery workers exposed to flour dust and physical exhaustion.

In a 5-4 ruling, SCOTUS decided that this statute interfered with the freedom of contract of the worker protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case made it difficult for governments at every level to protect the health and safety of workers. It stood for 30 years until the Court decided a series of cases rejecting the idea that freedom of contract was a constitutional right, implicitly but not directly overruling Lochner. Tomasi’s view would require reinstating Lochner or a Constitutional Amendment.

The two papers cited above take a different approach to Tomasi’s argument. These are dry arguments addressing complex issues of human life: the social relations between capitalists and workers in the workplace. Tomasi wants to leave these mostly unregulated, the lstandard libertarian approach. Anderson says that unregulated relationships will lead to relations of domination and oppression.

In the real world, Anderson has the better argument. We’ve all seen skin-crawling stories of workplace oppression practiced by US companies. We know that governments have been moving in the libertarian direction for over 50 years. That sounds like an empirical test showing that Anderson is right and Tomasi is wrong. Tomasi can’t refute that factual argument. Here’s his position:

Abstracting from the complicated facts of particular societies, my hope is to identify the institutional forms that might best express the commitment of citizens to live together as free and equal self-governing agents. My main thesis, of course, is that market democratic regime-types—democratic laissez-faire and democratic limited government—express that moral commitment more completely and more attractively than do social democratic ones—liberal socialism and property-owning democracy. So my argument is an exercise of normative identification that is conducted at the level of ideal theory.

He admits that he can imagine a society in which the workplace liberties that make up his preferred world, his rules of free market fairness, could “…leave workers vulnerable to the coercive abuses of the sort that worry Anderson.” But instead of dealing with the real world test, he constructs an imaginary world, with an imaginary problem. He eventually admits that the possibility that the “lofty ideals of free market fairness cannot be achieved”.

Resolving the disagreement

Tomasi’s argument proceeds at a very high level of abstraction. He gives us a clue about his personal predilections when he tells us:

My main thesis, of course, is that market democratic regime-types—democratic laissez-faire and democratic limited government—express that moral commitment more completely and more attractively than do social democratic ones….

I read this to say he doesn’t think people should be pushed around by government, dominated, as Anderson would say. Anderson adds this to our understanding of his position:

Tomasi argues that rights to economic liberty should be constitutionalized, with economic regulations subject to a high level of judicial scrutiny. Considerations of social justice may sometimes override economic freedom—but only if judges approve.

If that’s right, it seems to mean that Tomasi wouldn’t mind being pushed around by judges. He accepts one form of government, but not broad legislative or administrative regulation unless that is checked by some form of unaccountable official. I assume he thinks judges would agree with his predilections.

I understand Anderson’s view in favor of broad social democracy. Her starting point, the social contract, has deep roots in US politics. She is willing to trust in the judgment of her fellow citizens to a much greater extentthan Tomasi, and is unwilling to submit much to the decision of unaccountable officials, whether in private or public government.

One way to evaluate the normative superiority of one or the other view might be to ask each to describe the kind of person who would thrive in their respective regimes. I’ve read enough Anderson to suggest she would answer that human nature resists domination and humiliation. People want to have a say in decisions about themselves and their projects, including their work.

I can’t answer for Tomasi. I have no idea if there are people who would accept domination, humiliation, or unreasonably dangerous working conditions for higher wages. I also don’t understand why that has to be a choice in a democracy. I think it’s horrifying to allow employers to pay more so they can dominate or humiliate their workers, or subject them to unreasonably dangerous conditions. Maybe I just don’t understand libertarians, but I’m not willing to spend any more time thinking about them.

Freedom And Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism

Posts In This Series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The first four posts in this series discuss two articles by Elizabeth Anderson explaining her view of freedom and equality. The text for this post is her chapter titled Freedom and Equality in The Oxford Handbook Of Freedom And Equality, available online through your local library.

In the last post I said that relational equality* is a principle of social relations, and not a principle of the distribution of material goods and opportunities. But as Anderson says, relational equality entails a certain minimum level of material distribution. Material redistribution is flatly rejected by libertarians**. It’s easy for progressives to forget that there is a philosophical basis for libertarianism, with well-known exponents, including Robert Nozick. Anderson takes on the libertarians in this chapter. She argues that freedom as non-interference, the ground of libertarianism, cannot justify a regime of private property.

In Part 1 of the chapter, Anderson describes different ideas about freedom and equality, and gives some examples. This section covers the ground of the first four posts in this series, and is easy to follow. In Part 2, she addresses the libertarian arguments justifying private property strictly on the grounds of negative liberty*, that is, freedom from interference.

Anderson starts with a brief discussion of taxes. In standard libertarian thought, requiring someone to do something is normatively different from requiring someone to refrain from doing something. Thus, ordering people to supply others with goods and services is different from ordering people not to take the property of others. Libertarians say that taxes raise revenue for the government which is used to supply goods and services to others, and so taxation is normatively wrong. The basis for this assessment is that income is associated with labor, so that making people pay taxes is directly the same as making them work for others. Anderson points out that this may be true of taxes on wages, but it obviously irrelevant to passive income, as that from investments, capital gains, mineral royalties, rents, bequests and interest.***

She points out that taxes on land rents can be justified as “respecting the property rights in the commons of those who lost access to privately appropriated land.”

But that’s just the first point. Anderson’s focus is on the priority of positive freedom in connection with property rights. This argument is more complex. First, she points out that even libertarians do not argue for absolute negative freedom with respect to property. Perfect negative liberty means that no one has the right to demand that the state assist in constraining an owner’s use of property. As far as I know, no one, even the most rigid libertarian, makes tsuch an expansive claim. Therefore the claim to private property is a right.

If claims to property are rights, then they entail duties in other people. If the owner excludes others from property, exercising the owner’s right to non-interference, then others lack the right to use of that property. Their right to use of that property is interfered with. On numerical grounds alone, this negative liberty of one person creates a massive net loss of negative liberty.

… to secure the right of a single individual owner to some property, the negative liberty of everyone else — billions of people — must be constrained. Judged by a metric of negative liberty alone, recognition of property rights inherently amounts to a massive net loss of total negative freedom.

To justify this massive net loss of negative freedom, we must look to other kinds of freedom. Positive freedom* supplies a good answer. Private property can improve overall economic outcomes for the many. Properly used, it can create greater opportunities for many. Receiving the benefits from improvements can encourage more of these benefits. Freedom from domination* is protected and increased when in a system of regulated private ownership which prohibits the use of private property to dominate others.

To use these arguments, though, we must prioritize positive liberty and freedom from domination over negative freedom. This, of course, was the point Anderson is trying to show.

Instead of libertarian negative freedom as the primary principle of society, Anderson offers a social contract view of private property.

In this picture, the principles of right are whatever principles persons would rationally choose (or could not reasonably reject) to govern their interpersonal claims, given that they are, and understand themselves to be, free and equal in relation to one another.****

Generally people would choose a regulated system of private rights so as to ensure reasonable economic efficiency, order, and maximum positive liberty and freedom from domination. In this setting, individual rights are not grounded in selfish interests as in libertarian thought, but in the reality that we all have “a common interet in relating to each other through a shared infrastructure of individual rights.”


1. As I read this section, Anderson is trying to show that prioritizing negative freedom, meaning noninterference, is not a solid foundation for a decent society; and I think she succeeds.

I have never thought libertarianism was sensible. In high school, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand, which I took to be an anti-communist screed, mildly enjoyable and short. In college, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and I realized that Rand was actually arguing for radical selfishness. The books are badly written and laughably simple-minded, and impossible to take seriously. Essentially libertarians want social protection for themselves and their property, but think it is theft if taxes are used for anything besides protecting them and their rights and giving them stuff. Their society looks like the Gilded Age, when state and federal governments called out the militia to attack striking workers. Let’s just skip past all the jargon. As a practical matter, Libertarians need to explain why those workers should support their ideal society. A similar question should be asked of today’s plutocrats and their enablers.

2. The tax question is a good example. I noted Anderson’s view of earned vs. unearned income issue, and her argument based on the principles of social contract theory. Social contract theory is the idea that we as a group implicitly agree to certain rules and institutions, surrendering some of our rights and accepting some duties, in exchange for protection of our remaining rights and creating and maintaining social order.

The justification for this theory is that life is better in such a society. In a democracy we select our leaders and can vote them out. This is a form of freedom from domination by government, and to the extent we can force government to act, it frees us from domination by employers.

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said. For now, I’ll just note that in Modern Money Theory, Holmes is not quite right. In nations that issue their own currency there is no connection between spending and revenue. In the MMT model government spends money into the economy and taxes bring some of it back to the government; and this is done for several reasons, including stabilizing prices and the value of money. That model seriously undercuts the primary argument that taxes are extracted from the successful to buy stuff for losers.

* These terms are discussed at length in prior posts

**Thus we are regularly treated to the idiot claims that taxation is theft, and that affirmative action is an unfair benefit to minorities and to the working class.

*** One thing I love about Anderson is that she never limits herself to a list of three examples followed by etc. Here she identifies 5.

**** This starting point is similar to the Veil of Ignorance of John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice.

Freedom And Equality: More on Equality

Posts in this Series. For those interested, I update this post from time to time with additional resources that help flesh out what may be unfamiliar ideas.

The text for this and the previous post is Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter Equality in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, available online through your public library. In the previous post we saw that Anderson describes equality in terms of social relations rather than in terms of material distribution. Relational equality is opposed to social hierarchies. She describes three forms of social hierarchy, command, standing, and esteem, and tests them against the pragmatic values of the good, the righteous or just, and the virtuous or moral. She concludes that these hierarchies are neither good, just, nor virtuous. Next she takes up the arguments of defendes of hierarchy.

Proponents of social hierarchy cannot justify the extremes of social hierarchy, slavery, serfdom, peonage. So they try to defend the less egregious cases. In evaluating these arguments, it’s helpful to think of concrete situations, rather than mere abstractions, because the actual practice of thee social hierarchies has direct impact on real humans. These hierarchies exist in government and other institutions, public and private. Anderson hersolf applies these ideas to the world of work in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), 2019, Princeton University Press.

Defenders of social hierarchies argue that command hierarchies are the only solution to certain kinds of social problems. Specifically, they argue that social order can only be maintained “… under a division of labor in which those competent to rule issue commands and others obey.” Egalitarians point out that almost everyone has the ability to participate in a democratic form of government. There is no obvious way to select those capable of command, certainly not on typical grounds, which she describes as “inscriptive group identities such as such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality. In the real world, these defenses are nothing more than legitimating existing hierarchies of dominance.
Defenders of hierarchies of esteem and standing argue first, that there are differences in virtue among people; some people are more deserving than others, justifying differences in esteem and standing. Second these defenders argue that differences in esteem and standing act as incentives for more productive workers. Following Rousseau, Anderson writes almost poetically:

// Equal citizenship status in a republic provides such a ground. When fellow citizens meet in the public square, they meet as co-sovereigns—as co-creators and guarantors of the republic that makes them free and independent. Each can stand erect before everyone else; no one has to bow and scrape before another. Everyone basks in the glory of the republic they jointly sustain. This basal equality of esteem, of the free citizen and the recognition of that status with all its rights and dignity by fellow citizens, constitutes the essential background condition for the practice of republican virtue*. Thus, genuine virtue requires an underlying equality of esteem.**//

Anderson sees no reason for hierarchies of standing. Rewarding achievement with special material benefits, special privileges or exemptions from constraints binding others leads directly to people seeking those benefits directly instead of by cultivating virtue.

The danger of all three hierarchies is that the holders of high positions will use them for personal benefit, and will seek to pass them on to their offspring or their favorites regardless of talent or virtue, directly, as we see politicians handing their positions to their children, or indirectly, as by establishing standards for the hierarchies that favor their children or protégés. I hardly need to provide examples. Worse, once people become used to their position in these hierarchies, some of them will exploit those below them without compunction, and with no accountability.


1. Anderson says that these egalitarian arguments are better for showing the failures of the current system that for creating a new one. She points out that democracies have the potential to overcome these hierarchies, but only in practice can we find the proper means to do so.

In general, pragmatists argue that the proof of value is in the doing. Each solution engenders its own problems, problems that are rarely foreseeable, so the role of the people as an electorate is to seek solutions to the new problems or to take other routes to the desired goal. There are no permanent solutions to these problems, only approximations, best guesses, and constant evaluation.

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in this sense. She argues in favor of democracy, which enables people to select their leaders and creates means to hold those leaders accountable. In that setting, the exercise of power is not domination: the people can throw out and otherwise punish bad leaders. For example, the US Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice-President, and all civil officers, which includes all judges.

Social hierarchies resist change other than those benefit the entrenched dominant class. They are static. At its best democracy is dynamic. It is never complete. It is a project, a human project. People decide on what is important, and find ways to move toward those goals. There is a kind of organized conflict inherent in democracy, as people urge different goals and different paths to those goals. That conflict is evidence of life, and is only a threat to those who benefit unfairly and unreasonably from the existing arrangement.

2, Anderson argues for relational equality over equality of material distribution. But she is obvious that relational equality requires some material redistribution. That redistribution is subject to social determination, but should include at least sufficient food, clothing and shelter to maintain personal dignity, open access to all educational and job opportunities, additional assistance to those who have not had that access in the past, and special attention to those who are disadvantaged by illness, genetics and other causes beyond their control.

4. This piece by Anderson is beautifully written and quite clear. I have not attempted to cover all the richness of her argument.

*This term relates to the Roman Republic, not to the US party of that name. I discuss this point in an earlier post in this series.

** Richard Rorty makes similar poetic arguments in Achieving Our Country following Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. See the additional materials in the Introduction and Index To Posts.

Freedom And Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

Introduction and Posts in This Series with additional resources

The first two posts in this series discuss the idea of freedom from domination as used by Elizabeth Anderson in a chapter she wrote for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, which you can find online through your public library, I hope. With this post, I begin looking at the concept of equality as she uses it. In subsequent posts I will examine her thinking on managing the relation between freedom and equality.

Anderson says that the type of equality relevant for political purposes is relational equality, as opposed to material equality. Material equality is the idea that we should all have the same quantity of resources, and no one actually advocates this, or anything like it, despite right-wing shrieks about socialism.

Relational equality is defined against social hierarchy. To get a better understanding of this idea, I turn to another chapter by Anderson, Equality, published in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Anderson argues for an understanding of equality as an “ideal of social relations”. In contemporary thought, including not least contemporary philosophical thought, equality is considered as a principle governing distribution of economic goods. The discussion is often based on the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Rawls has been interpreted as requiring some level of equality of distribution, leading to tedious (my word) discussions of what, how much, and who is deserving of such redistribution.

Anderson argues that relational equality is a much more accurate description of what egalitarians actually work for, what they actually are doing.

A Side Note On Method

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey. Another of Dewey’s disciples, Richard Rorty, wrote

Dewey’s philosophy is a systematic attempt to temporalize everything, to leave nothing fixed. This means abandoning the attempt to find a theoretical frame of reference within which to evaluate proposals for the human future.*

This means precisely that human beings created all the moral and ethical principles that we use to measure good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, decent and indecent, acceptable and unacceptable, edible or inedible, taboo and prized acts, included and excluded groups, and every other pairing of measures. Every social structure is created by humans. There is no external, no objective set of principles for any of these purposes. There are only human beings struggling with themselves and others to structure their mutual existence. It means that human beings create their own future.

That’s not to say that we don’t have standards for making decisions. We most certainly do. But we have to recognize that others are perfectly capable of forming other coherent standards that disagree with ours, and that living with others necessitates accommodation to their plans. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have absolutes in our lives, but it may mean that we do not attempt to impose those on others.

Anderson works from the principle that social choices are matters of argument among members of society. She says that choosing between relational equality and social hierarchies is a matter of values. She sets out the values she thinks are important and argues about which is superior in terms of those values. This kind of argument appears regularly in her work.

Social Hierarchy

By “social hierarchy”, I refer to durable group inequalities that are systematically sustained by laws, norms, or habits.

Anderson adds that social hierarchies are durable, they persist through generations. They are group-based: one group is superior, the other inferior. They are typically based on broad categories, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship and so on. She identifies three kinds of social hierarchy, hierarchies of command, hierarchies of esteem, and hierarchies of standing.

In hierarchies of command, the inferior class is subject to arbitrary and unaccountable control by the superior class. The inferior class must obey the orders of the superior class without questioning. Inferiors cannot exercise their liberty without the assent of the superior class. This is the opposite of the non-domination I discussed in the two previous posts in this series. This hierarchy is undone when the inferior class is able to govern itself directly or democratically.

In hierarchies of esteem the superior class stigmatizes the inferior class. The inferior class is marked for disdain, ridicule, humiliation and even violent persecution.

In hierarchies of standing, the interests and voices of the superior class are given great weight in social decision-making, legislation, and enforcement of laws and rules. The interests of the inferior class are given little or no weight in such matters.


Anderson follows John Dewey’s scheme of values in the following passage.

The realm of values is divided into three great domains: the good, the right, and the virtuous. Each is defined in relation to the perspective from which people make judgments about each type. Judgments of goodness are made from a first-person perspective—that is, from the perspective of one enjoying, remembering, or anticipating the enjoyment of some object, individually or in concert with others (“us”). The experience of goodness—the sign or evidence of goodness—is one’s felt attraction to an appealing object. Judgments of moral rightness are made from a second-person perspective, in which one person asserts the authority (in his or her own person or on behalf of another) to make claims on another—to demand that the other respect the rights or pay due regard to the interests of the claimant and to hold the other accountable for doing so. Judgments of moral wrongness, therefore, are essentially expressible as complaints by or on behalf of a victim that are addressed to agents who are held responsible for wrongdoing. The experience of encountering a valid claim of rightness is that of feeling required to do something, of being commanded by a legitimate authority. Judgments of virtue are made from the third-person perspective of an observer and judge of people’s conduct and underlying dispositions. The experience of virtue is one’s felt approval or admiration of people’s character or powers as expressed in their conduct. Citations omitted.

This is a lot to process. Perhaps the first step is to try to apply these ideas to your personal thinking about social issues. Consider the family separation policy applied to asylum seekers by Trump (Miller). When I think of it in terms of the good, the right and the virtuous, I immediately see that it makes me want to act, to demand justice. It makes me despise the people who instigated this policy and the people who carry it out. Therefore I perceive it as neither right (just) nor virtuous. I also see that it is evil, the opposite of good; it doesn’t make me happy, it makes me angry and hostile.

On the other hand, to judge from Twitter and what I see of Fox news on comedy shows, there are plenty of people who don’t see it that way. Is it possible to have a discussion of values with such people? Is there an argument that the policy is good or right or virtuous? Am I prepared to admit such arguments might be worth considering?

Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

This is the central argument of Anderson’s chapter. Anderson claims that egalitarians argue that social hierarchies are bad on all three counts. In general, social hierarchies are not right ( meaning they are unjust) towards the people placed in the inferior class and thus to society as a whole. They are morally wrong (virtue) towards both superior and inferior classes because it devalues the human worth and potential of the inferior class and inflates the worth of the superior class. And they are vicious (not good) because they treat the ideologies supporting this class distinction as good when we can see that those ideologies are corrupt.

In the case of esteem hierarchies, egalitarians argue that all human beings are entitled to a basic level of esteem and equal access to higher levels of esteem. As to hierarchies of standing, egalitarians argue that all humans should be treated equally before the law, and should have a basal level of standing in other settings.

With respect to command hierarchies, egalitarians argue that the primary justification is the idea that some humans are fit to rule and other are fit only to follow. Egalitarians say that all humans possess a basic level of self-government sufficient to enable them to participate in decisions about their lives and work, and “…entitle them to reject systems in which others wield unaccountable power over them.”

These ideas may not be comfortable. The arguments may seem unanchored, because there isn’t a Ten Commandments or any other seemingly objective standard. I’ll have other comments in the next post.

*Rorty, Achieving Our Country, p. 20. This is a great book, an antidote to the despair that alternates with cynicism that infects the American left. I may do a series on it, but it’s easy to read, barely theoretical and mostly an impassioned argument for hope for the future based on the best ideas of the American Project.

Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 1

Introduction and Index

Elizabeth Anderson wrote a chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, titled simply Freedom and Equality. She begins by acknowledging that perfect material equality would require an authoritarian state, and no one seriously argues for that position. On the other hand, Friedrich Hayek argued in The Road To Serfdom that any form of socialism would lead down the slippery slope to totalitarianism, but he was wrong. There are realistic choices short of perfect material equality, such as the societies of Western Europe with their social democratic forms of government and economy.

Anderson writes:

To make progress on the question of normative trade-offs between freedom and equality within the range of options for political economy credibly on the table, we must clarify our concepts. There are at least three conceptions of freedom — negative, positive, and republican — and three conceptions of equality—of standing, esteem, and authority.

Republican freedom is an unfortunate term, given its association with a political party with a highly … nuanced view of freedom. Philosophers use the term because it is associated with the Roman Republic of Cicero and Cato. And that is another unfortunate juxtaposition, because the leading libertarian think tank is the Cato Institute, which is heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, another group not that interested in broad concepts of freedom. So I’m not going to use the term, and instead will refer to it as freedom from dominanation, or non-domination.

In her book chapter, Anderson offers a brief description of the three forms of freedom: negative freedom as noninterference, positive freedom as opportunitites, and non=domination.

Sarah has negative freedom if no one interferes with her actions. She has positive freedom if she has a rich set of opportunities effectively accessible to her. She has republican freedom if she is not dominated by another person — not subject to another’s arbitrary and unaccountable will.

For the last few decades, talk about freedom has meant almost exclusively negative freedom, with occasional references to positive freedom. Anderson says there has been a recent revival of interest in freedom from domination, citing a book by Philip Pettit, a philosophy professor at Princeton, titled Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Here’s a paper written about the same time as the book, Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal. 64 Social Research, Vol.1, p. 52.

Pettit starts with the proposition that

The decent society, as Avishai Margalit … defines it for us, is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people. They do not deprive a person of honor. … They do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

He obviously isn’t talking about the Republican party. Honor is a crucial issue for humans, both personally and as the ground for participation in society, and thus is a central element of a decent society. Pettit says that negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, is the heart of liberalism, by which he means the philosophical perspective common in the 19th Centuries, not our 21st Century usage as a political ideology. We would use the term neoliberal to refer to people who hold this political stance today.

… I think it is fair to say that almost all contemporary descendants of nineteenth-century liberalism agree on the equation of liberty with negative liberty. All agree that I am free “to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity” [quoting Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1957].

Negative freedom can exist in a society in which the institutions undermine and jeopardize the grounds of self-respect for some of its inhabitants. Institutionally people may be treated as a second-class citizen without interfering directly with their choices.

This seems intuitively obvious but Pettit only makes an argument; he doesn’t offer examples. Here are three that seem right to me. First, consider the status of women in the 19th Century. They were treated as dependents economically, politically and socially. The attitudes of women towards themselves were largely created by institutions such as the family, the Church, and the education system. They were not free to form their own projects for themselves, to act fully as agents in their own lives, or to determine their own views of themselves free of these institutions. Of course these institutional constraints were reinforced by laws, but the laws had their origins in those institutions, and did not touch most of the effective limitations.

My second example is our education system. Every child is entitled to education, but the quality of that education is systematically worse for working class children and children of color. There is no interference with the liberty of every parent to send their child to the best school they can afford, and there is a public school for every child. But the schools for upper class children generally are better than the schools for middle class children, and the schools for working class and poor children are worse. What’s important is the ways they are worse. Generally they perpetuate the class status of their parents. And generally, they reinforce the existing schemes of social domination. We saw the importance of this in our discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s work; here’s a sample.

My third example is the treatment of employees by employers. We all know that many employers systematically abuse their workers. There is some protection for certain kinds of abuse, such as abuse based on gender or race. But who stops the humiliating practice of driving employees to pee in bottles or wear diapers?

I offer these examples without citation, appealing perhaps to my own preconceptions, but I think they give a flavor to Pettit’s bare argument.

Looking more closely at these examples, we can see that protecting the dignity of women, children, especially working class children and children of color, and workers, will require interference by the state. But husbands and fathers, school boards, and employers would argue that state interference restricts their freedom, their rights to noninterference. That illustrates the central point made by both Anderson and Pettit: noninterference with respect to one person is an interferes with the choices of many others.

That explains the central justification for replacing the concept of negative liberty with freedom from domination. Admittedly, freedom from domination is a kind of negative liberty. But negative liberty is based on small group relationships (husband/wife, employer/employee, school/child) where one party has power over another, whether by tradition, money or by law. Freedom from domination is created by a democratic government established expressly for the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and improving a decent society, in which every member’s honor and self-respect is the central goal.

Freedom And Inequality: Introduction and Index

Posts in this series:
Freedom and Inequality: Introduction and Index
Freedom and Inequality: Freedom From Domination Part I
Freedom and Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2
Freedom and Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies
Freedom And Equality: More On Equality.
Freedom and Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism


This will be a series of discussions of freedom and inequality, based on works by Elizabeth Anderson, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan. I first heard about Anderson in this New Yorker article by Nathan Heller. Anderson explores the meaning of freedom and equality, especially in the context of work, the economy and the politics of both. Until recently, the dominant ideas were those of conservatives and libertarians, people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and neoliberals of both parties.

The New Yorker article says that historically everyone thought that freedom and equality are at odds: exercise of freedom would naturally lead to increasing inequality. Political domination is a natural consequence of increasing inequality. If that is true, how can democracy survive? Anderson questions the view that freedom and equality are in conflict. The relevance of this idea to our current political environment is obvious. Republicans champion inequality as an exercise of freedom, and neoliberal democrats agree, but argue that some restraints on freedom must exist to prevent too much inequality. We need a new structure to step outside this duality and protect our democracy.

Again historically, people thought of freedom in two ways: negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, the range of options available to people. Anderson adds a third idea, freedom from domination. As we saw in the series on Ellen Meiksins Wood, one major Marxist criticism of capitalism is domination of the worker by the capitalist, aided by the state.* We saw in Pierre Bourdieu a detailed study of the way dominance is embedded in social relations.** We have also seen Michel Foucault’s view of power, an idea closely related to domination. I’ll discuss the concept of freedom from domination in this series.

From the New Yorker article:

As the students listened, [Anderson] sketched out the entry-level idea that one basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society. Unlike a hardscrabble peasant community of yore in which the only skill that anyone cared about might be agricultural prowess, a society with many valued arenas lets individuals who are good at art or storytelling or sports or making people laugh receive a bit of love.

I’m particularly fond of this idea. I made a living practicing law, and on the side, I did a lot of chorus singing, mostly classical and opera. I made room in my life for voice lessons and the unending rehearsals and performances that dominate the life of the singer. I used to say that among lawyers I was one of the best singers, which seems to me to be what this quote is saying.

The New Yorker article says that one of the major influences for Anderson is pragmatism, the distinctly American philosophy, generated by Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. It’s leading exponent in the 20th Century was John Dewey.*** A central idea of pragmatism is the definition of “truth”:

To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now.

Ideas are tools, and the truth value of a tool is related to its usefulness. This description of truth throws off centuries of effort to find a fixed point of certainty in the world. It opens the possibility of finding our way through social and individual problems not by reference to some prior version of the truth, but by our own best understandings of our own social reality. I do not currently plan on a formal discussion of this description of truth, and will content myself with pointing it out in passing. But I share that view, and I think it is apparent in much of my thinking and writing.

Reading philosophy papers is difficult for a lay reader like me. Most are presented as arguments with one or more other philosophers. This is not necessarily a good way for a layman to get a positive statement of the views of the author, especially when there are many papers and many arguments. The New Yorker article seems to be a good introduction to the themes Anderson addresses.

Finding these academic papers online is harder than finding the books I’ve been writing about. I am fortunate to have access to a university’s online library, and I can’t find all of Anderson’s work there; I have no idea if readers can find the material I’m reading through their own public libraries, though I hope so. I’ll be giving the best links I can find, for what that’s worth. And as always, I’ll try to separate Anderson’s thinking and that of the authors she discusses separate from my own views.

I’ll update this post with links to all the posts in this series. Thanks for reading.

* Here’s an example. The index to these posts is here.

** See for example this post.

*** Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is an engaging account of the first three and their friends. Here’s a good introduction to the thought of John Dewey. Richard Rorty considered himself an heir to Dewey. For a fascinating discussion of the nature of truth in pragmatist thought, see Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty, Ch. 2. It’s worth the effort.

Additional Resources

1. Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. Anderson identifies as a pragmatist, and so does Rorty. He is controversial on a number of grounds, but I have learned a great deal from this and other works by Rorty. This is a short book, not theoretical and easy to read. It is an impassioned defense of small-d democracy as described by John Dewey and Walt Whitman. It counsels against despair of that ironic spectator variety of leftism, and argues for an agressive hopeful politics of the left.

2. Podcasts of the Partially Examined Life. This is a philosophy discussion group of some guys who planned to make a living at philosophy but thought better of it, as they say in their introduction. There are two that I think are of interest here. First there is a three part series including an interview with Elizabeth Anderson, Episode 199. There are several episodes devoted to Richard Rorty, listed here. I have listened to the first episode on Achieving our Country, Episode 157, and plan to listen to the rest.

3. In the posts on equality Anderson lays out egalitarian arguments against social hierarchies. For a counterpoint, Episode 157 of the podcast Partially Examined life discusses the Analects of Confucius. The second part is an effort to understand the justification for Chinese hierarchy. Confucius and his school are still influential in China today,and the discussion is a nice counterpoint to the very American ideas of Anderson and the pragmatists.

4. Elizabeth Andersonn wrote a book applying some of her ideas to the world of work. Private Government. Here’s a review in The New Yorker.