Can you maintain republican freedom in a coercive political structure?

O.T. Paynter-Wells
7 min readDec 1, 2020


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In order to sufficiently answer the question, I must first endeavour to define a ‘coercive political order’. All functioning societies are coercive political orders- even democracies- and I will endeavour to explain how a proponent of the republican approach can not only maintain their freedom within a coercive structure, but how that very freedom itself owes its existence to it.
Coercion need not come from the barrel of a state-owned gun, nor the weight of a soldiers boot on your neck, it can be found much more frequently, in a far more nuanced form, in law. Law, which ‘may be defined as the rules that govern the behaviour of human beings within a civilized society’ , is the primary mechanism for state coercion, a state cannot physically inhibit its citizens ability to perform prohibited acts, but it can set penalisations in place for those who are found to be doing so. It is through this invisible and abstract institution that states maintain public order and very few people, including proponents of the republican approach, have negated its legitimacy as a social utility. ‘If we enquire wherein lies precisely the greatest good of all, which ought to be the goal of every system of law, we shall find it comes down to two main objects, freedom and equality’(Rousseau, J. 1762 ‘The Social Contract’). Here in fact, Rousseau clearly argues that it is the fundamental purpose of law to ensure individual freedom, not to restrict it. When a mere multitude evolves into a complex polity governed by law, one may ‘lose independence and gain freedom’ (ibid), the instatement of law has established a clear set of permissible and impermissible behaviours and practices which, although restricting one’s independence, help prevent the domination of the weak by the strong and safeguard individual liberty.

‘One party dominates another just so far as they have the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in some of the other’s choices’ (Pettit, P. 2003 ‘Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government). Taking Pettit’s conception of domination, we can see how a coercive political order may morph from an entity which assures republican liberty to one which dismantles it; through the means of arbitrary interference, in fact, just the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis, both are inconducive to republican liberty. Law, being a mode of coercion and coercion being a form of interference, must then never be applied in an arbitrary manner for a republican to maintain their freedom, but how does one differentiate between legitimate law and its arbitrary counterpart? ‘When we say that an act of interference is perpetrated on an arbitrary basis, then, we imply that like any arbitrary act it is chosen or not chosen at the agent’s pleasure. And in particular, since interference with others is involved, we imply that it is chosen or rejected without reference to the interests, or the opinions, of those affected’ (Pettit, P. 2003 ‘Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government p.5). To Pettit then, laws applied on an arbitrary basis are those enacted at the discretion of lawgivers with little or no consideration for the appetite toward those laws in those who will be subject to them. A coercive political order becomes devoid of legitimacy when the modes of coercion are deployed on an arbitrary basis, for instance; if the application of the modes of coercion are not subject to a popular vote and stand contrary to the general will of those they affect.

From this perspective, any political structure which neglects to adhere to the general will of those governed is one incompatible with the republican conception of freedom. Absolute monarchies, dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, where the seat of sovereignty lies not with the people but with a minority or individual agent, are examples of one such structure. Is it not plausible though, for one of these structures to still adhere to the general will of the population it oversees, say if the sovereign was a benevolent king or dictator? Would this paradigm not coincide with the republican tradition? In one such system, no matter the benevolence of the sovereign, republican freedom is absent, due to the fact that the political structure is one where the sovereign has the capacity to arbitrarily interfere (oppress) the citizenry and is unhindered in their ability to do so. Democratic rule is the exclusive mechanism for the emergence and maintenance of republican freedom then, as it prohibits the multitude to be at the fate of a minority sovereign who may be incapable of sound judgment and, as precedent shows us, only have their own ends in mind often to the detriment of the people they lord it over.

However, an assumption cannot be made that simply because a polity is labelled a ‘democracy’ that it is devoid of arbitrary impositions. I affirm that the system of representative democracy (also known as indirect democracy) which is the predominant manifestation of democracy today, is one which, for all its practical benefits, overly dilutes the sovereign power of the people into the hands of a few representatives who may be, and often are, susceptible to:

a) corruption

b) Not represent the interests of their constituents but seek their own ends

c) Be under the sway of the party they represent and in turn be complacent in their scrutiny of party policy

The existence of these factors makes representative government an inefficient medium for republicanism to flourish. The establishment of a ‘direct’ democracy, where all citizens input in the administration of the state and any major steps it takes domestically or abroad, is one which would prevent arbitrary interference as the people would always be exercising their sovereignty as opposed to outsourcing it to representatives.

Hardline negative theorists like Hobbes who assume freedom to exclusively denote the ‘[absence of] external impediments of motion’ (Hobbes, T. 1651 ‘Leviathan’), would strongly oppose the republican notion of ‘freedom as non-domination’. Hobbes’ perspective on sovereignty was one which inferred that all actions taken by those occupying that seat of power are just; they must necessarily be so ‘because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth’ (Ibid). From Hobbes’ perspective, a subject loses no freedom when placed with the ultimatum of following a harsh law, arbitrary or otherwise, or facing dire consequences, to him one coerced into obeyance by such an ultimatum is acting in accordance with what their own will is telling them is the right course of action thus, the subject abdicates no freedom. This conception of liberty is dangerous for myriad reasons, not least because it bestows moral and legislative impunity on tyrants , but because it degrades liberty from that so desired right our forbearers fought so tirelessly to attain, to a mere privilege to be removed and corrupted at the discretion of oppressors.

Oppression is not eradicated with the establishment of a republican political structure, the capacity for it is just mitigated. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is a frequently used term to signify the phenomena that occurs when a majority demographic within a democratic state oppress, through legitimate processes, a minority cohort also within that state . When such a scenario occurs, it becomes clear how legitimate legislative and judicial processes-the modes of coercion- intended to safeguard freedoms and rights are turned into tools of subjugation. Relatively modern-day examples of this can be found en masse in the United States, specifically in cases of majority tyranny on racial grounds, most obviously and disturbingly exemplified by Jim Crow legislation. This legislation forced, through legitimate political means, the degradation of an entire racial cohort and demonstrates, with disturbing clarity, law’s potential for corruption. Taking republican freedom to mean ‘the absence of arbitrary domination’ , to what degree would an African American proponent of republicanism claim they had lost their freedom because of Jim Crow legislation? After all, it was subject to due process in the courts and not simply enacted by a malevolent tyrant. This is where the concept of freedom being the absence of arbitrary domination falls down somewhat. Technically, the republican has lost no freedom as his subjugation did not arise from arbitrary means, however, it seems apparent that he has been subject to domination, the causes of which are unjust nor based in reason, the majority enjoyed by his opposition also negated any possibility of him legitimately opposing these laws in court, as a result of this culmination of factors, it is of my view that he enjoyed no republican freedom .

It is the primary function of the modes of coercion to impede the regression back into the state of nature. A state where the right of the strongest was the predominant philosophy and neighbour could impose their will upon neighbour with impunity, no concept of property or the rights to liberty and life were enjoyed, life was truly ‘nasty brutish and short’ (Hobbes, T. 1651 ‘Leviathan’). It is to this end that the legal and penal systems help safeguard that liberty which defines our society. By restraining the ever-present spectre of the human psyche that craves dominion, violence and selfishness, it nurtures those higher assets which define our collective human condition: liberty and the freedom to navigate the world and do as one wills, fraternity and the ability to establish a cohesive community, and egalite, the proclamation that no man supersedes another, all enjoy equality under law. In conclusion, the republican not only maintains freedom in coercive political orders but I proclaim that the very essence of that freedom is born out of such a political structure. Far from negating a citizen’s liberty, law nurtures it, guarding an individual with an invisible shield forged of the entire might of the community of which they compound, safeguarding their ability to enjoy those freedoms which society and modern life provide.