Crisis of Political Authority? I Wish!

In my capacity as the longtime editor of The Independent Review (reduced earlier this year to the harmless status of Editor at Large), I have often received unsolicited copies of recently published books from the publishers, who hope to obtain reviews that will help them drum up sales. Today’s mail delivery brought me such an unrequested volume, a book titled The End of Authority: How a Loss of Legitimacy and Broken Trust Are Endangering Our Future, by Douglas E. Schoen.

Skimming quickly, I found that the book deals with what the author calls “a crisis of governance, a crisis of legitimacy, and, indeed, a crisis of authority.” “All around the world,” he declares, citizens “have lost confidence in those charged with the responsibility of governing them.” (Notice the language, “those charged with the responsibility,” rather than “those who, by hook and by crook, have impudently imposed themselves on their exploited subjects.”)  In this dire situation, Schoen intends his book “to offer clear, unambiguous solutions” to this allegedly urgent problem (p. 245).

My first reaction was, “Crisis of Authority? I wish.” Although ruling elites may be distressed by the various expressions of discontent and even outrage being expressed by particular groups of (what they surely take to be) troublemakers, they are accustomed to a certain amount of discontent and rebellion. Suppressing such outbreaks and pounding, tricking, or soothing people back into line are all in a day’s work for the rulers. Given the ruling elites’ disproportionate possession of wealth, connections, and firepower, they usually succeed, and I expect that in most cases those who are feeling pressed today will, sooner or later, succeed in reining in their restive populations. The Arab Spring will turn to Arab Summer, Arab Fall, and Arab Winter. The Tea Partiers will lose interest and drift away—many have already been coopted or politically disarmed by the established major parties. The little bands of libertarians will squander their energies, feuding with their fellows and arguing about not-so-pressing issues in lifeboat ethics. The European rioters will be tear-gassed, sprayed with fire hoses, and beaten about the head and shoulders until they find better uses for their time and energy.

Douglas Schoen clearly writes as a friend of the international elite, for whom he has worked in the past as a pollster, consultant, and strategist. One has only to consider what he takes as a given, namely, that existing Establishment institutions deserve to occupy their powerful positions in social and economic life and ought to be reconfigured to exercise their powers more effectively—that is, in a way that gives rise to fewer troublesome reactions from the peasantry.

Well, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. I have a different view of the situation. I perceive that the existing institutions—above all, the various nation states—have highly problematic legitimacy. To speak more bluntly, the state in particular has none at all, aside from the somnolent or distracted acquiescence of the mass of its subjects. If there really were a crisis of authority for the state per se, I could only say, thank God, it’s about time; bring it on! A few thousand years of people’s being bullied, plundered, humiliated, and even killed by their loving masters is more than enough, and the subjects can scarcely move fast enough to suit me in challenging this immoral domination.

Even before I opened the book, I had a strong premonition that I would find its message impossible to swallow. Four blurbs on the dust jacket express high praise for the author and the book. The blurbs are signed by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, and publisher Steve Forbes. If such persons actually approved of what Schoen has to say, I knew with almost complete certainty that I would not approve. Call me an incurable skeptic, but I simply cannot imagine that anything good could come from the current masters of the world, the very people who have contributed so magnificently to the world’s present horrors.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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