There’s been some serious blogging on authority going on in my favorite corner of the blogosphere. I’m going to try to react to all of it in one post – we’ll see how this goes – but if you only have the stomach for one response, read Devin’s and Why I am Not’s not mine. AMcGuinn also makes the point that I’m going to try to make below – our government has solved the same problems in particularly bad ways.
Aretae responds to my post. I’ll re-state and address his arguments below:
First, he argues that authority is unnatural:
Life in hunter-gatherer tribes is profoundly anti-authoritarian, and violently so. The closest picture we have to our Evolutionarily Stable Environment (modern hunter-gatherers) is one in which a tribesman attempting to take authority is a worse evil than patricide.
He always makes this argument and I don’t understand it. Life in hunter-gather tribes was also totally devoid of privacy, filled with murder, filled with rape, short, chaotic, violent, characterized by zero economic growth, etc. If it’s true that authority was absent in these societies, I would count that as a positive for authority. Also, I’m not sure there was no authority in these societies. I’ve been parts of lots of small groups and they all develop unofficial leaders. I’m prepared to state that no group of people throughout the history of time has every worked together completely equally. Nor do I see why it would be good if they had.
Second, he lists two big problems for the pro-authority side:
- Advocating more independence for group (a) that I belong to, and less independence for group (b) that I don’t belong to is properly seen as self-delusion 99% of the time, such that a rational person may well stop listening once he hears the conclusion…because the time to figure out how someone is convincing himself of why he should get preferential rules is just not worth it.
- It’s worth noting that in the near future (10 years?), it is likely that automation will catch the middle of the bell curve, just as it’s caught the left. Once that happens, all the arguments currently made for lack of authority for the lower IQ types also apply to the vast majority of the population. (Quick calc…Middle 2/3 + left 1/6 of the curve…about 83%). Arguing to free men that folks should be obedient only works when you’re talking about other people.
I don’t understand why an authority couldn’t treat different people differently. It’s really only in the last 40 or 50 years that anyone has seriously believed that government should treat everyone absolutely equally and even during this time it has specifically not do so (see affirmative action, for example). It’s not hard at all to treat different groups differently. Again, I would be willing to go to the other extreme and argue that no actual historical authority has ever treated all groups of people over whom it has authority absolutely equally.
This concept of "free men" has stopped making sense to me. People – as a mass – don’t really want to be free. There are exceptions here and there, but generally men want to be obedient to those they perceive as their betters. You can wish this isn’t so all day long, but if you can’t account for it in your theory of government, you’re theory will remain theory forever.
Why I am Not also responds. I agree with all of his post expect the beginning:
An authoritarian policy of crushing dissent is a weakness, not a strength, because it means that if visible dissent does occur, the regime’s legitimacy is threatened. Whereas by allowing dissent, liberal democracy defangs it, and normalises discontent. The anti-cuts protests in London would have brought down most governments in the Arab world; here in England, they are a blip on the radar.
If you want to have an authoritarian state, like the formalists and reactionaries, then you have to be willing to do more than just crush all obstruction to the smooth working of the state – you have to crush all visible expressions of dissent. This is where the costs are huge. That is why authoritarian states tend to be either brittle (succumbing to coup or revolution in times of trouble) or backwards (the huge costs of suppressing all dissent stifling all growth).
First, not all Authorities crush dissent. We think of modern America as a place in which dissent is tolerated, but we delude ourselves. You can’t criticize minorities while attending a university or holding most jobs. You don’t get shipped to the gulag if you speak "inappropriately" but I think it’s a stretch to argue James Watson or Larry Summers didn’t have their dissent crushed. I think a strong case can be made that all stable societies need to believe certain lies. Lies give rise to dissidents. Stable societies much crush the dissidents. The only tolerant societies are dead societies.
Again, I don’t think this problem is unique to reactionary or formalist societies. Think of the enemies of progressivism. In three wars, the Civil War, WWI and WWII the enemies of progressivism were destroyed at massive costs. Apparently, the costs of maintaining a "tolerant" society are also huge.
Aretae then responds to Devin by trying to draw a distinction between authority (which I guess he limits to the situation in which a government passes a rule) and something else which happens outside of government. So apparently, a boss has no authority over his subordinates because everyone can sever the employment agreement. I don’t get the distinction, to be honest.
Aretae then responds to Why I am Not by arguing that there in the modern system, it is not possible to exercise authority over rich people in very liberal places. As a rich person in a very liberal, I can assure you that this is not true (if only!). In fact, in the context of DC, he’s almost perfectly wrong, when he says: "90-99% of laws in NYC have no impact whatsoever on a rich liberal." The poor in DC are totally unaffected by laws, while the rich have to put up with schools that go from being decent to shitty, onerous historical preservation laws to contend with, crime, etc.