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Faith-Based and Forced-Based Authority

Ken Watts's picture

If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority.

Yugoslav Proverb

Another conflation in our culture centers around the idea of authority.

There are basically two, quite different, types that are constantly confused.

The first is faith-based authority: authority that is rooted in our belief that someone is trustworthy. When a physics teacher explains Newton's laws, we believe her because we trust her expertise. When a nurturing parent says "don't touch that," the child obeys because he knows she has his best interests at heart. When our lawyer gives us advice, we listen because we trust his expertise and integrity.

The second is force-based authority: authority that is ultimately rooted in the authority's ability to force compliance. When a physics teacher gives a student detention, the student obeys because the teacher can bring about even more unpleasant consequences. When an authoritarian parent says "don't touch that," the child obeys because she is afraid of being hit. When a lawyer serves a subpoena, we show up because we fear the unpleasant consequences of not showing up.

Once these two are disentangled, several things become obvious.

Faith-based authority has inherent legitimacy, for two reasons:

  1. The person who bows to the authority is also the one who bestows it. Your authority over me is a function of my trust in you. There is nothing imposed, and I don't give you—in fact, I can't give you—any authority of this type that exceeds my trust in you. Consequently, you can't impose this kind of authority upon me.

  2. Faith-based authority, in and of itself, is self-correcting. If you betray my trust, you damage it, and thus you lose your faith-based authority.

On the other hand, force-based authority always lacks real legitimacy, because it is ultimately based upon the fact that I'm bigger than you, or outnumber you, or have better guns than you.

It only makes sense to the extent that faith-based authority is lacking, and it is not self-correcting. In fact, force-based authority tends to work in the other direction. If it is abused, and the person it is being imposed upon objects, the imposer tends to increase, rather than decrease the use or threat of force.

I'm not arguing, by the way, that force is never necessary—only that it alway lacks the natural legitimacy of faith-based, or moral, authority. It is always a sign that legitimate authority is absent, often because the "authority" has not earned it.

Often, in life, the two types are mixed in the same person. The policeman on the corner may well be trustworthy, but also carries a gun. The teacher knows his subject, but also gives the grades and holds the office referral slips. Sometimes this mixture is necessary. The policeman who directs traffic also arrests burglars. The teacher is both a source of information and the person who enforces the school rules.

But even when it is necessary, it is important to distinguish the two types, and to remember that insofar as authority must rely on force, it has no real legitimacy.

Example: our current political administration seems to have forgotten this fact, to the detriment of our foreign policy. The more we rely on force, the less we will be trusted, and the more force we will have to use. As we are trusted less, our authority becomes less legitimate, and we lose the high moral ground.

The result is to transform us from a reliable voice for peace and democracy into the schoolyard bully—in the eyes of others, but also in our own behavior patterns as a nation. We begin to refuse to talk to people, unless they bow to our desires in advance, we choose saber rattling over conversation. We deny that the other side has any legitimate needs or points.

The authority of the United States President is trust-based: it comes from votes, which are a rough measure of trust. Even a president who did not get the majority of the votes still owes his office to the trust of the people who did vote for him. His proper role is to extend the legitimacy of the office by earning the trust of the remaining voters. If he wants to be considered as a world leader, his role is to earn the trust of those in other nations as well.

But if he confuses these two kinds of authority, if he sees faith-based authority only as a stepping-stone to force-based authority, he not only undermines his own authority, he undermines the authority of the office of president, and he undermines the authority of the United States.

He makes himself illegitimate.

The broader issue is cultural, and even more important. What kind of society do we want?

I would suggest that we would be far better off if we consciously looked for ways to base authority on trust at every turn. Every teacher should be taught to view a detention as a sign that they have failed to earn their students' trust. Every policeman should see the use of force—even an implied threat of force—as an absolute last resort. Every employer would be better off if they earned the respect and trust of their employees.

A society which was aware that a threat was fundamentally illegitimate, even when it was necessary as a last resort, would function better for all concerned.

And, as a bonus, that society mighty elect presidents who were not likely to start a nuclear war.

As least, that's what I think today.

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