Spanish statecraft, the scholarly way

January 23, 2011

“I had not previously had any contact with politicians,” said Philip Pettit, the Irish-born Laurance S. Rockefeller university professor of politics and human values at Princeton University, “and never expected to see the civic republican ideas taken up so directly.”

Yet in 2004 he had the highly unusual experience, for an academic political philosopher, of having a powerful impact on real-life politics when a prime minister decided to put his theory into practice.

In 1997, Professor Pettit published a book called Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom. In it, he declares that “the traditional, republican ideal of freedom” – drawing on thinkers going back to Cicero, Machiavelli, the writers of the English Revolution and “many theorists of republic and commonwealth in 18th-century England and America and France” – could still provide “an exciting way of rethinking democratic institutions”.

At its heart is the notion of “freedom as non-domination”. Since liberals see freedom in largely negative terms, as “absence of interference”, writes Professor Pettit, that makes them “tolerant of relationships in the home, in the workplace, in the electorate and elsewhere, that the republican must denounce as paradigms of domination and unfreedom”. It is time to return to the much more demanding republican conception of freedom, he argues.

Republicanism is a clear and accessible book, but Professor Pettit saw little prospect of it changing the world. He had reckoned without the interest of Spanish opposition leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who had read the book in Spanish translation and announced in 2000 that if he ever came to power, he would use it as the basis for his legislative programme.

José Luis Martí, associate professor of law at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and Professor Pettit have now reconstructed the remarkable story in A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero’s Spain.

Along with chapters on the historical and philosophical background, the book includes both the text of Professor Pettit’s “report card” and a conversation between him and the Spanish prime minister.

Despite his initial concerns – not so much “about the abstract ideals themselves, which were associated with a long, well-tested tradition of thought and practice, as about the empirical assumptions that would be used to guide their application” – Professor Pettit was able to present a largely positive assessment of the achievements of the first Zapatero administration.

He praised a number of “cutting-edge initiatives in dealing with the vulnerabilities of women, homosexuals, illegal migrants, the incapacitated and workers on temporary contracts”, as well as the removal of traditional state subsidies to the Catholic Church, which together “made Spain into a model for how an advanced democracy can perform”.

But Professor Pettit’s view of Mr Zapatero’s first term was not wholly uncritical. He referred, for example, to continuing concerns about “the welfare rights of the disadvantaged”, prison overcrowding, freedom of information and the independence of the judiciary – all things he hoped could still be addressed.

Overall, he had found the experience “heartening”, he said, “in so far as Zapatero showed me that an astute politician, which he certainly is, can still be ready to think out and articulate his philosophy of government in abstract terms and can even be moved by that philosophy to adopt new policies”.

He added: “I believe that his initiative in introducing gay marriage, for example, was spurred in great part by his belief that this was necessary to guard gays against domination. I was also heartened to see that it is possible to lead from the front, rather than slavishly following the polls. By the time gay marriage was introduced in Spain, over 60 per cent [of the electorate] had come around to supporting it.”

Such can be the striking impact of a political philosophy given a chance to play its role in public life.

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