Great Republican Spaces
May 27, 2011

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Mike Konzcal’s latest led me to David Roberts’ ongoing series of posts envisioning a progressive movement dedicated to creating “great spaces.” Roberts writes:

Today, America is making a few people rich and leaving a great many others anxious, uncertain, unhealthy, or unemployed, all while doing irreversible damage to the planet. A whole nest of challenges lies ahead: We need to radically reduce our energy use, natural resource consumption, and CO2 emissions; ramp up our innovation in clean energy and efficiency technologies; rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; restore the health of the middle class; shrink the metastasizing income gap; reform our oligarchic political institutions; reverse trends toward diabetes, obesity, and heart disease; and reconnect to each other, to mitigate the spread of depression, stress, and alienation.

That’s a handful. What ties these challenges together is the need to reorient our policies (and our myths and narratives) away from financial capital and toward social capital, so that we’re measuring success in terms of physical and mental well-being rather than GDP. It means orienting public life around happiness rather than (just) material accumulation. (Happiness isn’t the best term here, but it’s handy. More accurate would be “eudaimonia” or, as researcher Martin Seligman now prefers, “flourishing.”)

Konczal suggests that Roberts’ vision is compatible with the republican ideal of freedom as non-domination, and I’d tend to agree. It’s not just that, as Konczal points out, public spaces play an important role in pro-democracy movements; nearly all of Roberts’ policy goals can be justified using republican terms. Pettit does nearly exactly that in Republicanism when he argues that the republican goal should not be merely to stamp out domination, but also to “increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice.” That means reducing or eliminating factors that condition freedom, such as poor health.

As for the republican justification for environmentalism, Pettit addresses it directly. He writes:

[I]t is clear why the republican state has to espouse environmental concerns. That any damage is done to the environment … means that there is an assault on at least the range of our undominated choice. The damage is bound to mean that the costs of our exploiting various opportunities are raised or that certain opportunities are closed to us: at the limit, as in nuclear devastation, it may mean that few opportunities remain.

If there is any component of Roberts’ vision that is incompatible with republicanism, it must be his conception of eudaimonia as the ultimate end of the state. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the state might assume total dominating control over its citizenry in order to promote some kind of future flourishing. Nor, if we take a utilitarian attitude towards flourishing, is it difficult to imagine a state that dominates the very few to create greater aggregate flourishing among the many. For that reason, I would rather we use non-domination as the metric for what constitutes a great space. Doing so would provide a greater check on the power of the state, while remaining in harmony with Roberts’ policy objectives.

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