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essays

Sep 1, 1978

Consensus and Authority

“Since, historically, social authority has produced authoritarian personalities mirroring the coercive society, we might reverse the process.”

“The Idea of Authority in the West.” American Historical Review 82 (April 1977): 531–562.

Today the decline and crisis of authority is evident in the West. How can we account for the present tendency either to revolution or totalitarianism as solutions to social problems?

Synthesizing events and ideas from Roman times to the present, our initial conclusion is most important. The historical pattern discloses two persistent ideas of authority: moral authority and authoritative power. Generally, authoritative power usurps moral authority: e.g., the concept of divine right was initially a check on state power exercised by the church, but later was used as a justification by the monarchists.

Unless one understands that authority did not mean the same things to all men, the question would be a historical riddle. If we place things in context, we will then discover that “each creative burst of our culture has been accompanied by the elevation of authorities whose superiority is freely accepted by dint of their rationality and legality, but that our modern idea of authority as a title to domination however exercised is a teleological idea derived from the use of force, the hostility to reason, the superiority to law, and the opposition to liberalization which these authorities have cumulatively appropriated.”

What does the future hold? We can project three probabilities.

(1) The decline of moral authority seems historically deep-seated and is likely to continue: family, school, and church will decline as independent forces, and become less meaningful institutions.

(2) Political power may increase, exposing freedom-seeking persons to institutionalized power lacking responsible authority.

(3) New independent forms of moral authority may arise.

Since, historically, social authority has produced authoritarian personalities mirroring the coercive society, we might reverse the process. We can hope that self-integrated and actualized persons might produce a rational social authority that mirrors such persons.