Human beings are often told to do stuff on the sheer basis of “authority” alone. “Listen to your teacher.” Why? Because they have “authority.” “Pay your taxes.” Why? Because the government has “authority.” “Take off your pants at the sign ahead in Terminal B and let the guy touch your butt.” Why? Because, well, whoever is doing this must have some kind of authority.
There are some serious problems with this age-old idea (or religious “superstition,” in the words of Rose Wilder). First of all, it should be remembered that authority is the simply the conditional position of one that is authorized. The trust that people give others (e.g., kings) gives them (the kings) “authority.” When people stop believing or trusting, the authority disappears. If a general’s army woke up one day and said to him, “We don’t believe you have any authority anymore,” the general may say “Oh, yes I do! I’m the General and you’re my subordinates.” But this means nothing. Simply saying “I have authority over you” doesn’t make it so. In fact, the general should have immediately said “You were my subordinates, but now you’re not because you no longer authorized me…and I think I hear my phone ringing, excuse me…” And should the army then kill the general, it would become even more explicit that the General no longer has authority—again, simply because the people who trusted him stopped doing so.
Events like this have happened for thousands of years in one political revolution after another: the people stop believing the authority figure, so the authority figure loses authority. It’s a relatively straightforward situation.
Thus, Susan believes what the mainstream media says. The mainstream media has authority over her life. Jack believes his job gives him value and meaning. His job has authority over his life. A church believes its scriptures. Those scriptures have authority over their lives.
As it is clear, authority is not the same as power, nor is power subject to the same contingencies as authority. We might say that “genuine authority” is authority + sufficient power, or something to that effect. Yet even here, might does not simply equal right. But let this distinction not distract us from the larger point: anyone can claim to be “the authorities” and therefore wield power over others. The primary condition is that simply that others believe it. This is essentially the politician’s game: manipulate as many people as possible to believe that you have authority, and if the majority believes this, then you’ve achieved authority over them.
Second, the “authorities” regularly do unethical things—often according to their own ethical standards. There are entire court systems, volumes of procedural manuals, and thousands of employees within various levels of government just to deal with such “internal corruption” (and this is just the “official” corruption). There is no good reason why “authorities,” whether elected or self-proclaimed, are exempt from non-aggression.
In summary, people should be skeptical of many great claims to authority—especially human-based claims that have a track record of mass violence, such as those of the state. (Post-modern thought is spot-on in that regard.) Furthermore, the power of governments can be largely nullified by calling their claims to limitless, personal authority into question. Just imagine: what if people stopped believing what politicians say? What power would those politicians have over our lives? It would be a different world, indeed.
“So long as any large group of persons, anywhere on this earth, believe the ancient superstition that some Authority is responsible for their welfare, they will set up some image of that Authority and try to obey it. And the result will be poverty and war.”
—Rose Wilder, The Discovery of Freedom, 70.
Postscript: In the context of religion that, at least with Christianity, two puzzling—yet profound—ideas complexify this discussion: (a) authority and power are utterly transformed through a kind of reversal in the Christ-event, and (b) in theory, the only one capable of “self-authorization” would, by definition, be God. All other “authorities” are subordinate and contingent—and therefore, in some way, upon this ultimate “authority.” (This seems to be the idea behind Romans 13, though that passage still must be further qualified in its historical, literary, and theological context.)