Wired for Authoritarianism

Starting by referring to two posts I wrote back in January, Obi wan Liberali posts More Thoughts on Authoritarian Thinking. I have to say that, like Obi wan, I am deeply concerned about our shift towards a more authoritarian society. I also agree that the positions publicly identified as conservative are tending towards greater social authoritarianism although I’m not sure they are becoming more authoritarian economically. On the other hand, the positions publicly identified as liberal have always been likely to take an authoritarian stance economically while remaining libertarian in the social arena.

I believe that Obi wan is correct in identifying two classifications of authoritarians – most being authoritarian followers, and the minority being authoritarian leaders (he calls them dominators). Obi identifies religion as being naturally authoritarian in structure. While I agree that religion is generally authoritarian I don’t believe that this is peculiar to religion – I believe that authoritarianism is human nature.

People who strive for power are naturally going to be authoritarian leaders. Leadership based solely on logic and persuasion is not a dependable way to maintain authority. Those who rely on persuasion are not concerned about their personal authority. The reason that so many people qualify as authoritarian followers is a combination of short-sightedness and laziness. Some people are unwilling to do the work necessary to form their own opinions so they follow whatever authoritarian leader they are inclined to follow. Others are willing to do the work to form their own opinions, but they fail to foresee the dangers of supporting the authoritarian pursuits of those who are ideologically in line with the positions they have chosen.

The reason that authoritarian systems are so worrisome to me is that I view personal responsibility to be the foundation and the working definition of liberty. Authoritarianism is antithetical to personal liberty and personal responsibility. People who are unwilling to take the time to gather the information to form their own opinions will always be seeking for someone to follow politically, religiously, or in any other arena. People who will put forth that effort will enjoy the fruits of their personal liberty only to the extent that they are allowed to – meaning that they cannot enjoy the fruits of liberty in a situation where their opportunity to make choices is cut short by the system. This applies to equally economic, political, and religious systems.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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12 Responses to Wired for Authoritarianism

  1. As always David, I enjoy your insights. “Authoritarianism is antithetical to personal liberty and responsibility.” That is very well said, and I appreciate you saying it.

    My comment regarding religious authoritarianism is based upon the underlying assumption that because a legitimate religious authority says something, it is defacto the truth.

    One of the best spoken conservative commentators I have observed is Connor Boyack, and I really enjoy reading his posts. But often, it comes down to “(insert prophet here) said, “—” and (insert another prophet said (“—“) and even the well-spoken Frank Staheli will sometimes go this route.

    As you know, I’ve been an outspoken proponent of the idea that all “ideas” must stand on their own, and all the fact that an important authority figure embraces an idea, whether it is Thomas S. Monson, Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson, those ideas are redeemed only by their veracity, not by those who believe in them.

    Liberty is always a tradeoff. I gave up the liberty of bachelorhood to take on the responsibilities and benefits of marriage. We give up certain liberties to ensure we live in an ordered and secure society. The world is full of such tradeoffs.

    But when we base our decisions regarding these tradeoffs based upon what an authority figure says, rather than based upon our own perceived self interest, we have surrendered our own interests in order to benefit that authority.

    Anyway, that is my take.

    Best regards.

  2. David says:

    I absolutely agree with you that all ideas must be able to stand on their own. While I think I am ideologically compatible with Connor and Frank on most issues I have to say that I have a hard time when their logic stops at “such-and-such because so-and-so said it.”

    On the trade-offs of liberty – while we do choose to cede aspects of personal liberty for the sake of a secure society at times, there is a difference between making an informed choice to secure our society from danger and allowing ourselves to be duped into giving up liberties in the name of security for things that do more to give power to the government than they do to increase our security. Sadly it seems that many of the things being pushed by the current administration fall into that category.

    As I look at what I wrote I realize that I’m really just agreeing with your final paragraph.

  3. Reach Upward says:

    While all ideas must stand on their own, it is wise to employ humility in this pursuit. If we were all such wonderful and capable judges of ideas, we would all agree all of the time. But, in fact, even the brightest of us is extremely limited in this regard.

    Perfect information is rarely available. Our ability to comprehend the long-term impacts of any idea are demonstrably pretty poor. Especially if your long-term view includes eternity.

    For these reasons, we all trust others’ judgment to a certain extent. Some people, for example, trust Warren Buffett’s investing advice, because he has a pretty decent track record. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than most.

    Likewise, some may choose to trust a spiritual advisor because, in their minds they have sufficient evidence to trust that person’s judgment.

    This does not make people lovers of authoritarianism. It means that they have accepted, as Obi Wan says, certain tradeoffs.

    I have no problem with this. What I have a problem with is when people want to use coercion to force others to submit to the ideas they have accepted as legitimate. That, my friends, is authoritarianism.

  4. David says:


    You are absolutely right that we must trust the judgment of others to a certain extent. The problem with authoritarian followers – the real followers are those who lose their critical eye once they have chosen a leader.

    Once I have chosen to trust a source (spiritual or otherwise) I am less inclined to disagree with that source without compelling evidence.

    The second problem with authoritarian followers is when they fail to recognize that their trusted source is not necessarily a trusted source of others. When they argue that “{x} because {y} said so” they need to realize that their “because {y} said so” is not always a compelling argument for others who they are talking to.

    If “{y} said so” is a good enough reason for them, that’s great, but they have to accept that {y} may have no established authority where others are concerned.

    I’d love to hear Obi wan’s take on this.

  5. Reach Upward says:

    I believe we differ in our opinions on this only by degree. Trust and loyalty based on past evidence can cause followers to overlook flaws. This can be good or bad. If flaws are significant, it’s bad. If flaws are minor, it’s good to overlook them, or else it results in unnecessary turmoil.

    Do I have to decide every moment whether I still love my wife? She regularly demonstrates flaws. If this is my approach, I am certainly an unworthy and disloyal partner. But what of my friend whose wife ran off with another guy? He tried to hang onto the relationship for months. That’s a different situation.

    The argument of whether {y} is true because {x} should be recognized as an appeal to authority, one of the seven logical falacies. It only has a chance of working if both parties have a similar opinion of {x}.

  6. David says:

    We may not even differ by degree. I absolutely agree with your last comment. It might just be that we are looking at different aspects of the same opinion.

  7. Very interesting disussions. Part of the humility that Reach Upward refers to is a recognition that we all cannot be experts. I’m not an expert on DNA, but I do have the ability to read what experts on DNA may have to say when they do so in layman’s terms.

    The question we should always ask ourselves, is whether there is any reason to believe that the expert we reference is biased in some way. In other words, does a particular outcome meet their needs. Did they start with the purpose of finding the truth, or justifying your belief?

    To me, the legitimate authority, is the objective one, with nothing to gain by a particular outcome.

    Reach Upward’s quote: “The argument of whether {y} is true because {x} should be recognized as an appeal to authority, one of the seven logical falacies. It only has a chance of working if both parties have a similar opinion of {x}.” Authoritarian systems exist when masses of people accept (x) uncritically.

  8. David says:

    The key to that final statement seems to be that the acceptance is given without a critical examination.

  9. Reach Upward says:

    This is true. But I have often seen people criticize those with whom they disagree as being uncritical in their acceptance of {x}, when the people themselves think they have employed significant effort and reason in the matter. It’s an easy way to denegrate those whose approach we don’t like.

    Obi Wan’s search for unbiased expertise is a utopian pursuit, if ever there was one. How many people do things in which they have no interest, no bias, and no passion? We are usually saddled with having to simply take the inherent bias into consideration.

  10. David says:

    You make a good point. Acceptance of statements by {x} must be given with a critical eye, but rejection of what {x} said without a critical eye (meaning rejection based solely on a rejection of {x} as an authority) is just as shortsighted.

    I think you are right about the Utopian nature of Obi wan’s desire for a complete lack of bias but finding minimal bias and taking that bias into consideration should be a very thought provoking exercise.

  11. Didn’t mean to sound utopian. What I sought to articulate, was that we must strive to be objective, and objectively as possible recognize the interests a proponent may have in a certain outcome.

    Is a publication from “The Tobacco Institute” regarding the health risks of tobacco use the same as one from a study done at John Hopkins?

    Does a FARMS study, which looks for Hebrew influences in ancient America carry as much weight as one done by some researcher who has never heard of Mormonism?

    Objectivity may be as utopian as seeking perfection, an end to poverty, an end to disease, etc., but aiming in that direction will generally get you better results than willingly being subjective to whatever authority gives me the warmest fuzzies.

  12. David says:

    Thanks Obi wan. Your last sentence expresses what I failed to articulate at the end of my previous comment.

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