Tanner Lectures on Human Values Recap: Richard Tuck, "Active and Passive Citizens"

Written by
Julie Clack
Feb. 21, 2020

Professor Richard Tuck delivered the 2019-20 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University on Wednesday, November 6 and Thursday, November 7. In his two-part lecture “Active and Passive Citizens,” Tuck defended the old view of modern democracy held by early theorists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who viewed universal suffrage and majoritarian voting as the sole criteria for democratic politics.

Tuck contrasted Rousseau’s view of democratic politics as a matter of agency with that of Abbé Sieyès, who many political theorists see as the first person who theorized the modern state in the way it is thought of today: as a representative body designed to protect the fundamental rights of all its citizens, both “active” and “passive.”

Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has been since 1995. Prior to that he had been a University Lecturer in history at Cambridge since 1973 and a fellow of Jesus College since 1970; he is still an honorary fellow of Jesus College. He is the author of many articles and books on political thought and its history, including: “Natural Rights Theories,” “Hobbes, Philosophy and Government 1572-1651,” “The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant,” “Free Riding,” and “The Sleeping Sovereign.” He has also produced editions of Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” Hobbes’ “The Citizen” (with Michael Silverthorne) and Hugo Grotius’ “The Rights of War and Peace.” He is a fellow of the British Academy and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Lecture One: Rousseau & Sieyès

Tuck opened his first lecture with the observation that the right to participate in politics is notably absent from the lengthy list of rights enumerated in Sieyès’ “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” For Sieyès, natural rights, such as the protection of one’s person, property and liberty, are passive rights, or “those for the maintenance and development of which the society is formed.” Conversely, political rights, or “those by which the society forms itself,” Sieyès considers active. In other words, Tuck explained, all of a country’s residents ought to enjoy the rights of a passive citizen; however, because women, children and foreigners are unable to exercise any active influence on the state, they ought not to play an active role in the formation of public institutions that develop the laws under which all citizens are governed.

Tuck noted that while Sieyès’ distinctions between active and passive citizens are treated as an anomaly by contemporary theorists, Sieyès’ ideas have enjoyed a considerable revival in recent years. Why is this? Tuck believes it is because of Sieyès’ insistence that “the primary basis for a political society is its adherence to a specific and far reaching set of human rights, which must be guaranteed to all residents, passive as well as active.”

Another reason for Sieyès’ contemporary popularity is his belief that a large nation can only operate through a representative government. The problem with this reading, Tuck suggested, is that modern readers have the tendency to view it as modern democracy when it is actually just an attack on the idea of aristocratic weighting. Sieyès believed that the First and Second Estates should not enjoy any extra votes in the National Assembly because it was not an accurate representation of the nation’s active citizens; his attitude toward democracy, however, was equivocal.

Tuck then expounded a much more radical view of democracy held by Sieyès’ contemporary, Rousseau. Unlike Sieyès, who insisted on the necessarily representative character of the state, Rousseau was skeptical of representatives, who he believed could be corrupted. Instead, Rousseau thought that the basis of all law must be a general will, or a majority vote by the entire population. Unless all citizens take part in making a law, Rousseau believed that laws had little or no authority over them.

Tuck also argued that Rousseau’s ideal of universal suffrage and majoritarian voting does not necessarily exclude women and resident aliens, pointing to the historical precedents of women, who were widows or heads of households, participating in democracy before the mid- to late-19th century.

Joshua Cohen, Distinguished Senior Fellow, University of California-Berkeley, and Melissa Schwartzberg, Silver Professor of Politics, New York University, gave responses.

Lecture Two: Active Democracy

In his second lecture, Tuck defended the Rousseauvian theory against its modern critics through comparisons to other theories that have gained popularity among professional philosophers and political activists alike, namely those of sortition.

The essential characteristic behind these theories, which date back to ancient Athens but were utilized universally, is the idea that a lottery should be used in lieu of majority voting, a practice employed almost exclusively in ancient Rome. Tuck noted that, while sortition may sound radical, it provides an attractive alternative to election because it respects equality among citizens more than voting does. Why? Because it would not be vulnerable to manipulation by social power and wealth, a characteristic feature of modern “democratic” elections.

Tuck outlined what contemporary sortition could look like in the form of a randomly selected citizen jury, which would mirror the population it is supposed to represent and listen to arguments of experts on various aspects of the question presented to it, much like a jury in a criminal trial. By employing the techniques of modern opinion polling, which have become increasingly more sophisticated in recent years, a citizen jury of a large number of people could accurately mirror a population and thus achieve the same ends as majority voting.

Sortition, Tuck noted, “is a particularly clear-cut alternative to a Rousseauvian theory since it is an unusually pure example of what we might call representation without agency; by playing down the significance of the vote, it leaves the mass of citizens with no active role at all, at least not in terms of voting.” Instead, each citizen “passively awaits the result of the lottery in the hope or maybe fear of being called to participate in lawmaking. It is the purest version of representation in which there is no agency on the part of the citizens at all.”

Tuck cited two principal reasons why contempt for modern electoral politics has made sortition more attractive: one being “a general fear of mass political action and the consequences of strong majoritarianism,” the other as a belief that when one votes, they are actually affecting an outcome. According to Tuck, this is a misconception; an individual’s single vote is very unlikely to make any difference to the outcome.

In today’s context, Tuck believes that a Rousseauvian view of democracy has an implication for universal suffrage for habitants, or resident aliens, because this view suggests that “the laws concerning our common life must be made by all those who are taking part in the common life,” which would include all residents. He argued that the only thing that should bind democratic citizens together is their engagement in creating, through law and politics, the conditions of their common life, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or economic differences, a view that places less emphasis on national identity and more emphasis on radical democracy.

Simone Chambers, Professor of Political Science, University of California-Irvine, and John Ferejohn, Samuel Tilden Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, gave responses.