The Invention of Market Freedom

Eric MacGilvray’s book, The Invention of Market Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2011) presents a compelling and convincing narrative of the historical eclipse of the republican conception of freedom by the more familiar market conception of freedom in the context of the synthesis of liberal and republican thought in the late eighteenth century. The crux of the argument is that throughout the early modern period, the republican conception of freedom as a means of checking arbitrary power and ensuring the independence of a virtuous citizenry existed alongside an alternative conception of freedom defined in terms of securing a sphere of individual action that is freed from external constraints. While republican freedom was linked more closely to institutions of self-government, it was also ensconced in a fundamentally inegalitarian worldview that not only excluded women, foreigners and slaves from the ranks of citizenship, but also conceived of its political architecture in terms of a mixture that would serve to balance the various ranks and classes of citizens in society (often bestowing upon them differential rights of participation). In contrast to this, the juristic conception of freedom was predicated upon an egalitarian conception of man (due largely to the influence of Christianity) but was de-politicised in the sense of having no direct relationship to the institutions of self-government. Freedom was conceived of as ‘natural’ freedom that existed in accordance with ‘natural law’. It is in this sense that freedom was maximised outside of and against the state rather than through it. The irony is that this conception of freedom, as Hobbes famously indicated, was compatible with any type of political regime, be it monarchy or republic, because it did not require, as a necessary precondition, institutions of self-government as a means of limiting the arbitrary power of the state.

The modern conception of market freedom retains the juristic disassociation between the sphere of individual freedom and the institutions of self-government. This is evident in Hayek’s distinction between ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’. Echoing Berlin, Hayek argues that liberty is best understood as a sphere of individual freedom of action that does not entail the powers of self-government. The maximisation of freedom, therefore, has nothing to do with democracy. Insofar as democracy has now come to signify self-government, it needs to be relegated to a narrowly ‘public’ sphere that does not encroach upon this ‘private’ sphere of free individual action. However, market freedom, according to MacGilvray, is not simply a repudiation of the classical republican view in favour of some narrowly defined notion of ‘negative liberty’. Rather, it is an ambiguous (some may even say incoherent) synthesis of juristic notions of ‘negative liberty’ (for lack of a better term) and republican conceptions of freedom from arbitrary power. The ambiguity or incoherence resides in the fact that arbitrary power is understood solely to refer to the institutions of the state and does not extend to the unequal relations of power that exist within the market. Freedom, therefore, does not so much reside in the ‘silence of the laws’ as it does in the unfettered ability to act in the marketplace, which presupposes that laws that facilitate market activity enhance freedom, while laws that hinder market activity limit the sphere of individual liberty. This association of arbitrary power with the state is an inversion of the classical republican concern that social inequality may facilitate the figurative or literal ‘enslavement’ of one ‘free citizen’ by another; and it is an inversion of the classical republican association of the economy, or oikonomia, with the existence of non-political relationships (father/son, husband/wife, master/slave) that are either paternalistic, patriarchal or despotic by definition, and therefore unfree. Market freedom therefore incorporates but re-orients the republican language of freedom from arbitrary power.

The incoherence of the market conception of freedom is exacerbated in the work of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek by the naturalisation of market relations of dependence. In both cases, liberty as freedom of action in the market place against the ‘arbitrary’ actions of the state exists side by side with a recognition that market actors have no choice but to subject themselves to market forces. The insistence that individual liberty is either enhanced by, or at the very least not diminished by the conscious subjection to market imperatives resembles a paradox that would make Hobbes grin. But as MacGilvray points out, the proponents of market freedom insist that these market imperatives are ‘impersonal’ and dispersed throughout society. This impersonality of market forces, along with the language of independence from the arbitrary power of the state and the maximisation of the private sphere of individual liberty are no doubt the elements that make the market conception of freedom so popular. The problem is, as MacGilvray points out, they are not necessarily compatible or coherent.

There are many strengths to MacGilvray’s book and it will appeal to scholars of republicanism as well as to those interested in the intellectual history of neo-liberalism. At a general level, the historical narrative constructed by MacGilvray reveals a history that is neglected in the more philosophical treatments of republican liberty such as Philip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997) and the more historically circumscribed work of Quentin Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism (1998) who largely limits his research to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the republican perspective, one strength of the book is MacGilvray’s emphasis on the significance of virtue—along with liberty—in the history of republican political thought. To a certain extent, the literature on republicanism seems polarised around two poles of interpretation: the civic humanist interpretation of J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment that defines republicanism in terms of the need to instil civic virtue in an active republican citizenry, and the neo-Roman interpretation of Skinner and Pettit that relegates virtue to the margins in favour of a Roman conception of liberty defined as independence of the arbitrary will of others. MacGilvray insists that these two aspects of republicanism cannot be separated so easily, thereby defining republicanism as a tradition of thought aimed at ‘securing the practice of virtue through the control of arbitrary power’. In this way, the civic humanist tradition of Pocock and the neo-Roman conception of liberty remain two sides of the same republican coin.

There are, however, noticeable gaps in the book. In particular, MacGilvray’s discussion of the ideological synthesis of liberalism and republicanism in eighteenth-century America would be strengthened by an engagement with scholars who have made similar claims in the past. In particular, Isaac Kramnick’s characterisation, in his Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism (1990), of the ideological transformation of classical republican notions of virtue from the martial and public spirited values to the bourgeois values of industriousness and honest labour goes a long way towards demonstrating how the fundamentally anti-capitalist ethos of republicanism became reconciled to the values of the emerging ‘bourgeois’ era. In a similar vein, a substantive discussion of the ways in which the French Revolution (in particular, the Terror) became associated with the more radical anti-capitalist claims of classical republicanism is notably absent. Given the significance of Benjamin Constant in defining the parameters of contemporary debate along the lines of ancient versus modern conceptions of liberty, and given Isaiah Berlin’s re-articulation of that dichotomy in his famous distinction between positive and negative liberty (a distinction that MacGilvray rightly critiques and demonstrates to obscure more than it reveals in the history of political thought), this absence seems rather peculiar.

One may quibble with MacGilvray’s claim that ancient Greek notions of freedom originated out of the existence of slavery as opposed to the struggles of the Attic peasantry for their freedom against their landlords which in turn prompted the adoption of slavery. Athenian notions of freedom were different from Spartan notions of freedom, and both were different from Roman notions of ‘libertas’. We lump the ancient world together at our own peril. Similarly, one may take issue with MacGilvray’s treatment of the ‘rise of commerce’, or perhaps more accurately, take issue with the lack of any substantive discussion of the social transition from an agricultural to commercial society (or a pre-capitalist to a capitalist one) that took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The chapter on this topic neglects to go beyond intellectual history and deal with the more complicated topic of the transition to capitalism—a transition that, at least in the English and American cases, indicates that agriculture and commerce did not necessarily exist in opposition to each other. Rather, the development of agrarian capitalism had a transformative effect on the nature of commerce. An exploration of how this relates to the republican/liberalism synthesis, and recognition of the differential paths of commercial development in England, America and France, could add an interesting dimension to the book. None of these critiques, however, detract from the central thesis of this compelling and highly readable book.

Originally published in The Political Quarterly Volume 83 Number 1 (2012).

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