Thirty five years ago conservative sociologist Dr. Robert Nisbet wrote a book entitled The Twilight of Authority. Like previous works, such as Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and James Burnham’s The Suicide of the West, Nisbet’s book depicted Western civilization as entering a “twilight age”. This decline, Dr. Nisbet argued, could be seen in the weakening of traditional authority in social institutions like the family, church, and local community and the rise of the concentrated power of the modern bureaucratic state. Moreover, these two things were not separate, but related. The weakening of the one led to the rise of the other, and vice versa.
Authority and power are two different things. They cannot be separated from each other, but they must be distinguished. The distinction may very well be the most important distinction in political science.
Authority is the right to give orders and receive obedience within a specific sphere, a right that a person enjoys by virtue of their position within an institution. It is a matter of status. Parents occupy the positions of authority within the family. Clergymen occupy the positions of authority within the church.
Power is the ability to force other people to obey your commands against their own volitions. It is a matter of strength or the appearance of strength.
To a certain extent, all authority needs the backing of power. Human nature makes this necessary. We, as human beings, have a natural inclination to disobey those in authority over us. Liberalism, which many, especially in North America, confuse with conservatism, exalts this inclination to the highest of virtues. Traditional Christianity, however, provides a different perspective on it, by identifying it as Original Sin, the estate of Adam’s fall, which is the inheritance of all men. To those who prefer civilization to chaos, the Christian perspective is the more accurate of the two.
Parents have natural authority over their children. They brought them into the world, they are responsible for raising them, and have the right to command their obedience. Their position of authority, is the most natural human authority on the planet, within the institution, which is the most basic institution of all human society, the family. Children do, however, require discipline because disobedience comes naturally. When parents use discipline to train their children to obey, they are using power to back up authority.
Parents do not require a lot of power to back up their authority however. The more natural the authority, the less power it requires. The government is the lawmaking institution in authority over the polity, i.e., the sovereign political unit whether it be a city-state as in ancient Greece and medieval Italy, or the modern nation-state. Its authority is also natural and legitimate, but it is the least natural of all legitimate human authorities, and requires the most power to back it up. Parents can tell their kids to do something and receive obedience without attaching a threat of discipline to each command. The government, on the other hand, must attach a penalty for disobedience, to each of its laws. Furthermore, the penalties the government imposes are far more severe than the discipline a parent gives.
The amount of power necessary to support authority can be seen then, as being inversely proportional to the degree to which that authority is natural. The most natural position of human authority, requires the least power, and the least natural requires the most. The size of a position of authority’s legitimate sphere is also inversely proportional to the degree to which it is natural.
Parents, whose authority is most natural, govern the smallest number of people, in the smallest social institution, the family. Governments, whose authority is least natural, govern the largest number of people in the largest social institution, the polity.
Note that human authority has its natural limits. A parent is in a position of authority, but not over other people’s children and in other people’s households. A king or queen holds a position of authority, but not outside the borders of their realm.
Another limit upon human authority, is its range of command. A father or mother can tell their child to clean up his messy room. It would be inappropriate, and grossly intrusive, for a government official to do so. The range of command for human authority, is inversely proportional to the size of its sphere. Parents who govern only their children in their own homes, have the right to tell their kids when to go to bed, when to get up, when and what they will eat, and a host of other things that no one else in the world has the right to boss people around about. Governments, who govern sovereign polities, are far more limited in their range of command. The larger the government, the more power it requires to back it up, the less laws it should be allowed to pass. The government of a large modern country like Canada or the United States should not pass laws against anything other than criminal behavior – robbery, murder, rape, assault, or any other behavior in which quantifiable harm is done to others and/or their property.
What a government should do and what it does do are very different things however. The contemporary governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and other Western countries, do not limit their laws to necessary laws against crimes that are demonstrably mala in se. Modern governments insist that virtually every area of life be regulated. They have established large bureaucracies, whose officials and inspectors are empowered, to invade our homes and businesses, to make sure we are complying with every petty regulation they have seen fit to pass “for our own good”.
Some would consider it ironic that this has happened as governments have become more democratic. Medieval kings would never have dreamed of keeping an army of inspectors to knock on their subjects’ doors and make sure their fire alarms were working. Modern democratic politicians do not blink an eye about doing so. There is no irony here however. Democracy is the most power-based of all forms of government.
Kings govern by authority they have inherited. This authority can be possibly be considered natural, if the king is the heir of the first father of his nation, as Filmer argued. The authority of the heir of an old dynasty is certainly based on ancient prescription. Democratic governments however, even at their best, base their authority entirely on power. A democracy is a government that rules because it has the weight of numbers behind it. The majority of the people are behind them, or at least the largest single segment of the electorate. This is a form of “might makes right” and a particularly ugly form of “might makes right” at that. It bears more resemblance to the demagogic leadership of a lynch mob than any other form of government.
By democracy I do not refer to the traditional role of the Commons in the British-Canadian system of parliamentary monarchy. The people in our tradition, are not sovereign. Sovereign authority is vested in the Crown. Parliament, is by tradition and ancient prescription, the place where the Sovereign and the representatives of the people meet to talk, from which conversation, the law arises. This tradition, incorporated the best elements of democracy, and excluded the worst, into the best simple form of government, monarchy, producing the Aristotelian mixed constitution. It is the best form of government mankind has ever known. Even the original American republic was just a cheap rip-off in comparison.
Unfortunately, that system has gone into decline, like the American republic, as the role of the Commons has expanded, the role of the monarch has shrunk to that of a figurehead, and Britain and Canada have become more democratic, with an ever-expanding bureaucracy of government experts, officials, and inspectors, marching forth to make our lives hell, by wrapping us up in red tape, and bossing us to death. That is the power of the people in practice.