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Republican Liberty Then and Now: A Reply to Corey Robin

Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, recently made the case in a New York Times op-ed piece that capitalism makes us unfree and the attraction of socialism is freedom.

Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.

The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

I’ll consider the claim that socialism might expected to improve on the conditions Robin lays at the feet of market capitalism in a subsequent post. First, however, an item of note is how modern socialists echo an older, conservative — even reactionary — criticism of the market.

There are different streams of this conservative criticism. The European stream, unsurprisingly, tended to be romantic and paternalistic. It stressed the erosion of communal bonds between aristocrat and commoner. The American version of this criticism, outside of apologists for the plantation system, was usually much more individualistic.

The ideal of the Jeffersonian yeoman emphasized not simply freedom from government authority, but freedom from any sort of dependence on other people. Prior to the period historians call the “market revolution” in the U.S. (starting roughly around 1815, and extending at least through 1855, if not through the 1880s or later), work for wages was largely frowned upon as a form of unmanly dependence upon others. The agrarian ideal pictured the farm family providing for its own needs, dependent on no other humans. The “market” subsisted on the very edge of the yeoman’s life. It was something discretionary, something that occurred on a specific day of the week and was, at most, a place to trade a bit of surplus produce for a few discretionary goods the family could not easily make for itself. Artisans were included in this ideal, if imperfectly, as independent entrepreneurs. Work for wages was, at best, tolerated only as a necessary stepping stone to acquiring one’s own homestead or establishing oneself as an independent artisan.

As the rhetoric sharpened against the transformations wrought by the market revolution, critics decried the “wage slavery” of men (and, increasingly, women) who needed, and expected, to work for others their entire lives just to provide for their needs.

Interestingly, the rise of the free labor ideology and the Republican Party in the 1850s catalyzed a fundamental shift in how we think about liberty. Instead of freedom being centrally viewed as providing for oneself and one’s family without the need for dependence on other people, the central metaphor for freedom became the contract, an intrinsically social economic relationship.

The agrarian yeoman would not at all resonate with Robin’s socialist freedom. More on that anon. Nonetheless, while the commercial life certainly had adherents at the founding, many of the founders, including those most lauded on the right today, would have recoiled from lives intimately shaped by and for markets as fundamentally inconsistent with republican liberty.

Reader Discussion

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on August 31, 2018 at 06:42:37 am

That may represent the average person of the era, but it doesn't describe the Founders at the constitutional convention. A lot of the Founders were not farmers, but were lawyers/doctors who almost always worked for a wage on behalf of someone else, or merchants who lived and died by the market.

Baldwin, Abraham Minister/Lawyer
Bassett, Richard Lawyer
Bedford, Gunning, Jr. Lawyer
Blair, John Virginia Lawyer
Blount, William Politician
Brearly, David Lawyer
Broom, Jacob Merchant
Butler, Pierce Soldier/Politician
Carroll, Daniel Farmer
Clymer, George Merchant
Davie, William R. Lawyer
Dayton, Jonathan Lawyer
Dickinson, John Lawyer
Ellsworth, Oliver Lawyer
Few, William Lawyer
Fitzsimons, Thomas Merchant
Franklin, Benjamin Inventor
Gerry, Elbridge Merchant
Gilman, Nicholas Merchant
Gorham, Nathaniel Merchant
Hamilton, Alexander Lawyer
Houston, William C. Teacher
Houstoun, William Lawyer
Ingersoll, Jared Lawyer
Jenifer, Daniel of St. Thomas Lawyer
Johnson, William S. Lawyer
King, Rufus Lawyer
Langdon, John Merchant
Lansing, John, Jr. Lawyer
Livingston, William Lawyer
Madison, James Politician
Martin, Alexander Politician
Martin, Luther Lawyer
Mason, George Politician
McClurg, James Doctor
McHenry, James Doctor
Mercer, John F. Lawyer
Mifflin, Thomas Merchant
Morris, Gouverneur Lawyer
Morris, Robert Merchant
Paterson, William Lawyer
Pierce, William L. Merchant
Pinckney, Charles Lawyer
Pinckney, Charles Lawyer
Randolph, Edmund J. Lawyer
Read, George Lawyer
Rutledge, John Lawyer
Sherman, Roger Lawyer/Merchant
Spaight, Richard D. Politician
Strong, Caleb Lawyer
Washington, George Soldier
Williamson, Hugh Educator
Wilson, James Lawyer
Wythe, George Lawyer
Yates, Robert Lawyer

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Devin Watkins
on August 31, 2018 at 10:49:40 am

Perhaps, only in Mr Rogers neighborhood would one find it remarkable that agricultural societies view with disfavor both the market and wage labor, notwithstanding the fact that with the exception of LARGE landed estates the farmers were dependent upon the market.
Agricultural societies tend toward aristocracy with a further devolution into oligarchy.
In a society in which land is the principal determinant of power, prestige and wealth, those without such possessions are reduced in stature and influence and subsequently are considered inferior. those who would (attempt to) make their fortune in a non-standard manner are vilified as money changers (market types, merchants, etc) and those who would labor for others are deemed to have a lack of ambition, prowess or intelligence along with all manner of other maladies.

AND Devin is absotively correct, there was no "agricultural" predominance within the group of men who formed this nation although much lip service was given to the value and sanctity of the yeoman farmer, who interestingly enough in the most predomiantly agricultural society was denied access to credit, banking AND markets by the Southern slaeholding aristocracy.

Perhaps more later after i (literally) tear up the golf course. Oh what beautiful divots I create. - Ha!

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gabe
on August 31, 2018 at 13:15:34 pm

The grand divisions of the day were between the "gentlemen of trade and the professions" and the "40 shilling freeholders." Technically those gentlemen who worked for money took fees not wages, which was sufficient to distinguished them from mere mechanics who were grouped with the freeholders.

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EK
on August 31, 2018 at 13:28:58 pm

"The ideal of the Jeffersonian yeoman emphasized not simply freedom from government authority, but freedom from any sort of dependence on other people. Prior to the period historians call the “market revolution” in the U.S. (starting roughly around 1815, and extending at least through 1855, if not through the 1880s or later), work for wages was largely frowned upon as a form of unmanly dependence upon others."

I take this to be nonsense on stilts. Prior to 1900, almost all freeholders expected to be employees for wages for about 1/3 of the year either by working on another freeholders' establishments or by taking in piece work for a jobber through the local merchant.

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EK
on August 31, 2018 at 16:13:09 pm

Professor Rogers says, "Nonetheless, while the commercial life certainly had adherents at the founding, many of the founders, including those most lauded on the right today, would have recoiled from lives intimately shaped by and for markets as fundamentally inconsistent with republican liberty."

That commentary is just unbelievably superficial, but thankfully short.

In one sentence Rogers disregards the actual facts as to the professional and commercial livelihood of the vast majority of Federalists, misstates the central tenet of the Founders' (particularly the Federalists') conception of "republican liberty," fails to recognize that adoption and ratification of the constitution was primarily the work of the commercially-minded Federalists, dismisses the vast influence as Founders of Hamilton and Washington, both of whom were ardent supporters of national markets and interstate commerce; disregards the centrality in the early republic of the debate over the national bank and the fact that, until the Age of Jackson, the commercialists, not the farmers, won that debate; fails to admit that Jefferson's gentleman farmer as economic ideal was an illusion attractive ONLY to the southern slave-holding oligarchy (hardly virtuous republicans) and premised (as so much of Jefferson) on political fantasy (that of the continuation of slavery,) and largely misidentifies those Founders who would be "most lauded on the right today."

Among the Founders favored by some conservatives today would be the bucolic Virginians, Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, Wythe and Mason, landed gentry but lawyers all except for Mason, a former justice, with only Jefferson, Randolph and Mason arguably attracted to the so-called republican ideal of an agricultural economy (which Rogers wrongly suggests was a value central to the Founders) and certainly Jefferson the only one who, as Rogers wrongly argues, "would have recoiled from lives intimately shaped by and for markets..."

But ASSUREDLY among the most favored Founders today for their embodiment of conservative principle and republican virtue would be Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Wilson, Morris, Dickinson, Franklin and Marshall (yes, he was a very important and conservative Founder before and after he became the Great Chief,) Federalists, commercialists, marketeers and nationalists all.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 01, 2019 at 11:48:35 am

What a contradictionary mess. first how can freedom from domination not be expected to mean freedom. that is just silly conservative wordplay. that socialism can not be expected to improve upon. if you again use word play. classical socialism has meant the freedom of the working class. and this can not be expected to mean the freedom of the working class. that is just meaningless drivel. and a change in how one precive liberty. that i is a social contract. again how this contract actually makes someone free is not elaborated upon. one could have a social contract that means that someone is entitled to skin you or rape you and call that liberty. to deduce from the common sense understanding of freedom just to make slavery mean freedom is inherently silly. if capitalism is a constranti on ones freedom(yes totalitarian rule of bosses/capitalists are for workers) then one cannot just redefine the term liberty whitout destroying what it actually means.

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Jostein

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.