More than half a century ago, Roman Catholic philosopher Yves René Simon observed that authority has come to have a bad reputation in the modern world. Our western societies value personal freedom so highly that any intervention by an authority outside our own wills is deemed an imposition at best and outright oppression at worst. The French Revolution of 1789, perhaps more than any other event in recent history, has implanted in western consciousness the myth of the heroic popular revolt against oppressive authority. So thoroughly did the Revolution succeed in this that the default position for many of us today is to be suspicious of authority’s claims from the outset, whatever their content.
The cultural shifts of the 1960s further exacerbated this prejudice against authority when the larger liberal tradition took the form of what I have elsewhere called the “choice-enhancement state.” By the turn of the last century, the state had expanded to check the private economic power of trusts and monopolies and to preserve market competition. By the 1930s, the state had expanded further to secure equality of opportunity for everyone, which necessitated the development of the welfare state. During the 1960s, however, professed progressives concluded that the principal threat to individual freedom was not the state, big business, or economic privation, but traditional customs and social mores that claimed authority over people’s lives and actions. Only if we can manage to liberate individuals from the authority of the past, they reasoned, will they truly be free. This movement from authority to autonomy called for a new ethic based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The problem was, and is, that there has never been a society for which this harm principle forms the primary, much less the sole, basis of freedom. In a mature differentiated society, there is a multiplicity of non-state communities, each of which has its own identity and its own standards for membership. These standards are intrinsically related to the mission and task of the communities and necessarily impose constraints on those subject to them. But because the homogenizing worldview of liberal individualism exalts individual autonomy over all standards outside the will, adherents regard with suspicion all communities based on non-individualist assumptions, especially those such as marriage, family, and even the gathered church which are not obviously reducible to private contract.
All of these factors together have tended to reinforce the notion that authority and freedom are at least in tension with each other, if not altogether opposed. If freedom expands, then we assume that authority must proportionately diminish. If we seek to advance freedom, we must concomitantly try to decrease the role of authority.
But what if it turns out that personal freedom, far from being opposed to authority, is simply another manifestation of authority? If this is true, and I believe it is, we must change the way we view our society. When a child is small, she is directly subject to her parents’ authority in the minutest areas of life. They keep a close eye on her, feed her, clothe her, house her, and generally take care of her. But as she grows to maturity, her parents increasingly pull back, allowing her to take on more and more responsibility for the direction of her own life. And that is as it should be. As Simon observes, parental authority properly aims at its own disappearance. Yet as parental authority continually recedes, the adolescent, who is now free to set her own life goals, is simply assuming more authority for the direction of her life.
More than a century ago, Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper coined the term “sphere sovereignty” to account for the diverse forms of community found in the mature society. Families, business enterprises, states, labor unions, and schools each have their own proper sphere of authority, as ordained by God. But so does the individual as individual. The freedom that individuals legitimately claim for themselves is another manifestation of authority which other authorities are bound to respect. Although it may seem counterintuitive in our post-1789 world, I strongly believe that respect for the human person and his status as image of God is dependent on a general respect for authority in all of its pluriform manifestations.
David Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This post is cross-listed at Capital Commentary.