When it's gone, it's gone.
Where is genuine authority when you actually need it?
Last week, I looked at how authority was traditionally viewed, and where it came from: expertise, knowledge, experience, and traditional or divine authority. I pointed out that the demand for authoritative advice has not gone away, but the supply is no longer as assured as it used to be.
Because all these forms of authority have their origins in human nature and human needs, then for many recent political theorists, they represent an anachronism that needs to be corrected. From the very start, the Liberal tradition, which is largely what’s involved here, was opposed to “authority” in any of its traditional forms. Custom, tradition, religion, great thinkers of the past, all were suspect as holdovers of primitive superstitions and outdated social systems. Reason was the only “authority’” that should govern behaviour, and the operation of the political system. All issues should be settled by rational debate and enquiry, and rational people could be expected to agree. Anyone who did not agree was, by definition, not rational. It followed from this that the majority of the population, unable by birth or lack of education to be fully rational, did not have a role to play in political decision-making, or at least not yet. Liberalism thus began as, and remains now, an elite ideology in which the best should rule the rest.
There’s nothing very surprising in this. Political norms have changed radically over the last few centuries, and it is pointlessly anachronistic to blame thinkers of centuries ago for not being like us, or for that matter searching through their writings for something that vaguely resembles ideas current today. When the first Liberals were writing, mass democracy did not exist, except as “the mob,” which all right-thinking people feared. All existing political theories were theories of elite rule. The only questions were where these elites should come from, and how they should interact with each other. There was a particular fear (Plato and Aristotle could be called in support), that charismatic figures could arise, who would seduce the mass of the people to support them with radical promises of one sort or another. Sounds familiar? It should, because this is the foundation of the past and current obsession with “authoritarianism.” In essence, it is the fear that a political system might emerge in which liberal ideas of rationality and countervailing powers would not dominate, and in which Liberals themselves would therefore have much less power.
The original target of liberalism was monarchy, from which middle-class Liberals were by definition excluded, unless they sought courtier status as tutors or secretaries. A way had to be found of stripping the Monarch of some traditional powers, and giving these powers to people like themselves. Thus the enthusiasm of Liberals up to the present times for institutions such as Parliament and the Courts, and for more and more of life to be removed from the domain of custom and tradition, and codified in legal statutes which they had the professional skills to interpret. For the last few hundred years, and following Montesquieu, the dominant doctrine has been known as the Separation of Powers. Essentially, this was the system that Montesquieu saw (or thought he saw) in operation in England when he visited, and which he wrote about briefly in The Spirit of Laws. It was essentially a more rational and inclusive system of organising an oligarchy, such that the three functions of the state (executive, legislature, judiciary) were evenly balanced, and none could become too powerful.
Montesquieu was not, of course, a democrat: how could he have been? His conception of Parliament was of a body representing the prosperous middle class, who had been excluded from power up until then. Like many of his contemporaries, he saw parliamentarians not as representatives of the people, but as specialists, hired for a term because of their wisdom and experience: experts to whom the public ceded their right of decision-making, as they would let a lawyer argue a legal case. (Many Liberals, of course were lawyers.) Thus, Edmund Burke’s famous argument a little later that a parliamentarian owes the electors “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This is, essentially, the basis on which all modern parliamentary systems are founded. It is called variously “indirect," “representative” or “elite” democracy, since ordinary voters cannot influence government policy directly, but only through agents, who may or may not choose to take their views into account. The range of ideas that electorates can directly vote for is thus limited to the sum total of the ideas put forward by the parties capable of forming a government, and the more that these parties come to resemble each other, the greater is the potential gap between the electorate and the elected. In addition, of course, every government is obliged to respect economic and political realities, to deal with unexpected problems, and to bend to some extent to powerful national and international interests.
In certain cases and in certain countries, other systems have been tried. Referenda are the best-known, and have a solid track record in a number of countries. Sometimes they go wrong (Brexit is considered by many to be a case in point) but this is usually because they are foisted without preparation on electorates by panicking governments that do not wish to take responsibility for decisions. But experience shows that referenda, just like citizen juries, and to the great chagrin of elite politicians, often produce good results. Come to that, elections themselves do not have to be reduced to marketing campaigns: from ancient Athens to the Constituent Assemblies of modern times, delegates have been chosen by lot, or in some other non-competitive fashion.
Clearly, then, the most dangerous development in a modern liberal political system would be a mechanism for the views of ordinary people to directly influence the policies of governments. The most dangerous political figures are therefore those who come from outside the system, who do not see politics as a slightly rough but nonetheless friendly game, and who establish and cultivate links directly with the population. Often, they are directly elected Presidents. Such people are dangerous to the system (they may also be dangerous in other ways, of course) and are dismissed as “authoritarian,” because they seek to expand the power of one part of the oligarchy at the expense of other parts. Ritual calls for “parliamentary accountability” for the Executive mean in practice just that other parts of the oligarchy are feeling left out, and want their fair share of power. And in the Westminster system, where the Executive is the Executive precisely because it controls Parliament, the two sets of actors are in general the same anyway: they just swap roles every few years. “Parliamentary scrutiny” is often argued to be a good thing itself (and it’s certainly not a bad one) but it’s essentially a struggle between two different parts of an oligarchical system.
So it’s a good thing we have the Courts, then? Well, up to a point. The question is whether such courts, and the judges who staff them, have credibility or not. Unless you take the view that judges are just machines mechanically applying the law (which means they could be replaced by AIs at little cost) their legitimacy comes from knowledge, experience and impartiality. In other words, judges are one of the last bastions of traditional Authority. But just putting on a judge’s robes doesn’t give you credibility in decisions about sensitive issues, any more than putting on a white coat gives you credibility in offering medical advice. In effect, the Courts are one more competing branch of the oligarchy that dominates most political systems, and one that has gained greatly in power recently. It is not obvious that judges, whom no-one elects, have inherently more legitimacy than elected governments in deciding what governments can and cannot do. Everyone would accept that citizens or organisations should be able to challenge the acts of government on the basis that they are unlawful, or exceed powers given in legislation, and the Courts are the right forum to decide such issues. But the solidifying of the political system around a small number of largely indistinguishable parties has been accompanied by the increasing growth of judicial power over what are in effect political decisions. In this fashion, a government that implements a popular but radical policy can find itself overruled by a group of unelected judges, themselves essentially a part of the same liberal system which sees itself under attack.
Structurally, therefore, it is more useful to see the demands for “accountability," “oversight,” “transparency” and the like, whatever their inherent virtues may be, as tactics employed in the power-struggle between different parts of the liberal oligarchy, and also to preserve the power of that oligarchy if it feels threatened by outsiders. And in the second line, as it were, are the media and NGOs, themselves largely made up of the same people who populate the political and judicial systems.
A basic principle of Liberalism is that no one political entity should have too much power: ineffectiveness in government is a virtue, and indeed the original Liberals saw little value in government at all, beyond the protection of property and the enforcement of contract law. Some still do. That can be defended as a point of view, but it fails to account for situations where serious things do actually need to be done. The traditional lack of faith was therefore sorely tested by the arrival of the Covid epidemic, where not only did the public want and expect government action, but that action was clearly essential. The reaction of most western governments was chaos and panic. But also, and interestingly, in a massive and scarcely noted U-turn, governments tried to speak and behave with authority again. It was a disaster, because that authority wasn’t actually based on anything. A generation of media-obsessed politicians, of government officials appointed for political reasons, and of media chasing clicks and sucking up to government, turned out to have no authority, because they had none of the traditional attributes of authority, and had done nothing to earn it. As a result, governments thrashed around, moving from position to position with the wind, and speaking and acting in a way that was, frankly, authoritarian by most of the usual definitions.
The governments that did best, and which protected their citizens the best, were those where some concept of genuine authority in the best sense of the term still existed. It’s this, perhaps, that explains why countries like China, Singapore and South Korea did well, especially at the beginning. It’s facile to try to pin the label “authoritarian” on such countries: the point is that their populations accepted authority more easily because that authority was clearly justified, and had been pragmatically earned. But in the West we’ve largely abandoned even the pretence of valid authority; politics is a game, government is a nuisance, and besides, what’s truth anyway? You don’t need effective government until you do. You don’t need authority until you do. But once it’s gone, it’s gone.