The Paradoxical Philosophy of Obedience

As a general rule if your philosophy involves paradoxes then it’s not a good philosophy. Supporters of authoritarian philosophies have this problem, they preach that we must followed a strong leader in order to be free. What these people don’t see is that one cannot be free if they are following mindlessly, which is why this New York Times column is nothing but dribble:

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

There is a reason the common assumption is that elites are always hiding something, because they are. Public “servants” are in it for themselves. All actions are based on self-interest and politics is the art of force. Politicians are people who have decided to use the means of force to achieve their end of self-interest. Since people generally respond poorly to being forced into action the politicians must hide their intentions, they must wrap their political interests in a layer of “greater good” and “public service.”

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

What? Both groups believe in authority. Occupy Wall Street generally believes in authority of the masses, commonly referred to as democracy. The Tea Party generally believes in the authority of the republic and representatives (otherwise they wouldn’t move to get desired representatives elected). Of course, according to the author’s beliefs, I can see why he would think both movements oppose authority altogether:

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem.

In other words we should all learn to be good little slaves and shut the hell up. I’m curious what this man would have been writing before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. It’s obvious that he would have supported the “just authority” of the British king but I’m curious how he would justify it. Now that I think about it, I’m curious how he justifies supporting “just authority” now. For all the talk the author makes about “just authority” he never actually says what kind of authority is just. Is devine authority just? Is a person elected by popular vote granted just authority? Is the most heavily armed individual a holder of just authority? The author never says, he only says that we must obey just authority.

Just authority can only be voluntarily granted on an individual basis. You can choose to delegate authority over aspects of your life to another. I cannot choose somebody to rule over your life though, just as you cannot choose somebody to rule over my life. This automatically means democracies are not just, just because the majority of people agree on something doesn’t mean it’s right (a majority of people once believed the Earth was flat after all). Likewise, just because a larger group voted to grant a man authority over a geographic region doesn’t make it right. The people of Iceland had the right idea during their 300 years of statelessness. Individuals could voluntarily agree to recognize the authority of a godi and if that godi was no longer to an individual’s liking they could seek another (and his choices weren’t restricted by geographic regions). That form of authority could be considered just as it was voluntarily granted and could be reclaimed at the granter’s choosing.

I will give the author credit on one thing, he’s one of the few authoritarians who actually admits that paradoxes exist in his philosophy. He doesn’t properly identify them or realizes that the existence of paradoxes should indicate one reexamine their beliefs, but he at least acknowledges they are there.