What is authoritarianism? A basic understanding of authoritarian politics7 min read
The adjective ‘authoritarian’ comes from the mid to late 19th century, and simply means, “favoring imposed order over freedom.” An authoritarian is someone who believes that freedom is secondary to societal order and that order must come from a person or entity imposing rules. In other words, authoritarians believe individual freedom may be limited to maintain order in society. Authoritarians do not believe mankind can ultimately be trusted to exercise their individual freedom in a civilized way.
This is actually the view held by Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher of the enlightenment period who formalized the concept of authoritarianism. Hobbes maintained that individuals are motivated entirely by self-interest and that they pose a direct threat to each other, thereby making the existence of the state a necessity for maintaining order. He believed that power to govern equally distributed among individuals was a motivator for people to attack one another, and that power held centrally, by either an organization or a single person, warranted peaceful cooperation. Certainly, authoritarianism was no created by Hobbes. Looking at history it’s easy to see how societies were governed by authoritarian rulers because there are key characteristics of authoritarian systems.
Authoritarianism is a broad term which entails government systems with these characteristics in common:
1. Monopolization of civil governance with an aim for unicentrism.
2. Legitimacy is based on the need for a central authority to combat evil or other societal problems; qualitative protection of rights is incidental, or minimized.
3. Suppression, either active or passive, of social movements, political opponents, and anti-authoritarian activity.
4. An executive office whose power is poorly defined, vague, or entails shifting powers.
Although Hobbes was extreme in his views, the implication of it is that individuals can’t be trusted, ultimately, to govern themselves. To that end, authoritarianism is an integral part of most political systems and is also a principle that is the core of American Constitutionalism. In Federalist Paper number 51, James Madison defended an authoritarian view of the federal government to support state ratification of the unpopular US Constitution. Not only did Madison maintain that a unicentric authority was necessary for governance, by way of the Constitution, elsewhere he perpetuated the idea that political power needed to be kept from those lacked formal education and did not own property because those were characteristics thought of as producing social and political unrest.
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers … consists in giving to those [who govern] …. the personal motives to resist encroachments of the others … If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
In other words, Madison generally agreed with the Hobbesian idea that individuals could not be trusted to govern themselves, but he recognized that government couldn’t be trusted either because it’s comprised of individuals. So the dilemma that Madison presents here, is in how to ensure a unicentric government doesn’t abuse its power. But can a unicentric governing entity really be kept in check?
Ask Yourself: If “you must first enable government to control the governed,” then how can those controlled by the government expect to maintain a “primary control on the government?” If all individuals are too self-interested, too violent, or too sinful to govern themselves, then who exactly is fit to govern others? If the moral flaws of mankind render him incapable of obliging self-control with regard to their neighbor, then what is it that we can depend on in government to oblige themselves to maintain a measure of self-control with regard to their own power?
Resources & Further Reading
Thanks for reading my post! Add your thoughts and comments by contacting me below, or you can interact with me and my patrons by becoming a premium member at patreon.com/kerrybaldwin.
In lieu of a comments section
I welcome and encourage your thoughts, comments, and questions through email.
Rose Wilder Lane was an American journalist who became enchanted with communism early in life. She looked to communist Europe and the Soviet Union as the ideal for civilization. But in 1920, while traveling with the Red Cross to Europe, she saw the real consequences...
Please Subscribe! and please don’t forget to give a five-star rating and review so new audiences can find Mere Liberty. In 1683, John Locke arrived in the Netherlands with his friend and patron, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. The two had fled England due to suspicions...
Praxeology comes from the Greek; it means the study of deed, or action. It's actually a broad discipline where human action is understood deductively. This leads to conclusions that are a priori, or self-evident. Today, praxeology is most often associated with...