27 October 2016

The authoritarian question

When someone like the governor of Maine says that the U.S. could use a dose of authoritarian power, I'm tempted to demand that he swear fealty in advance to the first person to seize power by force, since to reserve fealty seems to go against the whole authoritarian idea. The challenge quickly seems too absurd to press, since not even the most rabid authoritarian wants someone to wield that sort of power as an end unto itself. Authoritarianism isn't an ideology like liberalism or communism, because authoritarianism is only a means to any number of ends. That makes it abhorrent to ideologies that seek to define both means and ends, and especially to liberalism, for which the means are the end. I was catching up with magazines recently and read an article by Pankraj Mishra about Asia's critical response to western liberalism, and it struck me that the appeal of liberalism depends on what you oppose it to. Asians question liberalism because it seems to value the individual over the group or the state, while their own philosophical traditions prioritize ethical conduct over individual liberty. While some in the west still see "collective" as a dirty word, western liberalism is really less about opposing the individual against the collective than it's about safeguarding individuals against leaders. You probably can trace this all the way back to ancient Greece and its fear of the demagogue who becomes a tyrant according to a pessimistic cyclical theory of politics. By comparison, I doubt whether Asian philosophers before Mao ever preached unconditional obedience to rulers. I also doubt whether they were so fearful of authoritarian power that they would handicap the state as extensively as Americans have. The problem,  it now seems, with liberalism is that it limits the state's ability to perform essential goods as much as it constrains leaders from doing evil, which makes it almost blindly evenhanded. That makes it sadly funny to hear people cry that democracy is at stake in the 2016 election --since to the extent that democracy is, in pure form, an authoritarian form of government in its ultimate disregard for objections, it was snuffed out in America long ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Democracy was never the intention of the founders to begin with. At least not in a real sense of the word. All they were interested in was usurping the powers of the king for themselves, excluding the majority of colonists - including those who would fight and die in the war for independence. The fact that the President is not elected by popular vote, but by electoral college pretty much proves that.

It is understandable that the founders feared "mob rule". However, the logical way to deal with that is to ensure your populace is educated, so that the chance of a "mob" coming about is nearly non-existent. Instead, they chose - and still choose - to keep the people as ignorant as possible. Of course, the other side of the coin is that the people pretty much prefer ignorance, being the easier path to follow. So, as they say, "you pays your coin and you gets what you gets."