On liberal authoritarianism


On liberal authoritarianism

Bowing to the authority of experts saps the lifeblood of democracy.

Salvatore Babones

If liberal principles seem threatened, it is only because they have been so successful. Look more carefully at American, British or European Union politics, and it is hard to find any viable alternatives to liberalism even in its supposed moment of peril. Donald Trump spews forth an endless stream of illiberal invective, but even as the US president, at one point holding majorities in both Houses of Congress, he has been unwilling or unable to roll back the liberal agenda in any meaningful way. Liberalism is, after all, based on the idea that individual liberty is the highest political virtue – and who doesn’t love liberty? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ These were the words that created the United States of America, and ultimately the global liberal order.

But over time the kinds of liberties demanded by liberals have evolved and expanded. They have shifted from a historical focus on ‘negative’ freedoms toward a contemporary focus on ‘positive’ rights. The philosophical construction of the concept of liberty is contentious and convoluted, but there is an obvious and intuitive difference between the simple freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press) and the expansive rights promised by Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (rights to food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services, unemployment insurance and social security).

Political philosophers may be able to derive one from the other, but ordinary people will understand that there is a basic qualitative difference, even if the line between the two is sometimes blurred. Nothing in philosophy is ever simple, but simply put, the freedom to pursue happiness is something very different from the right to be happy. Political liberalism has evolved over nearly three centuries from a philosophy of safeguarding freedoms into a philosophy of demanding rights.

There have been good reasons for this shift. Liberals have come to realise that freedoms on their own are not always sustainable. People sometimes vote to relinquish their freedoms. Very often people use their freedoms to enslave others. Freedom may be just as likely to be used irresponsibly as it is to be used responsibly. Thus the mainstream of liberal opinion has come to the view that the protection of basic human rights, especially the protection of minority rights, is an indispensable prerequisite for the maintenance of individual freedom.

To some extent this is true. But the principle that some human rights must be ensured prompts the question of which ones. Someone has to decide, and if that decision preempts democratic decision-making, then clearly the decision cannot be left up to the people. In fact, among liberal political scientists, the whole idea that the people should define the scope of basic human rights is now sneeringly referred to as ‘majoritarian’ democracy, qualified as if it were no kind of democracy at all.

Mainstream liberals have reasoned that the delineation of the set of human rights that are necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom can only be properly performed by experts. Those experts, the experts in human rights, are by definition educated professionals like academics, lawyers, judges, journalists, civil servants, social workers, medical doctors and lobbyists. By virtue of dedicated study and professional practice they have made themselves the legitimate authorities on the subject. And they truly are the legitimate authorities on the subject. When you want an authority on chemistry, you consult a chemist. When you want an authority on human rights, you consult a human-rights lawyer.

The whole idea that the people should define the scope of human rights is now often sneeringly referred to as ‘majoritarian’ democracy, qualified as if it were no kind of democracy at all

The problem is that politics is a unique field of human activity. Authoritarianism in chemistry may be unproblematic, even desirable. Authoritarianism in politics is dangerous, even when the authorities themselves are above reproach. In the contemporary liberal worldview, certain policies are mandatory, others are beyond the pale, and only the experts can tell which is which. Liberal democracy thus requires the obedience of the voters (or at least the citizens) to expert authority. The people are the passive recipients of those rights the experts deem them to possess. As the domain of rights expands, experts end up making more and more of the decisions – or at least more of the decisions that matter – in an ever-increasing number of the most important aspects of public life: economic policy, criminal justice, what’s taught in schools, who’s allowed to enter the country, what diseases will be cured, even (in many cases) who will have the opportunity to run for elective office. In these areas and more, experts arrogate to themselves the authority to adjudicate competing claims for public resources and private benefits. As society evolves, the areas reserved to expert adjudication seem only to expand. In the course of normal politics, previously depoliticised policy domains rarely return to the realm of democratic determination.

The new authoritarianism of the 21st century has nothing to do with the Trump presidency. It is neither a right-wing authoritarianism, nor a nationalist authoritarianism, nor even a conservative authoritarianism. The new authoritarianism of the 21st century is, paradoxically, a liberal authoritarianism. It is a tyranny of experts.

The habit of obedience

Authoritarianism has always been a dirty word. Liberal political pundits have a habit of labelling any political movement they don’t like as authoritarian, if not also fascist, communist, totalitarian, or worst of all: populist. The problem with this is that although all of these things may be bad (in varying degrees), they are not the same bad thing, nor do they always coalesce in the same political movements. The Nazis may have come closest to ticking all five boxes. But that doesn’t mean that all populists are authoritarians or that all authoritarians are Nazis in the making. Authoritarian governments existed long before the Nazis, fought against the Nazis, and survive in many forms today.

Authoritarianism simply means governance legitimated by demands for deference to authority. The source of that authority can be a confluence of church, monarchy and the military, as it was in Franco’s Spain, or the Leninist demand for deference to a single ruling party, as it was in the Soviet Union and still is in the People’s Republic of China. The source of authority can even be a single, charismatic person at the head of an organised political movement, as it was in Hitler’s Germany. The principle common to all authoritarian systems is that people should not think for themselves. In an authoritarian system, obedience to authority is the highest political virtue.

The word ‘authoritarian’ began its career in 19th-century America as a derogatory term applied to a teaching style in which the teacher posed as the unquestionable fount of all knowledge. It was contrasted with the more open, child-centered learning styles advocated by philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, later, John Dewey. These reformers emphasised the role of individual exploration in learning. When students are free to explore, they pursue many dead ends, but they learn as they pursue. This liberal approach to education emphasises the process over the outcome, the journey over the destination. Students develop their minds by asking their own questions and arriving at their own answers.

Vibrant democracies depend on an overabundance of opinionated ignoramuses, conspiracy theorists, quacks, know-nothings, and other loudmouths

In contemporary Western educational systems, this old touchstone of ‘independent thinking’ has been replaced by the new stock term ‘critical-thinking skills’. This is not a mere matter of management-speak. When students think independently, they reason their way toward individual solutions. Those solutions may be wrong, as the independent thinker often is. Societies of amateurs are full of opinionated ignoramuses. But vibrant democracies depend on an overabundance of opinionated ignoramuses, conspiracy theorists, quacks, know-nothings, and other loudmouths. Free thinkers will think what they want. Isaac Newton spent more time on alchemy and the occult than he did on the theory of gravity.

Though it may pain teachers to hear it, critical-thinking skills teach the habit of obedience, not because teachers value obedience, but because of the very criteria on which success in critical thinking must be judged. Critical thinking teaches students to reason toward the correct answer. But what if there is no correct answer? Or what if there is a correct answer but it is impossible to know what it is? Most public-policy questions fall into these two open categories. In such cases, independent thinking won’t necessarily lead people to the right answers. What independent thinking does is give the thinker – in this case, the citizen – a stake in the answer.

For example, consider the question of whether the US should have intervened earlier in the First World War. If it had, millions of lives might have been saved, Russia might not have fallen to the Bolsheviks, and Germany might have been more comprehensively defeated, changing German attitudes and preventing the rise of Nazism and the coming of the Second World War. Or perhaps the 20th century would have turned out even more horrifically than it did. We will never know. But we do know that the delay in America’s entry into the war left time for the issue to be comprehensively discussed, for ordinary Americans to form opinions for and against getting involved, and for them to express those opinions, whatever their merits. As a result, when the US did go to war in 1917, it was with the support of the American people. Those who were initially against intervention, who may even have voted for Woodrow Wilson on the basis of his isolationist slogans (‘America first’ and ‘He kept us out of war’), patriotically joined in the cause.

Contrast that process with the politics behind America’s more recent wars waged in south-east Asia and the Middle East, hatched by cabals of experts with little genuine public debate. Despite their (current) unpopularity, it is impossible to say for sure whether these wars were right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, because the relevant counterfactuals will never be known. What we do know is that there was no consensus among ordinary citizens about America’s participation in these wars.

Independent thinking is more important for the health of democracy than is the success or failure of any particular policy decision

Free-thinking citizens might have made even worse decisions. History is littered with the stories of democratic countries going to war for all the wrong reasons, from Athens’ gratuitous invasion of Sicily in 415 BC to America’s avaricious war on Spain in 1898. Independent thinkers are not necessarily better thinkers. But they take responsibility for their decisions in a way that obedient subjects do not. Independent thinking is more important for the health of democracy than is the success or failure of any particular policy decision.

Discretionary wars brightly illustrate the rise of the new authoritarianism because they crystalise decision-making processes into discrete, well-known events. But for the quality of democracy itself, the most important policy questions are those about freedoms and rights: who has them, who can grant them, and who can take them away. These are fundamentally questions about sovereignty and where it is located. The traditional American answer is that sovereignty resides in ‘We the People’. The traditional French answer is the state, and the traditional British answer is characteristically something in between: parliament. But these traditional answers are now being challenged. Experts increasingly assert the existence of universal human rights that are beyond the political power of the people or the state to regulate. Whereas universal freedoms may be ‘self-evident’ (reserved rather than granted), universal rights must be granted by someone. Under the new authoritarianism, that someone is the expert class.

It might be sensationalist to claim that a self-appointed and self-perpetuating human-rights aristocracy is running roughshod over Western democracy. But with less hyperbole, there has been in the West a slow but comprehensive historical evolution from the broad consensus that governments derive their legitimacy from the people via democratic mandates to an emerging view that governments derive their legitimacy by governing in ways that have been endorsed by expert authorities. And that is a development that should worry democrats everywhere.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor in the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Sydney.

The above is an edited extract from his new book, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts, published by Polity Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Kristof Roth

19th September 2019 at 4:24 pm

“….vibrant democracies depend on an overabundance of opinionated ignoramuses, conspiracy theorists, quacks, know-nothings, and other loudmouths…”

Who cares if a democracy is vibrant? We aren’t concerned about the vivacity of the Supreme Court, so why should we care if the electorate debates all conceivable angles with passion? Not an exited but an informed electorate is paramount.

Certainly there should be debate, but opinionating by any and everyone is less the distinguishing feature of a democratic society than the expertise = wisdom of the elected legislators. Not to consult it for important decisions would undermine the whole exercise of representative self-governance, which is the only form of democracy, excepting the Swiss model, currently practiced. There is no getting around the fact that expertise exists and availing ourselves of it by means of some process of selection defines good government.

Is independent critical thinking on the part of the voter the only thing that gives him a “stake” in the policies debated and implemented? It seems to me that he has a stake if he is cognizant of the alternatives, not only if he can reconstruct the arguments supporting them. He has a stake even without knowing the alternatives. Simply by casting his vote and learning of the results something is wagered.

“Independent thinkers are not necessarily better thinkers. But they take responsibility for their decisions in a way that obedient subjects do not.”

Obedient to what? And What is an independent thinker? one who feels at liberty to accept or reject things at will? This would lead to complete anarchy and paralysis of judgment, especially prudential or political judgment. Do we want such liberty-taking in our leaders, or are we in better hands with legislators who accept the constraints rational argument imposes? who obey the conclusions of authoritative reason and prudence rather than the personally advantageous or expedient? or some opposing point of view because it demonstrates ‘independence?’

Kristof Roth

19th September 2019 at 4:11 pm

“In an authoritarian system, obedience to authority is the highest political virtue.”

Substitute “legitimate” for “authoritarian” and this makes more sense. To accept the constraints of a legitimate regime is to assent to its authority.

Libertarians always seem to view government as the illegitimate authority depriving them of their individual liberties. This view of power has been historically instrumental in empowering citizens to stand up to abusive (therewith “authoritarian” = unauthoritative) regimes. But the implication that legitimate regimes must be one’s that do not enforce their authority, doesn’t follow. Any regime seeks to ensure its continued sovereignty. The libertarian seems to have no concept of legitimate authority.

The need for rebellion makes authority suspect. While it is rational to be vigilant and hold governments to account, the posture of rebellion as permanent necessarily distorts the authority and recalcitrance institutions require in order to function.
Do “experts arrogate to themselves the authority to adjudicate competing claims for public resources and private benefits” or are they not rather vested with our trust—without which no legitimate authority could exist—to so do? Does the Supreme Court “arrogate” to itself the authority to adjudicate, one member at a time? No. The system of governance is set up in such a manner as to vest the body of the court with responsibility. The individual members no more arrogate it to themselves than anyone placed in a position of responsibility, including parents. Legitimate power is no less authoritarian if that means they expect their constraints to be consented to.
It is no accident that Babones discusses the education of children. When the issue of authority is approached from the perspective of developmental psychology it becomes infantilized: the power that is wielded over one is by its very nature corrupt. A less distorting perspective is that of the teacher, parent, legislator, or judge, for whom authority and responsibility are one and the same.

If the ideal is to have children “explore” their own paths to their own truths, then why deny this to teachers, parents, legislators, and judges? I’ll tell you why—because infinitely more is at stake for those who have assumed responsibility for others.

The implicit suggestion that we should fashion our self-governance, or even civil society, after the model of what used to be called the “no-frustration” style of anti-authoritarian pedagogy (viz., with only ineffective and feckless facilitators and no over-seers), is risible. As is the view according to which everything is up for debate institutionally, and society’s founding superordinate value is freedom of speech. This adolescent fantasy could only be entertained by people who have never wielded political power (vested with responsibility). It is the fantasy about a society without duties, in which accepting constraints is per se slavish and dishonorable, and all authority synonymous with ‘tyranny.’ The fantasy of the unqualifiedly “open” egalitarian society. In truth, there is no openness without closure, anymore than there are rights without duties, inclusion without exclusion, or tolerance without intolerance.

Kristof Roth

12th September 2019 at 3:35 am

“Authoritarianism simply means governance legitimated by demands for deference to authority.”

And what is the name of the legitimate regime? of authoritative governance? Libertarians seem not to have a notion of the legitimately authoritative. As if legitimately authoritative government couldn’t exist, that is to say, one we would consent to being constrained by. A legitimate governance is by definition one with authority. They are two words for the same thing.

To vote for and support a party just means to acknowledge its capability = suitability = superiority = authority.

The “demand for deference” is not an external relationship. The party one puts in power does not demand obedience, it compels it even before it has been elected by virtue of holding the right positions. The best choice is necessarily the most authoritative. The most power to compel assent, as any truth we acknowledge compels it.

What would ‘governance legitimated by demands for deference to authority’ be if not governance claiming its institutional right to represent the majority that elected it?

The question ‘whence does the government derive its authority?’ asks about its legitimacy. The presupposition being that only legitimate governments are assented to (“compel obedience”). Illegitimate governments have no authority and will have no ability to compel assent without violence.

If we cannot agree that obedience is assent, as in the assent to truth qua warrant, then there is no common ground for the discussion. Or any way toward realizing that obedience—in light of the fact that true authority compels without force—is as least as much a part of being rational as the impulse to call into question what seems unwarranted. In the first case authority appears in its positive, in the latter in its negative sense. Modernity is the gradual forgetting of the positive sense; of the necessary role of institutions and of dogma as constraints on endless debate and arbitrary decisions.

Except as academic exercises, there are certain dogmas that are beyond public disputation, as reflected by the fact that they are not put up for a vote, therewith not subject to the vagaries of public opinion. The founding fathers of the American form of Republican governance were only too aware of the dangers of too much democracy. There are many things taken out of the hands of the people—the rights of minorities, for example. And thank God for it.

Democracy may be the least evil regime, but that means it is still evil enough to aid and abet catastrophic destruction, ever vulnerable to being lead astray by demagogues promising heaven on earth. That criticism is as almost as old as democracy itself. It should give us pause to consider the wisdom of letting the people decide, that is to say, of embracing an authoritarianism of the majority.

Kristof Roth

11th September 2019 at 6:22 pm

To equate appeals to the authority of credentialed and experienced professionals for the sake of the utmost epistemic rigor with an authoritarian ethos is not only tendentious, it deprives the concept of “authoritarianism” of its political-polemical specificity and thrust. The appeal to expertise per se is not authoritarian.Only a willful idiot who adhered to the principle that individuals are all equally knowledgable in all situations and on all matters, could object to the practice.

Availing oneself of expertise when it is expedient has nothing to do with “the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.” What is “strict obedience?” The half-acceptance of authority? Not to comply with the consensus of recognized experts is irrational. It is to reject authority for the sake of rejecting it. Society cannot function if every individual assumes his knowledge supercedes that of actual experts. Institutions are not debating clubs. They want and presuppose closure, and that means the acceptance of certain truths as having been settled. The dogmas regarding our innate rights and liberties being a prime example.

Kristof Roth

11th September 2019 at 6:32 pm

should read: What is “strict obedience” if not the acceptance of the implications of acknowledged warrant? Obedience just means the acceptance of a constraint as binding. This is what authority–whether as ‘self-evident’ or resting in vested in a panel of experts–is a matter of.

Assenting to the warrant of authority is to being rational what duty is to freedom–it’s substantive manifestation and legitimation.

mikki p

6th August 2019 at 8:58 am

The author says: “Very often people use their freedoms to enslave others. Freedom may be just as likely to be used irresponsibly as it is to be used responsibly.”, but if negative rights are truly upheld for all then how are freedoms used to enslave or used irresponsibly (i.e. presumably used to violate the freedoms of others?). If enslavement or the irresponsible use of freedom is being perpetrated then it is a case for upholding “negative” rights properly and not for introducing “positive” rights.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.

More long-reads

The People’s Republic of China at 70

Austin Williams

The People’s Republic of China at 70

The revenge of the elites

Thomas Fazi

The revenge of the elites

In defence of the people

Roslyn Fuller

In defence of the people

The myth of Corbyn’s radicalism

Phil Mullan

The myth of Corbyn’s radicalism