Authority, the Individual, and the State

Rule of thumb.— Authority should never be in the hands of those who want it. 

The principle of decentralization.– The level of authority one human being has over another should be directly proportional to the level of personal interest and affection that defines their relationship. Hence, parents and other family elders ought to be the primary authorities in every child’s life, friends and lovers the primary authorities in every adult’s. From this it follows that modern, centralized government should be the weakest and most distant authority in every individual’s life, because no one lives at a greater emotional remove from you and your personal wellbeing than an abstract regulatory agency and its bureaucratic minions.

Morality police.– Nothing is more absurd or insulting than the notion that government agencies should assume the authority to teach moral behavior or correct social attitudes. There is no entity on Earth, no institution in history, more directly and tangibly responsible for the most fundamental evil, criminality, and general immorality than government. All government, ever. Government as a practical fact is the root of almost everything truly terrible and corruptive that has ever happened to the human race, and this corruptive force is fundamental to the practical existence of political power. How dare any government, or agent of the state, presume to correct and coerce anyone — let alone everyone — on matters of morality or social propriety.

Born to die.– Any decent human being who finds himself in a position of authority over anyone ought to feel squeamish about that condition, regardless of how well he wields the power in practice. And the chief measure of the validity of any real authority is the degree to which it is aimed at its own dissolution. The model is the healthy family, in which there is a constant gentle tension between parents and children, with the parents seeking to exert authority only to the extent required for correction and guidance, but with the trajectory moving incrementally and inevitably toward a loosening of the tethers, and a general transfer of responsibility and power from parent to child, coinciding with the latter’s increasing rationality and emotional maturity. Parental authority, properly understood, is never an end in itself, and therefore never perceives itself as a permanent condition. It is strictly a necessary means to an end, and the end is precisely the transference of authority to an increasingly independent and self-determining individual. The ideal of authority is not the self-perpetuating state, but the proud parent watching his children take control of their own lives. Hence, the self-perpetuating state, in so far as it has a reason to exist, and worthwhile functions to accomplish, must constantly strain against its own natural tendency towards the exertion of overriding authority. For authority in the hands of one who does not dread it, and who does not expect and intend to relinquish it, is the very definition of oppression. Properly exerted authority is a great human good, but it is proper only as long as its goal is to die.

Authority between adults.– The reason parental authority is the truest standard against which to judge the proper hierarchical position of state authority over the individual — intimate and personal at the top versus abstract and impersonal at the bottom — is that nature’s other primary (i.e., intimate) forms of authority, love and friendship, are applicable only or fundamentally to adulthood, and therefore, in their essence, entail a kind of authority appropriate to the life of a mature and rational adult, namely authority voluntarily granted, which is to say power freely ceded to another under the sway of attachment, admiration, and affection. In effect, the only coercion involved in such authority is the coercion imposed upon oneself — the self-forgetting slavishness of love, the deferential compliance of friendship. This is authority in the internal form of another’s overriding importance in one’s own thoughts and priorities, rather than in the external form of another’s material control over one’s choices and movements, and its tenure exists only as long as the beloved or friend — the ostensible holder of authority — is perceived through the filter of those emotions which occasioned the voluntary and spontaneous granting of psychological power at the outset. It is true that in extraordinary circumstances — a war for survival, a revolt against tyranny — the greatest of military or political leaders might temporarily call forth such an emotional granting of authority, by way of arousing the quasi-personal attachment of citizens united by an urgent cause. But this is the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that government is by definition too remote, impersonal, and in effect inhuman, to be worthy or capable of inspiring such voluntary concession of the essential self-governance of a mature adult.

The actualized human being, aka the essentially rational and self-determining adult, is he who is ruled only by his own will, from which it follows that while a rare friend or beloved (living or dead) may, in the profoundest sense, “govern” his life, a distant legislator or committee can never do so. Hence, seen in its purest form, we have the fundamental and insoluble problem of the philosopher in society. Socrates admits no authority but reason, no power but the love of wisdom, no command but the natural quest for the good as defined, not by any government expert or religious doctrine, but by the light of dialectic.

In view of the above, certain key themes in the history of tyrannical power become crystal clear, to wit: 

  • the need to undermine family attachment as the state’s most direct and powerful rival;
  • the demand for universal government schooling as the surest means of fostering emotional and practical dependence upon the state, as well as of retarding or short-circuiting the normal processes of maturation;
  • the totalitarian recognition that the spiritual exclusivity of erotic attachments must be undermined or devalued by any means possible — whether on the Orwellian or Huxleyan model, i.e., de-sexualization or omni-sexualization — in order to dissolve adulthood’s most immediate natural impetus to privacy and the overwhelming primacy of personal will;
  • the tyrant’s quest to undermine the moral and intellectual unity of the highest friendship, which is the defining case of apolitical self-determination and disdain for the artifice of coercive power, consisting as it does of a community of souls essentially abiding in a realm above the world of practical political authority.

You may also like...