Thought You’d Never Ask

Much if not most (I’m tempted to say all) of our thinking about authority has been perverted by indelible imprints of our authoritarian upbringing, education, and incessant social reinforcement. We’re all brainwashed, literally, and it started before we could even talk, when our parents first negated and violated our wills, and sometimes our rights and bodies, “for your own good”. The fact that we think it “built character” and “toughened us up” doesn’t vindicate it anymore than Stockholm syndrome vindicates a victim’s abduction. Most of us have no clue how thoroughly our authority-obsessed culture has hijacked our minds. If you haven’t yet started your own process of de-authorifying yourself, then you can be sure your thinking about authority is skewed and distorted.

If that seems like a distasteful opinion you’d rather not allow, it doesn’t come lightly and you really need to honest up. If it struck you as absurd and you won’t “waste your time” on it, pay attention to your body. The normal reaction to something absurd is laughter. Did you laugh at that first paragraph, or did you feel a twinge, or even a kind of mildly creepy WTF? — like you would if someone almost stumbled on one of your uncomfortable secrets or “walked over your grave” as they used to say?

What’s more, consider this: If your thinking about authority were stellar, then things in the world as they are now are already as good as they’ll likely ever get — with token improvements to keep us pacified as long as possible, of course — because our present conditions are nothing if not the cumulative results of exercising authority. We were taught how authority should work and made to believe it works that way, but with results this horrific it must be a stupid idea or a con job. I think it’s both. The proof is in the filthy pudding we’re mired in, drowning.

What we see — poverty, disease, classism, slavery, obscene wealth disparity, exploitation of the bodies and lands of all but a privileged few — are the real results of authority as it actually works, results we would have expected if we had not been lied to, results that have been stubbornly consistent for over ten thousand years since the advent of so-called “civilization”.

Pro-authority arguments spit against a mountain of authority-damning evidence so high it renders them moot if not ridiculous. But that’s exactly what authority was designed for: To make false, ridiculous arguments convincing enough to get us digging, believing we’re going to move a mountain, while authorities profit all the way — until someone notices the lorries dumping our hard-dug loads back onto the mountaintop and wakes up to the fact that the authorities never wanted the mountain moved. They just wanted to keep our backs breaking and our shovels digging so they’d stay flush in bling, Gulf Streams, private islands and Kobe steaks.

Some people are quick to point out things aren’t like they were in times past. There’s been progress. Sure there has — but one less beating today than we got yesterday is a pathetic kind of progress. Not as bad as it could be or once was or is over there for those poor schmucks is concession, not achievement, a slave’s measurement, a captive’s way of keeping spirits up… while the beatings continue, somewhat “improved”.

What little progress we’ve made has been agonizingly slow — while most of Earth’s creatures, including us, continue suffering torturous living deaths, many on their ways to extermination one species after another. “Progress” like that isn’t one of the blessings we should be counting when in fact authorities have deliberately retarded progress to keep us under thumb — we, their peers in every way except the privilege of authority — so that they can maintain their death grips and fatten themselves by the slaughter.

If you’re more optimistic than to accept this FUBAR as the best we can do; if you hold out hope for a much better world — I do — we certainly won’t achieve it by waiting for authorities to save us. We’ve waited too long already. Butchers have no intention of rescuing herds from the slaughterhouse, no matter how sweetly they might sing to them or how marvelous their promises might be as they load ’em up and head ’em out.

It’s bad enough that for thousands of years authorities everywhere embroiled their subjects in serial wars, crusades, and other mass murder campaigns, exterminating entire peoples, enslaving many of the survivors, and vigorously maintaining iron rule over the rest in classes, castes and hierarchies, all of it created and sustained by authority, guaranteeing that only a privileged few would ever live in a much better world because, they’ve long argued, a much better world for all is unfeasible. That argument was always a malicious con job, but it became a wildly ridiculous one a century ago, especially in the United States, when authorities gained and since have only increased the knowledge and the technology that could easily make their parts of the world much better for everyone. And now, with global control within their reach, they refuse more adamantly than ever.

This isn’t a problem of lack of will, but antagonistic will. No surprise. In a much better world, authority will play a much smaller, hopefully minuscule role, precisely because we’ll have solved the major problems that authorities were supposed to solve, which they not only failed dismally to solve but, reprehensibly, refused to solve. Having done what authority did not do and did not want to do, we’ll have proven we can do without it. And, having achieved a much better world cooperatively, in solidarity with each other as peers, we will have burned and buried, finally, the putrid lie that we needed someone to tell us what to do and how to do it.

At some point you need to ask: If they’re not smart enough to solve our worst problems, then what makes them authorities? Otherwise, if they’re smart enough to solve them but refuse to, then they must not want to solve them.

So, then, why are they authorities?

Here is just one of many examples which not only show how truly malicious authorities are, but how staunch and vile their refusal to act in their public’s best interest has long been. What they actually do is act in just a bit better than their public’s worst interest. That’s how you keep the lobsters cooking but alive as long as possible without the whole thing boiling over into revolt.

Did you know, (according to Oxfam in 2013, before the additional 30% bump since then in the income of the world’s uber-richest 0.01%) that three months’ income of the richest 100 people on the planet (the 0.000001%) would be enough to eradicate extreme poverty, globally and permanently? One hundred people, leaving the other 7.5 billion of us unscathed. Three months’ income, leaving the other nine months that year and all twelve months of their obscenely disproportionate incomes every year afterward, forever, unscathed. Think that’s too high a price to pay? It’s too much to ask? It’s too onerous to force them to give it up? But you have no qualms about forcing some small-time con artist to repay the mere thousands he defrauded?

(See Oxfam’s 2013 report, “Annual income of richest 100 people enough to end global poverty four times over”.)

Just the increase in their incomes in the four years since the Oxfam report would have more than covered it. They could have given up nothing, retained 100% of their 2013 income, devoting only the excess over that income level for a couple of years, and resumed their unconscionably lascivious hoarding the next year and happily ever after at full load. Wouldn’t that have made them happy? Wouldn’t it make you happy if you were in their shoes?

In fact, it would have made the rich very, very unhappy, which is why, for decades if not centuries, the rich have had ample means to rid poverty off the face of the Earth, but stubbornly, criminally refused to do it. And we still refuse to make them.

Extreme global poverty could quickly be a thing of the past, never to loom its infested head again, but it persists because the people with the power to end it don’t want it to end.

When requirements to fix one of our worst problems are this minuscule, and demented, pig-headed, sadistic refusal to fix it rises to this appalling magnitude, we can’t reasonably draw any other conclusion: We like things this way.

We are in a deplorable state not despite authority, but because of it. War alone should be sufficient proof. General populations have fomented revolts against oppressive authorities, invariably after having tolerated authoritarian crimes far longer than seems remotely wise in retrospect, but general populations have never fomented wars, crusades, genocides or colonialism. Which of your family or friends or forebears or their friends came up with the idea that going to war would be a great idea? Which of them put officials into office so that they start a war? Who do you know that’s eager for war? Anyone? If so, what kind of human beings do you hold them to be, and are you proud of them and your association with them?

But the rich are eager to go to war.

You think better of the rich than that? See what retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce has to say about the rich, their bought institutions, and war in “How ‘Think Tanks’ Generate Endless War” and see if you think he’s a crackpot.

We have always had authority and those who use it to domineer, conquer, subjugate and exploit to thank for endless war, not our peers. And despite this, so far, virtually no one rejects authority, without which wars could not happen at all.

If it seems like I say all that as if authority meets no opposition, as if I’m ignorant of revolutionaries, freedom fighters, independence and human rights and environmental movements; no, just the opposite. I say it with revolutionaries, activists and protesters squarely in mind. Although I admire their intentions and efforts to counteract the often horrifically inane and anti-human policies and actions of authorities all around the world, their successes have been marginal. Why?

They make the wrong argument.

Criticism is not rejection or refusal, but endorsement on condition that criticism is accepted. We don’t criticize worthless or malignant principles, policies, plans, projects and the like — we disown and discard them. Instead, so far at least, rather than strike at the root problems inherent in authority, revolutionaries fully subscribe to it — they aren’t challenging authority, they’re replacing “bad” authorities with “good” ones — and activists have mostly opted to object and protest the policies and actions of authorities by appealing or applying pressure to them in hopes they’ll change their policies and actions, which necessarily means that their authority must remain intact. This is not to stand against authority, but to legitimize it, implicitly endorsing it by arguing that it’s being misused instead of that it’s a sham and should be disregarded and abandoned.

Ironically, so-called “speaking truth to power” just reinforces an authority’s right and freedom to authorize profit-greedy, life- and world-threatening agendas. If they’re smart enough to be authorities and open enough to hear truth, do you really think they haven’t already heard and rejected it? Arguing with rulers to change their rules only confirms their positions and status as rule-makers who stand above the rules they make, not beneath them, subject to them. This is how protest undermines its stated goals by its own subtext, foolishly if unwittingly reinforcing the right and power of authorities to oppose, violate and defeat those very goals.

What if the real problem is our underlying belief that some people have the right to make rules for everyone else?

What if authority itself is the problem?

If that prospect to you seems “obviously” absurd or out of the question, please, don’t pretend you know how deep the rabbit hole goes when you haven’t yet so much as poked your head in. If you still take authoritarian mantras seriously, like “law and order” or “the rule of law” or “respect authority” or “to serve and protect,” etc., you’re probably in denial that a rabbit hole even exists.

Everyone (and I’m barely exaggerating if at all) wants to believe there is some kind of authority or some redeemable part of it that’s valid, worthwhile, genuine, right and necessary. I staunchly disagree. Now, after two decades of research, investigation, deliberation and experimentation, I contend that authority is very close to the root problem, supremacism, as its iconic functional expression in society and human relationships. By supremacism, I mean the belief that some people should be privileged as more and better than peers, elevated above the rest of us, as sure a sign of psychological compensation for inner senses of inferiority as there could be — but that’s a whole other post.

Despite how long I’ve worked on the question and how strongly I’m convinced that authority is by nature and design antagonistic to everything we hold dearest, even I still feel its allure. It would be so nice if we could count on someone else, some Big Brother or Holy Savior or Champion League, to figure it all out and solve our problems for us. It would be so nice to know that, when we need it, someone strong enough to step in and protect us will force bad guys and fools to obey or be gone. Too bad we still haven’t figured out who will save us from the saviors themselves.

Several years ago I got quite vocal in my criticism of authority. The pro-authority retorts I’ve gotten since then (most could barely be called “arguments”) swear that there indeed is validity and value in some kind of authority, what a friend recently called “real authority”. As I’ve listened to the thinking behind these retorts, and I’ve listened intently and actively, it became clear they had all the hallmarks of cultic belief. Throughout this post I’ll use the term “real authority” for this supposedly genuine, valid kind of authority that everyone seems so keen on clinging to.

I’m making two main points with this post.

First, our idea of authority is extremely shallow — so much that virtually all of us have failed even to sincerely and seriously ask basic questions about authority, let alone investigate and answer them. Check, test and validate our answers? Fugetaboutit.

Second, our confidence in authority is far from rationally justified, precisely because our shallow thinking about authority fails to provide a sound basis for believing in it and relying on it — i.e., faith in authority. Authoritarianism. Rather than a well-reasoned, well-analyzed, well-evidenced, well-demonstrated principle, authoritarianism remains a matter of blind faith. If we pretend that it’s a foregone conclusion, an incontrovertible fact, a truth so obvious it would be absurd to question it — let alone challenge or (heaven forbid!) reject it — then we’re being dishonest, passing off blind belief as if it were well-established truth, just like cultists do.

You can’t very well discover that an idea is wrong if you begin by “knowing” it’s right and then doubt all information to the contrary merely because it contradicts what you “know”. You can’t see the pile of bullshit in front of you when your lenses are smeared with it. You have no good reason to be sure an idea is right if you’ve no more than assumed it’s right. If you refuse to consider the possibility it’s a bad assumption, your confidence is a bias, the result of credulity or even gullibility, not a well-developed product of smart, honest, critical thinking.

I have met only a few who recognized that the supposed realness, genuineness, benefit, necessity, etc., of “real authority” is just an assumption, and only a rare few who were honestly open to question whether their assumption might be a bad one. Instead, most people blithely believe that some form or portion or essence of authority must be real, genuine, beneficial, necessary, unavoidable — in other words, true, needed and good. But if all you’ve done is unskeptically assumed the truth and necessity and goodness of “real authority”, you have no reasonable right to pretend that your assumption is instead a conclusion, as if you’d investigated, deliberated, and satisfied yourself beyond a shadow of doubt, when in fact you’ve done nothing of the sort.

I can say this with high confidence that it’s true for most people who read it: You just believed authority to be real, true, needed and good without a clear idea of why or actual evidence that you’re right, mostly because that’s what everyone you’ve known and respected told you all your life. So, you have consistently respected it, justified it, advocated it, and defended it, just like true believers “just believe” God is real, true, needed and good, and who, together with all the believing faithful, proceed to worship, justify, advocate and defend Him. Just like you do authority.

If authority is all that and God is all that, they shouldn’t need defenders, especially not blind-believing ones.

If you’ve never honestly, seriously considered the possibility that authority is bullshit — not just some kinds of authority, not just when it’s abused, but the very principle, the core idea of authority — then you have no business swearing to God that at least some kind of authority is real, true, needed and good, because you’ve done little to nothing to honestly check if you’re wrong about that.

But why would it be otherwise? Blind faith in authority was drilled into us when we were absolutely defenseless and completely gullible — when we were just small children — and has continued nonstop ever since. It’s no wonder we became true believers in our respective cults of authority. We were brainwashed to become exactly that — but understanding why and how we got here doesn’t vindicate the awful place where we ended up, and it’s no excuse to stay here, stuck.

I’m astounded to find out just how thoroughly stuck people believe they are.

I could say it another way: You have no more business swearing that authority is real, true, needed and good than any true-believer cultist has to swear to God that his most cherished belief is real, true, needed and good. Neither of you have done the homework that might possibly show your claim is more than just magical thinking — that is, it would if you actually did the homework, which you have not done — so you have absolutely no reason to think that doing the homework will definitely show your claim is more than just magical thinking — that is, if you actually did it, which you have not done. Committing the cultic coup de grâce to both reason and sanity, i.e., claiming that you don’t need to do the homework because you already know it would prove your claim is true, is as fallacious, irrational and magical as it gets.

Our thinking on authority, our beliefs about it, and our faith in it are rank with cultism.

We all have a gut feeling that we’re referring to something real when we say “real authority” or the like. Parental authority, the authority of a teacher or a master over their areas of expertise or their students, the authority of a good leader over the way forward and his followers, or the authority of a seasoned success in a respected pursuit are just several examples that people cite as “real authority”. We have a deep belief that some kind of authority is genuine and that it’s a natural result of expertise, skill mastery, or a record of practical success, especially if an authority has amassed scads of followers. We could sum all that up in a single word, competence. Somehow, we believe competence alone sufficiently justifies or constitutes or automatically creates authority.

I don’t argue that this belief is all wrong or that the competence we like to call “authority” is illusory. I do argue that we make a mistake by calling competence “authority”, and that the nature of authority stands at severe cross-purposes to true competence. Rather than competence being the basis for authority, authority is actually the device we use to detach competence from our reasons for following or complying with authorities who claim the right to instruct or dictate to us. I realize this seems counter-intuitive at first blush, but that’s only because of our shallow thinking, and I hope it will get clearer to you by the end of the post.

To my argument I’ve gotten plenty of reactions and counterarguments, which I’ve boiled down to these generic ones:

  1. We’ve always called it “authority”, so it must be authority;
  2. Everyone calls it authority and believes it’s real, so it must be authority and it must be real;
  3. Without real authority, we wouldn’t know how to operate in many situations, therefore it must be necessary;
  4. If real authority is necessary, then it must be a valid, sensible idea;
  5. Nothing else makes sense to us, so no sensible alternatives are possible, and so, it’s a waste of time looking for any;
  6. We have plenty of examples of authority working, so it must be the only thing that really works, and so, it’s obviously the best we can do.

I hope you can see how each of those arguments is flawed or even flatly fallacious. And no, I’m not kidding. People actually make arguments just like that, once you cull their verbiage down to its essentials.

We should all wonder why no one has ever fully challenged the principle of authority. Again, I’m not kidding: No one.

With thousands of years of philosophy and political science behind us, not a one. Every single highly regarded expert on the subject began his thinking (women having only recently been allowed into the club) by assuming that authority is real, true, needed and good instead of first honestly questioning whether it is or not.

Some have challenged aspects of authority, yes, especially recently — but they almost exclusively have targeted the most problematic type: political authority. Very few people would argue that political authority is not problematic and does not tend to corrupt and cause trouble. No, its well-recognized and well-documented problems and scandals are precisely why people challenge it. But, to a person, they have challenged it with a purpose in mind: to find a way to make it work. That’s hardly a challenge open to the question whether it’s a good idea in the first place.

Socially and politically, challenging highly problematic issues is a fairly safe challenge to make. But what about challenging the universally admired mainstay of “civilization”: Authority, the primary principle governing each and every major institution and organization in business, government and religion, in almost every society as far back as we have record? You’re not going to get rich and famous that way, so maybe it’s no wonder: No one has ever done it. At this point in our “progress” as “highly advanced”, “highly civilized” and “highly educated” societies (at least, for you authoritarians, those in the so-called “developed world”,) this is nothing less than mind-blowing. How has this “oversight” gone on for millennia? Cultic true belief, not scattered here and there in our societies, but foundational, central, and pivotal to all of them. And no one noticed.

So we’re pretending when we claim that something called “real authority” (or “genuine” or “good” or “valid”) would pass each and every challenge we could possibly conceive — because we have mounted no such challenges. We’ve barely dreamed of challenging the principle of authority at all and can hardly imagine what an intelligent challenge would even look like. Not only have we devised and mounted none, the very idea seems far-fetched or absurd. Again, I’m not talking about challenging particular authorities or even all authorities. I’m not talking about challenging abuses of authority. I’m not talking about challenging stupid and criminal policies, programs, practices or projects that authorities authorized. I’m talking about challenging the principle of authority itself. No challenge nor even serious question, not by anyone, not at any time, anywhere. None.


Please explain to me how tests that were never taken could be “passed” or challenges that were never mounted could be surmounted — except for cheating and flat-out lies and bullshit. At the crux of every society on record.

So then, given all that unquestioning acceptance and pretense and failure to think smart and test the idea of authority for merit, when we’ve either been credulous or devious about our concept of authority — which, either way, exactly means not skeptical, critical or rational — just how reliable could our conclusions about authority possibly be? The answer is: Not very.

Especially in “developed” societies that pride themselves on both intellectual and practical savvy, if not love of truth, freedom and humanitarian progress, doesn’t this failure of honest, critical thinking about our most basic, pervasive organizing and governing principle seem highly suspicious to you?

Most people don’t like my contention that our conclusions about authority are no more reliable than a cultic believer’s blind faith in his most cherished doctrine. I’ve gotten plenty of disagreeing (and sometimes disagreeable) reactions to it. But if you’ve done no more to vet your own faith in authority than any cultist has done to vet his superstitious, magical beliefs, why would anyone think your faith is superior to a cultist’s, and how do you know authority isn’t every bit as wacko as devil worship, child sacrifice, “sex magic” and fucking your way to God, (yes, some cults openly advocate these, but many more practice them surreptitiously,) prostitution as divinity (Raelism’s “Rael’s Girls”), hollow Earths, inside-out universes, bloodletting and self-mutilation rituals, along with many, many others? The comparison might be irksome, but it’s apt; and knee-jerk reactions to it only betray the Byzantine rabbit hole of authority-fixated bias we were all brainwashed into, deep bias that we greatly underestimate and about which many of us continue in flat denial.

In fact, the more you learn about cults, the more you’ll see that supremacism and heavy emphasis on authority are hallmark core traits of every cult. It’s not accidental that they’re also hallmark core traits of xenophobia, nationalism, rabid patriotism, totalitarianism, and many other supremacist, authoritarian -isms. Supremacism and authoritarianism alone don’t necessarily make a group or a nation or a religion or even an entire society a cult, but the longer and more insistently people maintain and defend them, the closer to cultism they get. Authority and cultism have very strong affinities for each other.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong. Really. Please do give it a good try. After all, it would be so much easier to realize that all we need to do is just follow the right orders. However, it will be difficult for you to prove me wrong if you haven’t even thought the matter through and have nary an expert to cite who has thought the matter through for you.

But isn’t the onus on me? I’m the one making all kinds of wild, radical claims. Isn’t the burden of proof mine?

Sure, if this were a discussion club or sophomore year debate class or Intro to Philosophy — maybe. As one astute philosopher put it, “Obviously, the burden of proof lies on the one who wants to prove something.” People routinely try to dismiss me with that little two-step, but the problem is: I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to wake you up to the proof that’s quite literally all around you. I won’t suffer your fate if you continue in your privilege-induced reveries of America, Mom and apple pie while they’re shearing you bare and bloody — you will.

But you’re focused on fleas while blind to the camel. I’m not the one trying to saddle you with obligation to hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations so that you literally have no realistic way of knowing if you’re a criminal or not. Law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds asks, “When lawmakers don’t even know how many laws exist, how can citizens be expected to follow them?”It’s become such a problem, long-standing rules have come under fire. Another legal expert suggests, “… maybe the old presumption that individuals know the law is outdated, unfair and maybe even unconstitutional.”

Under the vagueness doctrine, a law is void if a person of reasonable intelligence would have to guess at its meaning, because it would be unfair to punish someone for violating a law that cannot be understood. It seems just as unfair to punish people for violating a law that they couldn’t reasonably be expected to know about.

Law that can’t be known is no law at all. If we wish to remain a nation of laws, Congress and the courts need to address this problem, before it’s too late.

Too late? So the justice system is at the point of collapse? Yes, and not only because of an obscene proliferation of laws that even the experts can’t keep up with.

I am a flea. My burden of proof, if any, is small and inconsequential. I won’t throw you in the slammer if you don’t believe me and do what I say. I won’t hold you in contempt if you dismiss or ignore me. I won’t force you to account for hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations, maybe millions when you count state, county, and municipal ordinances, that can make a felon out of you but that I can’t even keep track of myself.

Get your eye on the camel.

We’re not talking about trivia. We’re talking about a megalithic control principle. We’re talking about real people in high places in real organizations who presume to impinge and even violate real rights, yours and everyone else’s, except maybe those in the Privileged With Authority Club. Shouldn’t the burden of proof lie on the ones who want to curtail, eliminate, and even violate your rights and liberty, using authority as their excuse? Shouldn’t they be required to prove their cases before taking each and every freedom-eliminating step?

But here we are, with the actual situation precisely reversed, the burden of proof entirely on those seeking to defend and reclaim rights that were fraudulently or violently ripped from them. You can be sure we didn’t agree to give them up after being openly and fully informed what was going on. Most of the rights we lost were never ours for even an instant, because we were obligated without our knowledge or consent long before we were competent to enter into any contract, (which, btw, voids the contract,) much less one we didn’t even know existed, much less what it entailed, until long after we were embroiled in it, dependent on it, and obligated under it.

When it comes to authority, the burden is on the victim, not the rule-makers and their authorized agents. The United States and just a few other places in the world hold to the judicial principle “innocent until proven guilty” — which is not a law enforcement or prosecutorial or corrections principle — but there is only one setting anywhere in the United States where that principle applies: in a courtroom. On the streets, in the squad car, at the jail, during transit, in the prison, and back out onto the streets again, the rule is always and has always been: suspicious, always — and if in any doubt, guilty until proven otherwise.

That’s just a little taste of the rationally indefensible nonsense that authority legitimizes. There’s much more.

Just to rub in how little we’ve thought authority through and how credulous (or devious) we’ve been, here are six questions (out of many more I could pose) that anyone who is serious about the issue of authority should have already asked, deliberated, and have ready answers for. (Yeah, and if it wasn’t an issue before, it is now!) If you’ve never considered these questions, especially if these questions haven’t so much as occurred to you, please don’t pretend you know what you’re talking about when you defend authority. (Wait! Isn’t authority supposed to defend us?) Shallowness is no basis for authority on anything, leastwise on the topic of authority itself.

I don’t pose these questions in order to give you answers. This is a challenge, remember?

The point of this post is to show you how shallow our thinking has been, both yours and, until recently, mine. After all, I was a full-blown, blind true-believing authoritarian for decades. I want to increase cognitive dissonance, not relieve it, and draw attention to the problem, not imply or pretend that any answers I’ve come up with will solve it. And I certainly don’t want to enable people to sound like they’ve thought things through more deeply than they really have. We need to start thinking and be honest. No cheating. 😀

Question #1: Authority over what?

If there is “real authority”, what is subject to it? What does it determine? What is obliged to comply? What does an authority have authority over? When someone masters a subject or a skill or a practice or a pursuit or demonstrates a track record of success, i.e., when someone is so clearly competent that we call her an authority and treat her as one, what is her authority over, if anything?

This question will seem abstract and academic to some, as all analysis does before we dig into an idea we’ve had just a vague and intuitive grasp of. “Overly analytical” or “too abstract” are often dismissive labels we slap on things we haven’t thought through when we want an excuse to avoid doing work we’d rather skip.

Some might say a competent person has authority over her subject matter or the skill, practice or pursuit she’s competent with, but that’s a mistake. Let’s use expertise on history as an example of competence that might warrant “real authority”.

An authority on history doesn’t have authority over the facts of history, nor over the many, many contributions others have made to our corpus of historical facts and our understanding of those facts, nor over the consensus narrative that we call “history”, all of which contributed to her expertise, making her competent, which supposedly is the basis for her authority. If she actually had authority over the basis for her authority, in whole or in part, (and yes, that’s every bit as dumb as it sounds,) it would be much like writing your own history texts and creating your own history tests, then taking your own tests, and then to claim, because you got 100% scores on tests you created yourself, which only shows “expertise” on material from texts you wrote yourself, that this “proven competence” makes you an authority on history. We have a name for that kind of “competence”: quackery.

So what’s left? An authority on history doesn’t have authority over other people merely because she’s an authority on history. Even if they would be wise to listen to her and accept her opinions and trust her knowledge of history, it doesn’t make them at all subject to her authority or obliged to accept it.

Likewise an authority on any subject or skill — physics, politics, language, math, martial arts, business, finance, sports, war — has neither authority over the things that made for her competence — i.e., her mastery of the subject or skill or practice itself — nor over other people merely by virtue of her competence. Not even the President of the United States can say, “I’m a great president, doing a better job than anyone ever has, so go jump in a lake,” and seriously expect you must do it just because he’s a competent president. And not even the absolute worst president ever can be disobeyed when he gives a legal order — not without punitive consequences, that is —
just because he’s a horrible president. Competence has nothing to do with their authority; neither with the authority one doesn’t have (to make you jump in a lake) nor the authority the other does have (to make you obey a legal order.)

So what does a “real authority” actually have authority over?

You could say there’s a difference between having authority over something or someone and being an authority on something or someone. I have no problem with the latter, which is not an example of “real authority” but rather a manner of speaking by which we use “authority on” as a synonym for “competent with” or “expert on”. To prove the point, ask yourself: What does an authority on some matter have authority over? The obvious answer is: Nothing at all. So at best, “real authority” means being an authority on something which gives the “authority” authority over nothing. It turns out, “real authority” isn’t actually authority at all.

Please understand that this isn’t my idiosyncratic idea. Every modern expert on authority in the last two centuries — Max Stirner, Max Weber, Chester Barnard, Joseph Raz, Linda Zagzebski (they finally let the ladies in), Michael Huemer — defined authority as authority over, not authority on. Raz and Zagzebski are quite clear that unless it’s authority over and unless there is no reason to obey it besides the sole fact that it’s authority, it’s not authority at all. In other words, it’s not authority until competence (or any other reason for it) has been detached from it.

Once again: “Authority on” is no more than a synonym for competence. As I’ll explain shortly, subjecting yourself to a competent person as if she were your authority is, of course, something you can do. It’s your choice to behave as if she had authority over you, even though she doesn’t. The proof she has no authority over you is that you can reject her “authority” — which is actually a misnomer for your reliance on her competence and has nothing to do with any supposed authority she has over you — without repercussions from her, even if you suffer the consequences of rejecting the expertise she provided, just like you would if it came from elsewhere.

In other words, “real authority” isn’t authority at all.

Beyond that, I have no answer to our first question, because I can’t find a reasonable one. Maybe you can, but I doubt you will. If you do, though, I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Question #2: “Real” compared to what?

Like I mentioned before, the typical argument in favor of “real authority” claims that a person’s expertise, skill, or track record of success make her an authority on the matter she’s competent with, and that this competence alone sufficiently justifies or constitutes or automatically creates authority.

Beside the fact that foremost experts on authority disagree with it, this thinking ignores the fact that before competence could possibly create authority, it must create trust. If a person’s competence doesn’t inspire trust, how could it possibly serve as a basis for her authority? (Remember, we’re talking about “real authority” rather than the obviously problematic authority by threat of force, punishment, or violence, i.e., political authority.) Then, when trust gets solid enough, trust and competence foster reliance. This happens quite naturally and spontaneously, thanks to our trust-fond psychological wiring and how it gravitates towards trust and reliance when competence remains consistent over time. Competence, trust, and reliance can all arise without an ounce of authority in the picture. So what is the difference between trust and reliance on competence on one hand and authority on the other?

I can decide to regard a competent person as an authority, my authority, if I so choose, like I mentioned before. I don’t have to make her my authority in order to benefit from her competence, but I can if I want to. Or instead, I can rely on the word of an expert or the skill of a pilot or the directions of a cop without considering them authorities. I can believe their opinions and follow their directions and obey their directives simply because I think they know what is best under the circumstances — and I can refuse to believe or follow or obey if I think they don’t know, especially when I’m sure they’re wrong. Just because authoritarians don’t know how to rely on competence without dragging authority into it doesn’t mean I don’t know how — nor does it mean I must regard someone as an authority in order to rely on her competence and benefit from it.

So what additional element does authority bring with it? I’ll give you a hint: It becomes crystal clear the instant you decide that an authority over you does not know best, her opinions are incorrect, or her directives should not be obeyed. What’s more, you well know the difference between her and another authority of equal competence in the same area of expertise, maybe even with the same level of authority over others, but who has no authority over you. So, again, competence has nothing to do with it. I’ll give you another hint: It’s the very element that seems missing were we to trust and rely on a competent person but no more, the absence of which makes you uncomfortable and the introduction of which would put you at ease and make you feel more secure.

Question #3: Why are we so confident in what amounts to a shortcut?

When it takes thousands of scientists decades or even centuries of rigorous work to settle scientific arguments and questions, when it concerns systems like politics, “justice”, the military, banking, and corporate governance — all of which are controlled by individuals or small cadres at the top of authoritarian power structures, often in competition with rivals — isn’t our confidence in them excessive and unjustified?

Especially when we often rely on just a single person’s judgment (or a jury’s or a committee’s or a board’s) to settle important arguments or decide on “correct” answers for business, religion, law, social and criminal justice, economics, national security or international policy, after only short processes of trial or other deliberation, often in settings that range from barely visible to utterly secret, why are we so eager to defend them and abide by their decisions?

When we know what the accuracy and reliability we demand from science requires, why do we drop the bar almost to ground in other profoundly important sectors of society? And we do this not only despite a lack of the factual evidence, transparency and difficult-to-reach consensus that rigorous enterprises like science demand, but often precisely and deliberately to avoid the need for the levels of facticity, transparency, and hard work to develop consensus that are needed to reach the best conclusions.

There is a very simple answer to this question, but I doubt most people even realize what it relates to, much less what it is.

Question #4: Why can people, even when their grasp of relevant facts is clearly lacking, seem more authoritative than the facts themselves?

In case you think this rarely happens, just remember that every ruler who ever gained power that eventually led to the ruin of his people or country or organization was just such a person.

The twin question is: Why do experts with amazing grasps of relevant facts seem less authoritative than others who know very little except how to work a crowd or perform for the camera? (Just think Chomsky vs. Trump and you’ll see what I mean.)

Judging from who speaks loudest and gets heard clearest in the United States, you’d think that all you need to become an authority is lots of money, a couple limos, a trophy wife, a TV show, and your name on a few buildings.

Maybe “authority” is just another word for gets attention? Somehow I don’t think that’s what “real authority” advocates have in mind.

Question #5: Why do we design every aspect of society and organize every institution on a principle designed primarily to deal with conflict and problematic people?

Doesn’t that imply an abysmal and unfounded lack of confidence in our ability to cooperate and the desire of most people to find optimal solutions?

I realize that in a country as competitive and ambitious and obsessed with world domination as the United States, concern for the common good and willingness to cooperate and compromise are probably less common among its people than they are among people in other places. In most places, though, even in the USA, most people know how to share, really don’t want more than their fair share, and feel badly when they see their fellows unjustly treated or going without. In contrast, authority in its most basic sense implies that without superior folks telling their inferiors what to do, the whole thing would break down into mayhem and collapse.

My friend Gavin Bartlett, in a very insightful, cogent post “Real Authority Vs Authoritarianism – A Vital Difference”, explained the word “authority” originated from the old French:

The word authority entered the English language via the Old French word ‘autorité’ meaning ‘a book or statement that settles an argument’. It in turn derives from the Latin ‘authoritatem’ meaning ‘invention, device, opinion, influence, or command’ depending on the context and which has its root in ‘auctor’ or ‘master, leader, author’.

In other words, authority began primarily as a way to settle arguments. (Authority can also be a way to answer questions for those who do not want to do the work of thinking a question through and learning how to answer it for themselves.) Unless there’s an argument, there isn’t much for authority to do that reliance on competence doesn’t already do. Another way to think of this is that authority determines who gets the say in deciding an argument or conflict or question.

This just begs another question: Why doesn’t everyone get a say? And the answer, of course, is that very few in authoritarian cultures — which means, almost no one in the “civilized, developed” world — has much faith in peer-based, communal approaches to solving differences, such as consensus, (not outside a pretty tight circle of trust,anyway,) so you can’t get most people to play anything but authoritarian games. Again, isn’t that quite a slam on humanity, especially educated, intelligent people? Sure, there are fools and bad guys out there, but in opting for authorities to handle them for us, we admit we’re not wise enough or courageous enough or responsible enough or cooperative enough to work with other intelligent, educated people and take care of fools and bad guys ourselves. It even subtly implies our fear that to deal with them you have to become like them — and as real facts from real journalism increasingly go viral, shining an ever-starker light on the alternate facts of the real fake news sources of mainstream media, we’re seeing how foolish and plain bad our authorities actually are, so maybe we’re right about the folly and badness rubbing off. Or maybe we’re wrong and the real problem is what happens when we give people authority to handle fools and bad guys instead of doing it ourselves.

Authority gladly accepts our offloading of wisdom, guts, duty, competence and teamwork, because a moral carte blanche comes with it. If that seems too strong a statement, consider the extreme immoralities and crimes that authorities have successfully perpetrated and defended throughout the ages, and how difficult or impossible it was for the people at that time to neutralize them. In keeping with its license to say and expect it be done, authority settles matters by relying on a starkly different “who gets the say” than do collaborative, peer-based approaches, such as the 800-pound gorilla everyone either forgets or pretends to ignore is more peer-based and consensus-driven and less authoritarian than even democracy: science.

To resolve an argument about the nature or constitution of something or how it works or what its origins were, scientists consider reality itself as the one that gets the say. Otherwise, among those in the scientific community, everyone gets a say about what reality is telling them. To use a blatant anthropomorphism that authoritarians relate to, (and which I detest, btw,) the only real authority for a scientist is reality itself in the form of verifiable facts. Reality gets the say and everyone else is just an observer, a witness.

In science, facts rule over everything: over theories, hypotheses, conjectures, guesses, opinions, beliefs, even over the scientists themselves as seekers of scientific truth, observers of what’s really going on, and gatherers of facts. If facts come along that contradict your ideas and theories about your object of study, as a scientist you have to change your mind, not change the facts to suit your beliefs and your pet theories. (Donald Trump’s “alternate facts” might carry some little weight in political circles and courts of public opinion, but he’d be ridiculed to scorn if he tried that malarkey as a scientist.)

So scientists research, explore, and experiment, gathering facts, and then try to see and hear what the facts say about which side of an argument or which answer to a question is best supported by those facts and, in turn, by reality. Throughout the process, reality in the form of verifiable facts get the say, and apart from factual support, nothing that anyone says is accepted as scientific, regardless who or how many said it.

Scientific arguments are not settled until a strong consensus develops throughout the scientific community — and even then the consensus opinion is perpetually subject to new facts that might come to light and modify or contradict it. Scientific knowledge is essentially a body of consensus belief vulnerable to revision at any time, and the instant someone claims that scientific beliefs are more certain or impervious than that, they leave the realm of science and cross into the realm of faith. There’s now a term for that religiously pseudo-scientific outlook: scientism.

In contrast, authority settles arguments by fiat, i.e., by decree or arbitrary order, without requiring that decisions must rest on facts, reason, or consensus. Not even something as unreliable as a whim or a guess or a gut inkling is required — and many, many grave historical decisions were later revealed to be little more than an authority’s whim or guess or gut inkling. The only thing authority requires is one or a few authorized people who were given the say, and then what they say is binding simply by saying it.

You might think that power and reputation and savvy have something to do with authority, along with the support an authority garnered from people she persuaded to back her. Of course, those might figure into deciding who gets authority. But when it comes to what authority is, what it does, how it does it, and who or what it’s done to — power, reputation, savvy and support base might have some bearing, sometimes, but only secondarily if at all. This is easy to see by the difficulty and inordinate work required to reverse or repeal an authoritative decision, order or law.

Few things show how sorely stacked the authoritarian deck is than what happens to prisoners when the law they were convicted for breaking gets repealed: Nothing. Repealing a terrible law — slavery laws or Jim Crow laws, for examples — confirms that the law was a mistake or even downright malicious. So then, it was likewise a mistake and malicious to prosecute and imprison people for doing what we and the authorities later, by repealing the law, admitted is OK to do.

When a terrible law gets repealed, do the authorities that created and passed it voluntarily admit their error, apologize and make restitution for the damage they caused? No. Does any authority involved in apprehending, convicting and imprisoning the poor saps, who we now confess did nothing wrong, voluntarily admit their error, apologize and make restitution for the damage they caused? No. Apart from victims of a terrible law or their advocates taking difficult, inordinate steps to rectify the wrongs done to them, nothing happens. They remain imprisoned, treated like criminals, until they “serve” their sentences. And unless they can prove misconduct during the legal process on the part of authorities, an even more onerous task, not only do authorities not volunteer to compensate them for the damage and pain they suffered, authorities adamantly refuse to make amends on principle, denying beforehand every possible argument victims might make no matter how appalling their injury and pain were.

By repealing a terrible law, we admit what we did to the “convicts” was wrong, that they actually did nothing worthy of conviction and imprisonment, and that today they could do exactly the same thing again without fear of reprisal.

So what was their true crime, the worst crime of all as it turns out? Why do authorities remain staunchly remorseless even after recognizing a law as a terrible one?

Well, ask yourself: What one fact remains unchanged? What could give enough weight to their self-righteousness that all of us not only tolerate it but defend it as unassailable? (Yes, it’s ironic, but we do it anyway.) Whether it was a good law or an awful one, it makes no difference, because one thing remains constant, the only thing that authority can’t overlook, the only thing that authorities ultimately care about:

Either way, no matter what, they broke the law.

So it’s clear that their real crime was not doing what the law criminalized. Their real crime was they defied authority. This is the crime of all crimes, the one true crime behind every other, and this also is easy to see. When faced with real threat to their authority, authorities will not just break laws, commit terrible crimes, even shocking ones, if they think it will keep them in power. Ultimately, when all the bullshit is pressure-washed away, there is just one law in the Land of Law and Order — obey the law, whatever it is — and only one decree in the Authoritarian Dominion: obey authority, whatever it says.

If you’re paying attention, that should seem like the pinnacle of baseless, self-constituted, self-serving circularity, every bit as irrational as it is narcissistic.

Even when nothing recommends an authoritative decree, no matter what the authority’s power, reputation, savvy and support base or lack of them might be, and often despite strong, undeniable, well-evidenced reasons why it should have been decided or ordered otherwise, oppositely, or not at all, simply and only because an authority issued it, a decree, an order, a law or regulation is binding and enforceable and rarely gets reversed or repealed.

Once made, regardless how wrong or stupid a decree might be, the mere fact that an authority made it virtually guarantees, along with onerous rules and requirements that effectively protect the decree no matter how good or bad it was, that all but the worst decisions will stand and their defenders will carry the day.

Authoritarian establishments lay a very strong burden of proof on anyone who wants to undo their decisions. Of course they do, since the difficulty of countering their decisions directly protects the integrity, security and reputations of the establishments. It’s nothing but a rigged game that leaves anyone who braves it with a deep impression of the gravitas, power and invincibility of the authority, even if they happen to “win”. Every “victory” against authority is Pyrrhic, more costly in the long run than the benefit achieved — even if authorities don’t find ways to circumvent the achievement, which they almost always do.

The real smart guys, they know not to mess with the government. This wise guy once told me, he said, “Chazz, one thing you don’t do: You don’t mess with the government. They’ve got the toughest mob in the world. They won two World Wars and they print their own money. You don’t mess with them.”

— Chazz Palminteri, Making of the Mob (2015), Season 1, Episode 6

Short of being God, to say a word and instantly have it be so having done no productive work, with opposition practically doomed from the outset, is as close as humans can get to divine power. So we should consider: What intentions and motivations drive the people who seek power like this? What kind of people are they?

Under authority, people rule, often regardless of the facts and not so rarely even in glaring ignorance, contradiction or denial of facts — much like gods do.

I can’t think of a good reason to take what’s primarily a response to argument, conflict and problematic people, not a particularly good one at that, and make it central to every aspect of society and much of personal life as well, especially the way we do it: by rendering people who are in fact our peers to some degree into little demigods… or Hitlers. Maybe you can think of one.

Question #6: Comparing authority to peer consensus as ways to settle arguments, answer questions, lead and manage collective affairs, which one naturally encourages manipulation and corruption and which one naturally resists them?

We are living in a transitional time, a time of polarization, with the old guard clinging for dear life to authoritarianism and the rest of us in ever-increasing numbers embracing decentralization, peer-status relations, consensus-driven cooperative management, and transparency.

You can play it shrewd, predict the “winner” and throw in with them, or you can ask yourself the less opportunistic and more honest question, the big one that involves personal integrity and courage:

What kind of world do I want to live in, and which way is more likely to achieve it?

I guess that’s six minor questions plus a major 7th. And here’s an 8th note wanting resolution:

What are you going to do about it?


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