When most people hear the word authoritarianism, it naturally conjures a range of negative associations. We tend to think of dictators, wars, and genocides.
And it’s probably a good thing that it does produce those kinds of associations because despotism isn’t something that anyone wants, but it seems to me that the unprecedented fragile peace and prosperity that so many generations have known now is never far from that edge.
I know that sounds really provocative for many people, so just bear with me for a second. Let’s start by defining what authoritarianism is. It’s the advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.
In other words, if you’re looking for a solution to a problem, instead of letting individuals find a practices that work best for them, we all look to some authority to provide a solution and then insist that everyone strictly abide by it.
And there are quite a few glimpses of this kind of thing, alive and well, in our society today. Every time someone says, “The science is settled”, they’re making an appeal to authority. They’re saying, the people who know better have definitively said so, and therefore, we all need to adjust our voting habits, our policies, and even our laws to reflect what they say.
That is authoritarianism. So why might that be a problem?
GK Chesterton, who always has a witty and precise way of making his point, said this:
“It is a good sign in a nation when things are done badly. It shows that all the people are doing them. And it is bad sign in a nation when such things are done very well, for it shows that only a few experts and eccentrics are doing them, and that the nation is merely looking on.”
And I tend to agree with him because the point about us living our lives isn’t to do everything perfectly right. The point is that everyone gains enough experience to learn what we’re supposed to learn in the time that is given us and that includes making mistakes as one of the best teachers.
So in a fascist or communist state, only the people who have been given explicit permission to do certain things or say certain things are able to do so. The rest have to wait for their marching instructions. They become nothing more than cogs in a machine fit for someone else’s utilitarian ends.
But if that thought isn’t scary enough, what about the fact that placing all of our trust in authorities depends on the premise that those authorities will conduct themselves ethically.
A recent example that comes to mind is the controversy around the drug hydroxychloroquine. By now, most people know that it’s at best ineffective and at worst highly dangerous to take as a treatment option for Coronavirus.
It gained the kind of attention it has in the media because President Trump, in his usual fashion, blurted something out about it as a potential treatment option in one of his press briefings. And from there the race was on to either confirm or debunk that claim.
And sure enough, quickly after that, a study was published in the prestigious Lancet scientific journal saying that use of the drug increased the risk of death and this news immediately ended several other studies including the WHO’s trial of the drug.
And the media seemed to relish in the news as one more opportunity to make Trump look absurd. Now I’m not a Trump admirer, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.
But the media seems to refuse to give him any benefit of the doubt to the point that if there’s any suggestion that they can pin something negative on him, they’ll run a headline long before the information is responsibly collected.
So then we fast forward a month or two and it turns out that the study published in the Lancet had very suspect data of which the authors refused to allow any peer review so the Lancet retracted it. But by then, the headlines had run and the damage was done.
A short while later, a study was released in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases by Samia Arshad et all, which claimed that administering Hydroxychloroquine according to a protocol based algorithm significantly reduced mortality compared with those who didn’t receive the treatment. 1
And even now, unless you specifically search for that study, the only thing you’ll find when you Google the drug are news media stories talking about how all the science says it’s ineffective.
Now, I’m not going to try to draw any conclusions about that drug and its effectiveness. As the science unfolds, we may learn that it actually isn’t effective at all. But the fact that the information about it has been so manipulated and spun to fit particular media or political narratives should tell us something.
Authorities can be, not only seriously wrong, but governed by motives that have nothing to do with the welfare of people like you and me.
They are authorities because they have knowledge that the rest of us don’t possess, but that knowledge can just as easily be used to manipulate as it can to educate.
My wife and I took our dog to the vet once because we were worried about a lump in his chest. The vet said it looked like something serious that would need an expensive operation. We took him to another vet for a second opinion who explained that it was just the tracking chip that the other vet had installed.
Power and authority are extremely intoxicating and the thing about intoxication is that it tends to produce an appetite for more. That’s how greed and lust work. Unless they are checked by some ethical imposition, they produce appetites that are insatiable.
I have a YouTube channel with some 50K subscribers and even that amount of insignificance is enough to convince me that I’m a big deal in my worst moments and I have to constantly remind myself that that ‘aint a good look if my wife hasn’t already reminded me.
It’s never a good idea to allow that kind of intoxicating authority to go unchecked, especially among those who will go to great lengths to acquire it and it’s why we should push back every time an authority tries to justify some sweeping imposition with an appeal to their authority or the supposed authority of others because of vague and fallacious statements like, “the science is settled.”
Lastly, we should be on our guard especially during times of crisis which, if experience is telling us anything, is the opposite of what most people seem to be doing. Most people seem to want to enthusiastically forfeit their own authority to whatever the experts tell them to do, no matter how absurd.
Like what would you think if I told you, a year ago, that you’d be living in a state of significant restriction in which facemasks were mandatory unless you had a government issued card that says you’re one of the special few who are exempt (which is what they’re been doing in the city I live in)?
You might start to have the kinds of feelings one typically associates with the word authoritarianism. What’s next, arm bands for those who haven’t been vaccinated?
The thing about a crisis is that there are always revolutionary minded people looking to exploit those opportunities and that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing unfold throughout the US: people with extremist political ideologies taking over cities, literally.
Agricultural failure and crippling national debt turned France into a tinderbox that led to the French Revolution and it all the horror that ensued from that.
Revolutionaries murdered the heir to the Austrian throne instigating WWI which lead to a serious crisis in Russia which lead to the Russian revolution. In Germany, things were bad enough in the inter war years that all the Nazis had to do was burn down the Reichstag building so that they could consolidate their power by blaming it on communists.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that every bill that comes out of my city council is an attempt to establish authoritarian rule, but I do think that there are those who would gladly take advantage of an opportunity like this to insert themselves into a situation in which our rights have been temporarily suspended and then find a way to make temporary become permanent.