Civic Republicanism

In 2005, Lewis Hyde (author of Trickster Makes This World and The Gift) wrote Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property, an essay on the history of copyright, which appears to have been largely ignored (until the last few days).

In it, Hyde traces the history of the idea of copyright from the Reformation to the founding of the United States of America. Not surprisingly, the essay is an exhilarating read. As he is unpicking the ideas that inform the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution, he makes a distinction between commercial republicanism and civic republicanism:

We have at least two republican traditions in this country, the civic and the commercial. The commercial comes later in our history and is the one most of us are familiar with. It values above all on the private individual seeking his own self-interest. Commercial republicanism assumes that property exists to benefit its owners and that owners gain virtue or respect in one another’s eyes by increasing the market value of the goods that they command. The government in such a republic leaves each citizen alone to follow his or her own subjective sense of the good life. Liberty is negative liberty, a lack of all coercion. Where questions of social well being or the common good arise, government is given little role in answering them, the assumption being that if answers are to be had at all they will arise automatically if paradoxically from the summed activity of private actors seeking private ends.

All of these things–self-interest, property, virtue, liberty, the public good–are situated differently in civic republicanism. Here autonomous individuals and private property are also valued, but property is assumed to exist in order to free the individual for public service. Liberty in this instance is positive liberty, citizenship being directed toward acknowledged public ends, above all toward creating and maintaining the many things that must be in place before there can be true self-governance (a diverse free press, for example, literacy, situations for public deliberation, and so forth). Social well being in this view cannot arise simply by aggregating individual choices; private interest and public good are too often at odds. Citizens acquire virtue in the civic republic, therefore, not by productivity but by willingly allowing self-interest to bow to the public good. Civic virtue is not something anyone is born with; it is acquired through civic action.

I’ve often been accused (especially back the States) of being a socialist. I’ve known for quite some time that I’m not actually a socialist: I lack the requisite faith in a central government to right all wrongs. Nevertheless, I’ve struggled to find a term that actually describes the way I believe a society should work. Namely that the benefits conferred on us by the society we live in should be returned in some way. Hyde’s definition of “civic republicanism” comes closer than anything I’ve seen. More research is required, but I may well start describing myself as a “civic republican” (note the lowercase “r”).

I encourage you to read the entire essay. I promise you won’t regret it. Hyde is an extraordinary writer.

Full Disclosure: I’m biased, since I’m already a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s work. Last year, I finally read Trickster Makes This World. I was thouroughly impressed. The book was exquisite, eminently quotable, thoroughly researched and exceedingly well argued. I’ll just repeat here what I said in my review of the book: “This is about as perfect as a non-fiction book gets for me.” In other words, when I grow up and become a writer, I want to be Lewis Hyde.