Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Authority and Custom: No More Etymology


I must thank Aaron for a comment he made regarding my post on authority and power. He suggested that I think about the importance of the will and man’s fallen nature, in relation to authority. I will take him up on the offer, albeit indirectly, but decline his (hopefully only joking) invitation to do more etymology.

In my last post I emphasized that, in order to be effective, authority must be coupled with power. For example, when trying to figure out whether a given state has effective authority, it is useful to ask of its legal system: “Can this state enforce its judgments?” In other words, when a judge in this state declares by his legitimate authority that a man has committed a crime, it is not enough simply to make a declaration; he must have power to incarcerate the criminal. If the people recognize the state’s authority, the state will be able to use its power to prosecute and imprison criminals. Unfortunately, in our fallen state, such use of power by legitimate authorities will always be necessary at times.

However, authority must also speak to reason; indeed authority is even more effective when it speaks to reason. Authority must be able to convert its dictates into something more powerful than force. In an individual, that something is called sensibility, but in a group it is called custom. What prompted this idea was the following aphorism:

Man today oscillates between the sterile rigidity of law and the vulgar disorder of instinct. He is ignorant of discipline, courtesy, and good taste.

Gómez Dávila depicts two extreme situations in the first sentence. In the first situation there is authority which only has power over the will. The law has the power to punish, and so people fear the law, but they do not love it. Here fear is not the beginning of wisdom. The second situation is when there is not authority at all. Everybody does as he pleases, and nobody can stop him.

In the second sentence, though, Gómez Dávila calls for a golden mean, where authority appeals to the reason of each individual and induces him to discipline himself, to act courteously to others, and to restrain his passions. When individuals have internalized authority, it becomes a sensibility. Men begin to think in accordance with authority, not out of fear but because they have begun to understand it. More importantly, it has become a habit. When this sensibility spreads to many individuals, it becomes a general custom. Finally, we should keep in mind that authority, in the form of custom, is supposed to lead to human flourishing. It should not be sterile or rigid. On the contrary, it should lead to discipline, courtesy, and good taste. These virtues are the marks of true freedom and are the foundation of achievement. Finally, the need for the authority to wield overbearing power disappears.

In case you are inclined to dismiss this as some kind of utopian day-dream, or a nostalgic longing for the “good old days,” I would respond that discipline, courtesy, and good taste are actually very practical. For example, they are essential to the smooth functioning of our legal system. We Americans are known for our litigiousness. At first glance this seems to be a good thing—we acknowledge the authority of the courts and don't engage in private blood feuds. However, our love of lawsuits entails problems of its own. To begin with, the sheer number of lawsuits and appeals slows down the administration of justice. There are a limited number of judges with a limited number of hours in a day available to deal with all these disputes. When too many citizens sue, this means that cases take longer to be resolved, that judges can’t devote as much time to the significant and difficult cases, etc. That explains why all trial judges wish that parties and lawyers displayed much more discipline and courtesy (what they usually call “common sense”) and settle on terms acceptable to all, rather than force judges to impose terms which will probably end up pleasing no one.

This suggests a second point: The law is often a very Procrustean tool. It often pits two goods against each other, and forces one party to choose one. Or, it imposes what seems like an unreasonable solution to all. (For an example of just such a lose-lose situation, see this article.) At the end of a lawsuit, one party is almost always going to be displeased; but if parties refuse to settle, usually both parties end up displeased.

The lesson to be learned, then, is that authority with only power over the will is almost as much of a curse as the complete absence of authority. Authority must be internalized, first in the form of reasoned acceptance, and then in the form of individual sensibility and general custom.
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