A Simultaneous Recession of Both Freedom and Authority
Both the liberals and the conservatives claim that the other side is moving us towards totalitarianism. They are both right.
Have you noticed how both, the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right are condemning each other for what is essentially same thing?
The left claim that certain conservative leaders are trying to establish authoritarian regimes that will turn into dictatorships, while the right claim that the liberals are trying to expand state power to the point of turning our societies into totalitarian dystopias. The left imagine oppression coming from a backward model of traditional society, while the right imagine the threat coming from unrestrained state power. Both sides want freedom, perhaps a different kind of freedom, and each side is afraid of the other taking it away.
Hannah Arendt gave a compelling explanation for this phenomenon in her essay “What Is Authority?” (included in her 1961 book Between Past and Future). Arendt’s observation is perhaps even more relevant today than at the time it was written (emphasis mine):
Liberalism … measures a process of receding freedom, and conservatism measures a process of receding authority; both call the expected end-result totalitarianism and see totalitarian trends wherever either one or the other is present. No doubt, both can produce excellent documentation for their findings. Who would deny the serious threats to freedom from all sides of tyranny, at least since the end of the First World War? Who can deny, on the other hand, that disappearance of practically all traditionally established authorities has been one of the most spectacular characteristics of the modern world? It seems as though one has only to fix his glance on either of these two phenomena to justify a theory of progress or a theory of doom according to his own taste or, as the phrase goes, according to his own “scale of values.” If we look upon the conflicting statements of conservatives and liberals with impartial eyes, we can easily see that the truth is equally distributed between them and that we are in fact confronted with a simultaneous recession of both freedom and authority in the modern world.
As authority fades from the modern world (for reasons I’ll explain below), conservatives and liberals become locked into a never-ending tug of war. As conservatives try to re-establish authority by coercion, liberals pull in the opposite direction to dismantle the rules and limits the other side keeps putting in place. The process oscillates, with public opinion swinging now to one side, now to the other. But the result of this struggle is the destruction of the very things each side seeks to obtain, for as they pull back and forth, a little authority and a little freedom continues to be lost. This is because authority cannot be established by coercion, and freedom cannot exist without authority.
To understand why that is the case, we must first answer the question: what is authority?
There’s a story in Plutarch’s Lives about the Athenian general Themistocles sailing around the Greek islands squeezing money out of his confederates. When the people of Andros were hesitant to comply, he told them that he had with him two gods: Persuasion and Force.1 These are precisely the two things that authority does not rely on. “If authority is to be defined at all,” writes Arendt, “then, it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments.” Authority is a form of “obedience in which men retain their freedom.”
Authority relies neither on force nor persuasion, because the former eliminates free choice, while the latter does not work on everyone. The relationship between the one who uses violence to force someone to do something is that of a master and a slave. The relationship between the one who uses arguments to get someone to do something is that of equals. Authority, on the other hand, is the result of a hierarchy that is recognized by both, those in authority, and those who follow their directions. The people on the hierarchy are neither equals, nor slaves. By accepting the legitimacy of the hierarchy, you can accept the legitimacy of the directions without being coerced to do so.
Arendt’s understanding of authority is different to modern usage, especially when it is used in related terms like “authoritarian.” An authoritarian hierarchy differs from a tyranny in two important ways. The classical image of an authoritarian hierarchy is a pyramid. This is true for tyranny as well, except in the case of tyranny, the middle layers of the pyramid are removed, leaving the tyrant suspended above the rest. The second difference is that in the authoritarian pyramid, the source of authority is suspended above it. It is not part of the power hierarchy itself. For example, for Christians authority comes from God and the Bible. For US citizens, authority comes from the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. In every case, the source of authority is separate from the leaders at the very top of the power hierarchy. As long as they govern according to those established rules or ideals, the people whom they govern submit not to them directly, but to those higher rules or ideals. This is precisely what separates an authoritarian regime from a tyranny, in which it is the tyrant himself to whom his subjects are forced to submit.
The reason for the disappearance of authority has to do with a self-supporting structure that Arendt calls the Roman trinity: religion, tradition and authority. The three elements are linked like a roof held up by three pillars. Take one pillar away, and the rest collapse. For example, the authority of the kings of the Holy Roman Empire came from the Catholic Church, since it was the pope who crowned them. When Luther had challenged the authority of the Church, he inadvertently undermined the authority of the kings and monarchy itself as well.
Tradition is what transforms faith into religion. In the case of Christianity, it involves not only a belief in God, but the passing down of the Apostles’ “testimony of the life, of the birth, death, and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth.” In the process, the Apostles themselves became the “founding fathers” of the Church. By challenging tradition, political theorists like Hobbes simultaneously undermined religion, which they wanted to keep for the sake of authority.
The word authority comes from the Latin auctoritas, which in turn is derived from augere, which means “to augment.” As Arendt explains, “what those in authority constantly augment is the foundation.” The Romans, for example, built their authority not just on the founding myth of Rome, but on the cultural heritage of Greece, whose great thinkers and heroes they accepted as their authorities. “The Greek authors became authorities in the hands of the Romans, not of the Greeks.” The mythical founder of Rome, described in Virgil’s Aeneid, was not even from Italy, nor even Greece, but from the fallen city of Troy. As Aeneas fled the burning ruins of Troy, he took with him not only his old father Anchises, but statues of his household gods as well. Religion, tradition and authority were inseparable.
In his collection of Spartan sayings, Plutarch tells of the Spartan king Pausanias being asked why the ancient laws of his state cannot be changed. To this the king replied: “Because the laws ought to control men, not men the laws.” Political structures, up to the 20th century, were built on foundations, established in some great founding event, that could be augmented but not changed. But the structures can only remain as long as the people believe in the validity of the original foundations. The Catholic Church lost validity for those who no longer believed in the authority of the pope. Communism lost validity in the Soviet Union when its centrally planned economies failed (and then later fell apart when the regime could no longer rely on violence to preserve itself). When a foundation is washed away, the house above it collapses.
If Arendt’s thesis is right, then the current deepening divide between the left and the right in the West is caused by fundamental trends that cannot be resolved by simply trying to find a shared set of values. Shared values can promote unity, but they are useless without solid boundaries to contain conflicting interests. Without a higher source of authority to set the boundaries, each side tries to coerce the other into accepting the whole of its worldview, resulting in an ever growing feeling of enmity as it inevitably fails to do so. The paradox of authority is that the hierarchy and the boundaries it establishes are the very things that guarantee freedom rather than take it away, because the result of the absence of authority is not more freedom, but either anarchy, when the state can no longer enforce its own laws, or tyranny, when a strongman takes over.
The people of Andros told him that they also have two gods, whose names are Poverty and Impossibility.