Authority: If It’s Good, Why Does It Make Us Feel So Bad?

In the past, I’ve argued against authority on both principled and consequential grounds. Institutions like the state don’t have legitimate authority over you because we don’t own other people, and you can’t delegate an authority you don’t have to an institution to exercise on your behalf.

On a purely practical level, authority leads to irrationality and inefficiency because it filters and distorts information flow and causes decision-makers to operate in a purely imaginary world. That was true of Gosplan in the old USSR, and every Fortune 500 corporate headquarters is for all intents and purposes just a mini-Gosplan. Authority leads to socially suboptimal outcomes because decision-makers are able to externalize the negative consequences of their decisions on subordinates and appropriate the positive consequences for themselves.

But a lot of people don’t find such intellectual arguments convincing. They don’t feel them in their gut.

So this time I’m going to attack it from a different angle: Authority is bad because of the way it makes you feel.

Imagine you’re driving along, and you look in your rearview mirror and see a police car behind you. Do you feel confident and relieved, thinking “I’m so glad I’m being protected and served”? I doubt it. Your first thought is most likely of how soon you can lose the cop, either by making a turn or letting them pass you. As you continue to see the police car behind you, your thoughts almost certainly turn to whether you did something wrong, or whether you’re inadvertently doing something wrong right now the cop can seize on to pull you over. And the longer the police car stays behind you, the more turns it follows you through, the louder that panicky voice in your head becomes: “I’m in trouble! I must’ve done something wrong.”

In short, you’re reduced to feeling like a “bad” child in the face of an adult authority figure.

Remember when you actually were a child, and your mom or dad said, “Come here. We need to have a talk”? Or when your teacher called you aside for a “little talk,” or you got summoned to the principal’s office? You felt like the authority figure behind the desk was a hundred feet tall and looking at you, miserable little worm that you were, through a microscope. You felt like a puppy that had just been caught piddling on the rug.

You probably feel the same way as an adult, at work, when your boss calls you into her office. If you don’t know what it’s about, you start racking your brain trying to think of a million and one things you might have done wrong. Will she be mad at me? Will I get yelled at? Will I lose my job? I’m in trouble. I’M BAD.

At the most fundamental level, this is why authority is evil. It reduces you to the feelings of fear and powerlessness you experienced as a child. It makes you think you’re bad. It makes you think you must have done something wrong.

This isn’t a good way for anyone to feel. And a society in which we spend a major part of our lives under the control of institutions directed by authority figures with the power to make us feel that way, is a fundamentally sick society.

Looking at things from the other direction, authority is bad because of the way it makes you feel when you identify with it — like other people are bad. Whenever there’s a news story online about someone being beaten up by a cop, the comments are bound to include people saying things like “Well, that ought to teach them a lesson. When a cop tells you to do something, you do it!” A dismaying share of American political discourse, especially from the Right, involves accusing one’s opponent of being “soft on” this or that, promising to “get tough on” the other thing, and calling for a whole host of outgroups or dissidents — protestors, disobedient foreign countries, gays, racial minorities, women, “illegal aliens,” etc. — to be “taught a lesson” or “shown who’s boss.”

People who view the world through this framework, typically, were beaten (literally or figuratively) by authority until they saw identifying with authority and redirecting their suppressed rage against the enemies of authority as the only way of escaping the double bind. They learned to love Big Brother.

A society that creates this mindset is also sick.

Dealing with other human beings — all other human beings — as equals, confident and unafraid, is the right way to live. It’s the only right way to live.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory