Politics and authority

Authority can be a very good thing. Without it there is crime and lawlessness. There are kids on the street at midnight throwing bricks through windows. Authority is a necessary glue to hold society together.

The psychologist Haidt defines it as:

Authority/Subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

But too much authority may be bad for us. History teaches us what authoritarian governments look like. They look like this:


The 1936 Nuremberg rally.

Authoritarian governments tend to be very popular. At least, until things turn nasty, which they invariably do.

We are conditioned or evolved to respect strong leadership. The trouble is, as long as a leader is strong, we don’t seem to mind too much about what policies they stand for. We just love to march around in boots waving flags.

Anyone who’s been bullied at school will know that authority figures don’t have to be officially sanctioned. Neither do they have to be wise or just. The only qualifications a leader needs are to be strong and ruthless. If they’re strong, others will follow them.

Liberals tend to be instinctively distrustful of authority, whereas conservatives value it equally with the other core moral foundations.

Conservatives tend to join established religions:


Conservatives just love to wear uniforms and follow a clear set of rules.

Whereas liberals follow a more individual spiritual path:


Liberals also love to conform to group expectations and follow rules, but first you must fool them into thinking that there are no rules.

As Hayek noted, liberals sometimes paradoxically trick themselves into authoritarianism because of their eagerness to fix every problem by over-regulation and the passing of intrusive legislation. It’s their Care instinct over-riding their ability to reason, I guess.

Are these young idealists socialists or fascists? The answer’s both.

Are these young idealists socialists or fascists? The answer’s both.

Just  remember that despite the need for an ordered and safe society, authoritarianism is not a virtue. It is a monster waiting patiently to devour us.

So liberals, beware of jumping on the authoritarian bandwagon that you thought was heading towards utopia. (Generally, avoid anyone who claims to be leading you towards utopia.)

And conservatives, when it’s time to vote, just remember what happens when authoritarianism goes too far, and don’t be too quick to strap on those boots and wave the flags.

33 responses to “Politics and authority

  1. I can only ‘like’ once, right? Shame. Worth thousands.

  2. stefankeys1997

    Over regulation is bad but some regulation is necessary. Generally speaking society is more peaceful under the rule of law instead of under the rule of man.

  3. Really right on the mark, Steve … this is a corker. I loved it.

  4. It’s kind of ironic that you say that liberals sometimes end up “passing of intrusive legislation.” In the States, it is often conservatives who promote intrusive legislation, particularly when it comes to personal issues, matters relating to sexual freedoms, and women’s rights. I guess the liberals in the US want to pass intrusive legislation that takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves, while the conservatives over here want to pass intrusive legislation that limits the rights of those who don’t share their personal, moral, or religious values.

    • On this side of the pond we keep religion out of politics and I don’t want to get into the specifics of US party politics, because I’m British. But examples might include minimum wages, rent controls, employment legislation, price controls, subsidies and taxes, trade restrictions, etc.

      The list is almost endless, but it’s interesting that you don’t see this as “over-regulation and the passing of intrusive legislation”. This is the liberal blind spot. The irony is that liberals are always complaining that politicians and big business are too close – it’s legislation like this that enables that to happen.

  5. I wish religion was kept out of politics in the US. You’re right about a few things that you list as liberal “intrusive” agenda items, such as minimum wages, rent control. However, in the States, it’s often the conservatives who are behind tax subsidies (especially for big banks and corporations), trade restrictions, etc., despite their preaching about the free market economy and the “invisible hand” of capitalism.

    I’m not in favor of “over-regulation,” per se. But I think our society owes it to those who are downtrodden – through no fault of their own – and who don’t have the wherewithal to help themselves, to help them manage to have food to eat and shelter for their families. And, oh yes, access to health care, something you British probably take for granted.

    • I 100% agree with you about the importance of helping those who find themselves unable to help themselves. The question is how best to do it. Many economists argue that price controls, minimum wages, subsidies, etc, do the exact opposite of what they seek to achieve, but that’s a story for another blog post.

  6. I am a liberal in the sense that I hate too many rules; experience has taught me that the bullies are generally rule lovers who use rules, to well bully us.

  7. “liberals sometimes paradoxically trick themselves into authoritarianism because of their eagerness to fix every problem by over-regulation and the passing of intrusive legislation”

    Of course, determining “over-regulation” and “intrusive legislation” from vital protection of the weak from the strong is an ongoing matter of debate, one that people with differing ratios of the moral foundations will earnestly disagree on.

    • When I began this series I thought that too. I despaired that we were doomed to endlessly disagree between left and right. But I have come to see that we all have quite similar moral values and broadly speaking want the same things.

      Where it goes wrong, I think, is when we have to choose a method that works. Most people’s economic literacy is about the same as their scientific literacy – rather lacking. And yet people have to choose their country’s economic policies.

      In the UK at present, a party called UKIP (UK Independence Party) is gaining a lot of popular support using the argument that “immigrants steal British jobs”. That is such an easy argument to sell to someone who is out of work or who sees Eastern Europeans working in their local cafe. The true economic benefits of free movement of people and a growing economy are much harder to understand.

      The British Labour Party plans to “help ordinary working people” by passing a law that makes energy companies freeze their prices for the next few years. Again, an easy sell to people who are finding it tough to pay the bills. And again the disastrous long-term effects on investment and competition in the energy sector are harder for people to see.

      I think this is why electorates around the world are increasingly angry with democracy. Politicians persuade them that wrong-headed policies will solve their problems, and then completely fail to deliver any benefits. The result is that people become disillusioned with politics and turn away from the democratic process.

  8. Authority…a two edged sword. It can cut both ways deeply.

  9. Do you have any advice for ukipists?

    • I would guess it would be, “Be careful what you wish for.” I don’t see UKIP as the Nazi party, but they may pave the way for voter disillusionment and then something even worse.

  10. Hi Steve. Note that the liberal attitude toward regulation varies over time. Post-1960s liberals were much closer to libertarians, eager to break conventional chains on expression, lifestyle and social organization, etc. Although there’s always a chance of self-deceit about how much freedom one really has (per your great photo of John Sebastian at Woodstock), I do believe some movements allow greater scope for free expression than others – the range of tolerance really does vary among demographic groups and movements – and I believe the 60s were more open than most (driven by a revulsion from the war-making Establishment, experimentation with hallucinogenics and communal living, and a still tactile historical relation to Vietnam, Martin Luther King/Civil Rights and Gandhi). In the 1980s, liberals reversed course and began pushing for speech codes, over-regulation, etc. I think this is not intrinsic to liberalism but probably a result of power structures shifting in their favor. The dominant group wants to enforce its views; the “out” group wants more freedom from dominant views. Even at the height of the countercultural 60s, when CSNY could say with some justice, “rules and regulations – who needs them”), The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again”) and the Beatles (“Revolution”) warn against the bandwagon of which you speak. Yes to your suggestion of pitfalls on liberal and conservative sides (but that doesn’t necessarily mean both sides have an equally good bead on where to go from here).

  11. Fan of Dickens

    You have played a blinder with this post. Acton’s oft-quoted comment (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men and almost always bad men”) is ringing in my ears as I read this. Excellent point about UKIP. Loathe that party; they are so insidiously racist while constantly protesting otherwise. A cursory glance at their manifesto (e.g. multiculturalism should not be promoted in schools) and their leader’s comments (e.g. complaining about hearing foreign languages on the underground) do not suggest to me that they are anything other than closet xenophobes.

  12. Ah! You’re not quite liberal, are you? :p

  13. Fan of Dickens

    Dismayed is exactly the word; I don’t know which is more dismaying: the simplistic thinking behind the voting or the fact that the other parties failed to speak out, except the Lib Dems, who paid dearly for it, but at least they have come out of this with some integrity (and I am not even a Lib Dem supporter). I know this is a cheek, but could you recommend a good restaurant in Oxford for one veggie and one meat eater? It is my 20th wedding anniversary and we are planning a day trip to Oxford. I know restaurant recommendations are not what you do, but as we need cheering up following the shameful election result it is not entirely off-subject (not much, not at all).

    • Congratulations and I hope you enjoy your day in Oxford! Sadly I am not well informed about restaurants as we hardly ever get to eat out. Browns is traditionally the posh place to eat.

  14. Fan of Dickens

    Thanks so much. I will be on my best behaviour if it is posh!

  15. I’ve never found Putin so frightening before. We must stop this man!

  16. Agree with Manja… Wish i could like the post more than once…good one Super Steve

  17. Kind words! Thank you.

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