The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Triumph of Power over Authority

“Order without liberty”, Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, “and liberty without order are equally destructive”. Libertarians of an anarchist bent tend to respond to statements like this by scoffing and saying that they are nothing more than sugar to disguise the taste of statist oppression and make it palatable to the masses. This is more or less what Karl Marx said about religion and both judgements, that of the libertarian anarchist and that of Marx, have about the same worth, i.e., none whatsoever. I think, however, that it would be more accurate to say with Samuel P. Huntington that “Men may, of course, have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order”. (1)

The two men were talking about different things of course. The American President of a little over a century ago was talking about the necessary middle territory between tyranny and anarchy, whereas the Harvard political scientist was commenting upon modernization in societies that were not ready for it. His next words were:

Authority has to exist before it can be limited, and it is authority that is in scarce supply in these modernizing countries where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels, and rioting students.

While I generally agree with what Huntington was saying here, I note that the wording of his comments assumes that liberty is the result of the limitation of authority. I would be more inclined to say that liberty is the result of the limitation of power and that furthermore it is authority that most effectively limits power and therefore authority that is the source and protector of liberty. This is the difference between the perspective of the classical conservative and the neoconservative and it is not a mere matter of semantics. Authority and power are different things. Authority commands obedience, power compels obedience. Authority is a matter of right, power is a matter of ability. People obey authority out of respect and power out of fear. Authority must be backed by power to ensure a stable order but the litmus test of the genuineness, strength, and security of authority is the extent to which it must rely upon the exercise of power. The more genuine, firm, secure, and stable authority is, the less it needs to exercise power. (2) The converse is also true and thus the “order without liberty” of which Roosevelt and Huntington speak, which is the reality of tyrannical states, is also “order without authority”, order that is enforced entirely by power.

Classical conservatives recognize that true authority, which limits and humanizes power, is the sine qua non of the kind of order which is the precondition of liberty. Liberalism, of which neoconservatism is a somewhat more realistic variety, is based upon the idea that liberty is the natural condition of man in a pre-order, pre-society, state and it has historically and erroneously regarded authority as the enemy of liberty. Is it perhaps, this mistaking of the true relationship between power, authority, and liberty, that produced the dark irony of the twentieth century in which so many liberal intellectuals, who regarded themselves as the champions of human enlightenment, prosperity, and freedom, were blinded to the reality of the oppression that existed in societies where traditional authority had been eliminated and replaced by regimes of sheer, naked, power, and so were duped into praising and practically worshipping, the least free society the world has ever known, the Soviet Union, precisely at the time when the worst tyrant in its history, Joseph Stalin, was at the height of his career of brutality and violence? (3)

The Modern Age, which give birth to liberalism and saw it grow, culminated in the twentieth century with liberalism triumphant everywhere in the Western world. The triumph of liberalism was at the expense of her old enemies, the established, institutional Church and the ruling houses of Europe. The kings and emperors of Christendom ruled with traditional authority, based upon ancient prescription and divine consecration. By weakening or eliminating them, in either case replacing their government with that of elected assemblies, liberalism replaced the authority it despised with naked power, for democracy is a form of power – the strength of numbers – rather than of authority. In countries where the traditional authorities were eliminated altogether, there were monstrous consequences. In the 1790s, the revolution against the king and Church in France, brought about the Reign of Terror. (4) In the twentieth century, when the Allies at the instance of liberal American President Woodrow Wilson, broke up the Austria-Hungarian and Prussian empires and deposed the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern they removed the roadblock that had stood in the way of nineteenth-century pan-German nationalism, paving the way for a power-mad Austrian demagogue to be elected into office in Germany, unify the German-speaking peoples into a single power, and plunge the world into a second bloody conflict after creating the only twentieth-century regime to rival those of the Communist world in terms of sheer statist terror. (5)

Countries which retained their traditional ruling houses, albeit in a weakened, mostly ceremonial role, were spared having to go through this ordeal. A few Western statesmen, like that wise old Tory Sir Winston Churchill, acknowledged this correlation. (6) Most, however, attributed the survival of liberty in the English-speaking world and its ultimate triumph over the Third Reich – and later over Communism – to modernization, democracy, and liberalism. This continues to be the conventional understanding to this day, an understanding that involves a large degree of wilful blindness to the fact that in modern, liberal, democracies too, power has eclipsed authority. In Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, the United States, et al, it is soft power that is exercised domestically rather than the hard power of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The vast difference between the two types of power – that of sensitivity and diversity re-education and “political correctness” on the one hand versus that of secret police, concentration and work camps, show trials and execution squads on the other – should not be taken lightly, of course. The boundry between the two, however, has a tendency to get fuzzy over time, a fact of which those who have followed our government’s attempts to squelch “hate speech” in recent decades are well aware. (7) This is inevitable, because, different as soft power and hard power are, and indisputably preferable as the former is over the latter, the gulf between power and authority is even greater and those who truly love liberty, ought always to rank authority over power.

Thomas Jefferson, in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, wrote that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”. In keeping with the foregoing discussion, it could be said that it was well that he used the word “powers” here, for it is power and not authority that governments derive from the governed through democratic election. Jefferson’s use of the adjective “just”, however, indicates that what he had in mind by “just powers” is something closer to what we have here called “authority”, in which case he got things backwards. If a government truly possesses “just powers” or “authority”, i.e., the right to command obedience to its laws in the territory and from the people over which it governs, it is this which produces consent among the governed, and not the other way around. Authority is something which, when it exists in an institution, is recognized by those under that authority, and either obeyed or rebelled against. It is the authority that produces the recognition and not consent which produces the authority.

Although we have been considering the authority and power of governments, government is not the only institution to possess authority, and if we consider the example of the most basic institution in which authority is vested, the family, we find a helpful illustration. There is no rational way in which it could be argued that parents, who are the authority figures in the family, derive their authority from the consent of their children. Their authority over their children arises out of the natural relationships within the family. It is recognized by the children and either obeyed or rebelled against. When rebellion occurs, and it always does, parents must enforce their authority with discipline – an exercise of power. If taken to excess, however, discipline will not reinforce parental authority but have the opposite effect. Children will cease to respect and love their parents, will obey them only out of fear, and ultimately will rebel more. When this happens parents have lost their authority. This is not because authority is something children give to their parents and can revoke if misused, but because authority can only survive in an atmosphere of respect which it generates. If it ceases to generate that respect it shrivels up and dies.

A government derives this respect-generating authority from such things as history, custom, tradition, constitutionality, and ancient establishment. It cannot obtain it from seizing power by force in a coup or revolution and it certainly cannot obtain it from winning a popularity contest. All it can obtain from these things is power. It needs power to reinforce its authority and as a source of power, elections are generally to be preferred over violent coups, which is one reason why a government in which an elected assembly is combined with a hereditary monarchy – the government institution best suited for and most likely to be vested with time-honoured, prescriptive authority – is the best possible government (8). We have that combination today, but liberalism, the prevalent and triumphant ideology of the day, insists that it be democratic in essence and monarchical merely in form, which, as we have seen, is another way of saying that power must trump authority. Liberalism believes that it is safeguarding liberty, but the order that makes liberty possible, is an order in which authority limits power and not the other way around. This means that the longer liberalism prevails, the more liberty itself, like the authority of the sovereign, will be reduced to a mere form. (9)

(1) Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968) p. 7.

(2) This condition, of authority that is backed by power which it has little need to exercise because it is firmly grounded in prescription (ancient usage) and tradition is what Roger Scruton calls “establishment” in The Meaning of Conservatism, (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1980, 2002)

(3) For an account of just how deluded some of these were, see the final chapter “Who Whom?” in Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Green Stick: Chronicles of Wasted Time Vol. 1,(London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1972), which chapter covers the years Muggeridge spent in Moscow as correspondent for the liberal/radical newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, in the 1930s. For the full details on what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time see Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Re-Assessment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). This edition of a book Conquest originally put out in 1968 was revised when material from the Soviet archives became available at the end of the Cold War. The material vindicated Conquest’s original assessment.

(4) Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in the early 1830s and recorded his observations of that society in his Democracy in America, in his later discussion of own country’s revolution (The Old Regime and the French Revolution) noted that the revolutionaries seized the apparatus of state power from the Bourbon monarchy and turned it to their own ends. An argument could be made that this, and not the lofty ideals they proclaim, is the true goal of all revolutionaries. At any rate, revolutions are usually carried out against governments whose authority has grown weak, requiring them to rely more and more upon the exercise of power, which in turn generates the popular discontent that revolutionaries exploit against the government. Revolution is no solution, however, because it can only replace a government whose authority has weakened with a government that has no authority at all but only power, for authority arises out of prescription, i.e., long accepted and established usage. Revolutions may be started in response to real problems but they are never the solution to that problem. Francis Schaeffer, writing in response to the international student revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the New Left, was right when he said that these movements were correct in identifying the predominant culture as “plastic” (artificial and cheap), but he was very wrong when he said, in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970) that orthodox Christianity must teach its young people to be revolutionary in a Scriptural, Christ-like manner. (pp. 29-30, 40-41) There is no such thing. Joseph de Maistre had it right when he said “What is needed is not a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of a revolution.” The contemporary use of “revolutionary” as an adjective of praise is a sign of the degradation of our culture, thought and language.

(5) John Lukacs in his The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), written in response to the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, contrasts the old Austria-Hungarian Empire, a civilization of the highest order in which people of various nationalities (such as “Austrian” and “Hungarian”) were united by a common loyalty to the Hapsburg monarchy with the Third Reich as the outcome of nineteenth century German nationalism. He discusses at length a theme that runs through all his writings - the difference between the older concept of patriotism and the modern phenomenon of nationalism, the superiority of the former, and the perversity of the latter. There is a similarity between Lukacs’ praise of the Hapsburg monarchy in the old empire (he, it should be noted, is an Hungarian Catholic who emigrated to the United States after the land of his birth was overrun first by the Nazis then by the Soviets) as the unifying object of loyalty in a multinational polity to the role of the monarchy in Canada as described by W. L. Morton, a Canadian historian of the old Tory school, in The Canadian Identity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961, 1972) p. 85. Contradicting the progressive notion that monarchy is an outdated institution, and in words quite pertinent to the theme of this essay, Lukacs writes “A hereditary (as distinct from an electoral) constitutional monarchy is especially suited to modern democracy, when masses of people are not only avid for the symbols of royalty but when, more than ever before, they need the visible presence and consequent authority of a compassionate father (or mother) figure, the presence of a respectable reigning family, with their children. Such authority ensures not fear and perhaps not even power, except that kind of intangible power that is the result of decent, honest, human respect. A constitutional and hereditary monarchy in the twentieth century is more than an instrument for continuity and tradition. Its function is historical, but also political and social”. (p. 70).

(6) Churchill is frequently quoted as having said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He did indeed say this, although he also said “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” More to the point he said “This war would never have come unless, under American and modernising pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones” and on another occasion “If the Allies at the peace table at Versailles had allowed a Hohenzollern, a Wittelsbach and a Habsburg to return to their thrones, there would have been no Hitler. A democratic basis of society might have been preserved by a crowned Weimar in contact with the victorious Allies.”

(7) See my “The Long War Against Free Speech in Canada” for details:

(8) Aristotle and Polybius foresaw this millennia ago. As Stephen Leacock put it this combination has joined “the dignity of Kingship with the power of Democracy.”

(9) High Tory journalist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, gave an excellent talk to the Athenaeum club about how liberalism failed in its emancipation project and brought enslavement instead in 2006. An abridgement of his remarks can be found, ironically enough at the Guardian’s website, here:

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