In his Thursday Column , Rusty Reno comments on a new book by Victor Lee Austin and makes some enlightening comments about authority (later amplified here ). With the exception I note below, I do not disagree with Rusty, but I think the discussion would profit by expressly distinguishing several different kinds of authority.

For example, sometime we treat someone as an authority because that person has knowledge we recognize that we don’t. Let’s call this epistemic authority . Thus, if you have cancer, you go to a reputable oncologist, and if you need a complicated will drawn up, you go to a skilled trusts-and-estates lawyer. If you’re smart, you generally do what such experts tell you to do because they really do know better than you do. One problem with such authorities, however, is that they tend to overstep their bounds. Hence the famous physicists who opine on nuclear weapons policy.

The problem here is that the special knowledge that such people have (knowledge about physics) doesn’t make their opinions in this area any better than those of anyone else. When Rusty notes that people on the right today have little respect for the opinions of Ivy League professors, this is generally the reason. Such people have overstepped their legitimate authority so often and so flagrantly that other people no longer take them seriously, even on those questions where their authority may be genuine. This is the fault of the professors, by the way, not their critics.

Another kind of authority we might call coordination authority . Here, the idea is not that the person in authority knows better than other people, but that certain kinds of human activity require the coordinated action of many human beings, and the easiest way (often the only practical way) to get such coordination is to set up one person to give directions to others. The classic example is the lawmaker who decrees that people should drive on the right side of the road, not the left. In this case, it doesn’t matter one whit which side of the road we drive on, just so long as we all drive on the same side. The cheapest and easiest way to get the needed uniformity, however, is to appoint some person to choose for us and then enforce the rule.

Sometimes epistemic authority and coordination authority are combined. For example, if the coordinated form of human activity involved is more complex than driving on a particular side of the road, so that in order to achieve the desired goal, different individuals need to be doing different things at different times, then the authority directing them may need some specialized knowledge in order to arrange things properly to achieve the desired end. This combined epistemic-coordination authority is the kind in Austin’s example of the orchestra conductor, who tells various individuals what to do and when. Exercising this kind of authority—knowing which orders to give and when—requires specialized knowledge and skill. This is also the kind of authority possessed by business managers, admirals and generals, and university presidents.

Because this authority is predicated on the need to achieve certain specifiable ends that some people may not wish to promote, and because often reasonable people can disagree about how human activities should be coordinated to attain those ends, we get queasy about enforcing this kind of authority by law. Hence, typically (though not universally), this kind of authority is wielded by people at the heads of voluntary organizations. If individuals are unhappy with the direction of the organization or the part assigned to them in it, they can generally exit.

Yet another kind of authority we might call judicial authority . Here, we begin from the fact that human beings sometimes have disagreements that they simply cannot settle peacefully on their own. This could be because one party is a bad actor prepared to use force or fraud to take something away from someone else. But it can also be because, although both parties are acting honestly and reasonably, they simply cannot agree on how to proceed, and it is physically impossible for both parties to get their way—as when neighbors reasonably disagree about where the property line dividing their holdings falls.

In such cases, we can either settle the issue by violence, or we can set up some authority to decide the matter, in which case we get judicial authority, of which the paradigm is the court or the judge. Compare Aeschylus in the Oresteia . For this kind of authority to endure, people have to believe that the authority will give them a fair shake. This is one reason (there are others) that we have such values as the rule of law, due process, and so on.

Then there is what we might call public-good authority . Here, the point of departure is that some goods are what economists call non-excludable , meaning that, if someone undertakes to provide them, everyone else will enjoy the benefit, whether they contribute to providing the good or not. The classic example is military defense. Everyone in the nation benefits from the physical security a strong military provides, and there is no way to limit that security to just those who have contributed to paying for it. Other examples are the public roads: we let everyone use them for free, because it would be prohibitively expensive to make every road a toll road and so charge the people who use them.

The problem with public goods, then, is that the market will not provide them in sufficient quantities: those funding them will be unable to capture the full value of the benefit they are providing because so many of the beneficiaries will simply free-ride. The solution is once again a form of authority: an authority empowered to provide the good but also to overcome the funding problem by taxing the public generally to pay for the public good. Such public-good authority is also often combined with epistemic authority, since it usually takes some knowledge to determine how to much to tax, how much to spend, and on what to spend it in order to provide a public good efficiently.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it is complete enough to make a few other points about Rusty’s column and subsequent comments. In those latter comments, Rusty says he feels chastened by a reader’s letter to the effect that, contrary to what Rusty may have suggested in the initial column, it is “indeed the case today that free market libertarians are the most likely people to dismiss the role of authority in human flourishing.” I think Rusty need not feel so chastened.

Tea Party activists, conservatives, and libertarians are concerned nowadays not about authority per se. You’ll notice, for instance, that they are very much in favor of judicial authority (which includes its enforcement mechanisms, like the police) maintaining law and order, policing the border, and so on. They also have no problem with coordination authority, as in the traffic laws, or in the combined epistemic-coordination authority of voluntary organizations, like business corporations. They even like public-good authority, when it is providing legitimate public goods like national defense, public roads, and a fire department.

What conservatives and libertarians are most animated about nowadays is the abuse of public-good authority, particularly as such authority has been misused for a very long time to tax and spend, not generally on public goods like defense but on wealth-transfer programs, such as social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other entitlements—the kinds of programs, in other words, that have effectively bankrupted Greece, are threatening to bankrupt several other European nations, and are undermining the European Monetary Union. As if to emphasize this worry, in what Americans should regard as an astonishing development, Moody’s this week issued a credit warning for the United States of America, stating that unless the United States reverses the current expansion of its national debt, it may place its Aaa credit-rating at risk. That is something I would have thought could never have happened in my lifetime.

So, in my view, saying that conservatives and libertarians are the enemies of authority is wrong. It depends on what kind of authority you mean and what that authority happens to be doing.

By the way, saying that progressive liberals are the enemies of authority is also wrong. Their quarrels with authority are not with authority per se either, but also with certain authorities doing certain things, though not generally with the same authorities and the same things that conservatives and libertarians deplore. Other kinds of authority progressive liberals very much favor, like the authority of the government to interfere with what consenting adults do in the privacy of the marketplace.

Authority is just too big a concept, coming in too many kinds and applying to too many things and in too many contexts, for any intelligent person to be simply for it or against it.

Articles by Robert T. Miller


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