Yesterday I wrote my Thursday column about the ways in which authority contributes to both natural and supernatural human flourishing.
A friend wrote me to protest that, while he certainly agreed about the positive role of authority in political life, my examples of those who wrongly imagine we can live without hierarchy and authority came only from the progressive Left. But he pointed out that these days the most potent enemies of hierarchy and authority tend to be on the Right.
I must say that I find myself chastened. It is indeed the case that today free market libertarians are the most likely people to dismiss the role of authority in human flourishing. At most, they envision a minimal regulatory authority refereeing on the sidelines while we all pursue our own goals in the great scramble of “creative destruction.” But, in the main, for the free market ideologues authority corrupts, making us poorer and less happy.
And not just libertarian disciples of Milton Friedman. Significant portions of American conservatism are animated by a populist fantasy that thinks that government should “just get out of the way.” This populism tends to dismiss various socially sanctioned forms of authority—Ivy League professors, award-winning journalists, and so forth—labeling them as part of a “liberal elite.” The effect is to celebrate good ol’ boys (and girls, as in the case of Sarah Palin) at the expense of the usual social hierarchies.
I support free market approaches to economic life, and I’m sympathetic to critiques of an elite liberal bias, a bias that undermines the legitimacy of elite institutions. But my friend is correct. The ideological fantasies of the Right in America today are at least as likely, perhaps more likely, to reject the necessary and humanizing role of authority.
Some do so cynically, of course, mouthing some of the slogans of Tea Party populism so as to get the votes, while quietly preparing to assume positions of authority. This doesn’t surprise me. After all, the vast majority of higher level political figures in America, liberal and conservative, are part of a permanent elite that lives in Washington, D.C. (or visits very frequently). I call this approach limousine populism.
To a certain degree a rejection of authority is an American problem that transcends distinctions between Left and Right, or more accurately, it’s a problem that has a liberal form (fantasies of egalitarian, participatory democracy) and a conservative form (fantasies of spontaneous human flourishing once we’re freed from the oppressive burden of government). As Toqueville pointed out, our ethos is democratic, which entails an antagonism toward hierarchy, so these fantasies are probably inevitable.
I’m an American, and so I participate in the democratic ethos, which means I feel the same antagonisms toward authority. Emerson runs through my veins.
But I try to avoid the fantasies of life without authority. As is the case with so many of the positive achievement of modernity, the democratic ethos is primarily corrective. That is to say, like a healthy dose of skepticism, which can separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, a jaundiced view of authority can encourage a fitting critical sentiment that scrutinizes the legitimacy of the powers the oversee and govern our lives.
The problem comes when there is very little authority and hierarchy left to critique. Then the democratic ethos meets little resistance, and it becomes determinative and destructive. I fear we’re reaching this point.