Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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AUTHORITY. Wherever society exists there is a struggle between authority and liberty. The fundamental laws of a body are nothing but treaties of peace between these two principles or forces. In political society such laws are called a constitution. In religious societies they are called a creed. Authority seems so necessary to all society, and liberty so necessary to human nature, that we find the reflex of authority even in philosophy where it would seem there ought to be unbounded freedom, and a demand for liberty even in the family, which is the narrowest kind of society and the only one in which absolute power would seem legitimate.


—The history of human society, from whatever point of view considered, is the history of authority and liberty. These two principles being intended to limit each other, but unequally according to the degree of civilization, there is always a boundary line between them varying with social conditions, which neither of them should pass; and political events are nothing but the wanderings of liberty or authority beyond this necessary limit. When authority steps beyond this line, humanity is oppressed and suffers: when liberty, society is endangered. It is natural that, in the first case, public spirit should reassert liberty with emphasis, and in the second, re-establish authority on a firm basis. The constant reaction of opinion against success, which is more or less immediate and rapid, is the cause of the mobility of society. This law of the development of humanity has been observed and accepted only very lately. And it was only when it was observed and accepted that men, understanding the impossibility of preventing revolutions, tried to replace violent by pacific or legal revolutions, through the revision of constitutions. Ancient nations which had tradition as a foundation and immobility as their rule, believed in an absolute limit between authority and liberty. Authority according to this doctrine derived its force and its rights from itself. It was essentially the right, and if it made concessions to liberty, these concessions were mere acts of grace and consequently revocable. Modern nations, on the contrary, are their own masters, that is, social interests being now the source of the right, no member of society can have rights as against society. Authority is simply a trust from the nation, limited in duration and extent by the interests of the nation. Now society which is always in need of direction, has all the more need of it the less enlightened it is. In proportion as it becomes enlightened and civilized it receives all the liberty it can enjoy without danger to itself. Authority then retreats step by step, not as a master who yields to force, or who makes a gift from pure kindness, but as a delegate who resigns his office, hands in his account and confines himself within the limits of his new powers. In one word, the source of political right or sovereignty which amounts to the same thing, is changed. It resided in authority, now it resides in the people. Authority is now only a power delegated by the governed. The sovereignty of the ancient régime, inherent in the person of the monarch, and possessed by virtue of divine right, continued legitimate with all the plenitude of its powers, even in opposition to the unanimous will of the people. Modern sovereignty, essentially power delegated, is legitimate only within the limits of the grant.


—It is very clear that, from the moment sovereignty belongs to the people, who delegate only its exercise, the extent of the trust, as well as the trust itself, depends on the popular will. But it is asked what the people ought to wish in their own interests, which in this instance is their only rule. Should they desire to confer an absolute trust, a large trust or a very limited one? The doctrine of absolute trust has its partisans. This is like a piece of metaphysical jugglery which first makes a pompous award of sovereignty to the people, and immediately deprives them of it under pretext of a trust, which they have created, thus leaving themselves more bare and naked than before. Royalty by divine right, even the most absolute in character, being founded on tradition, is bound, through respect for its own principle, to uphold all other tradition. In this way royalty is both based upon and limited by tradition. Thus it was that under the ancient régime, the kings of France were unable to shake the Catholic religion, to abolish the nobility, or to do without their parliaments in the passage of laws and the administration of justice. They could not alter the form of the states general, and had no resource against them except not to convoke them. A dictator, on the contrary, representing popular omnipotence can be restrained in the exercise of his sovereignty neither by law nor by tradition. Such a representative of absolute omnipotence can meet with limitation neither in the history, manners, nor laws of a people. It is clear that authority understood in this way absorbs and destroys liberty. Between such a delegation of power and monarchy by divine right, there is scarcely more than a formal difference; but if there is a difference of degree, it is in favor of monarchy by divine right.


—The essence of delegated authority then is in limitation and revocability, for it can not be absolute and irrevocable without being false to its own principle. A liberty which exists only in principle, and is delegated in its entirety, is no liberty at all. It is nothing; it is the emptiest and most deceitful of abstractions. In one word, there is no social condition in which authority and liberty do not exist together, and where authority is not a concession made by liberty. The real political problem consists in fixing the boundary between authority and liberty, in the manner most advantageous to liberty rightly understood. Certain minds are naturally inclined to strengthen authority beyond measure, others liberty. Whenever men cease to stand on the basis of divine right, and admit the dogma of popular sovereignty, the drawing of this line of demarcation is no longer a question of right, but of fact, a matter of skill and temperament.


—Those who favor an immoderate development of authority adduce three arguments in its behalf: first, that it produces order; second, that it is the parent of progress; third, it does enough for liberty if it governs always in the sense of the majority.


—It is true that authority produces order. It is for this very end that it has been established; and it is because authority is necessary to order, and order to liberty that no political society can ever do without authority. But because the proper function of authority is to produce order, it is not to be inferred that, the more authority there is in a state, the more order there is. Order is rather the result of a just equilibrium between authority and liberty; for if a people have not the liberty to which they are entitled, that is to say, the whole sum of liberty which they can enjoy without peril to themselves, they are ill at case and impatient of the yoke, the result of which is that authority and the foundations of society itself are weakened. All excess is the cause of trouble in politics. Furthermore, authority, in order to be solid, has need not only of material but of moral force. It owes its moral force, in modern states, to the delegation of power by the people. That authority is a delegation of power by the people, is evident to every eye, so long as authority is beneficial in its effects; but authority appears decrepit and an abuse when, by its encroachment, instead of being a cause of order and well-being to the body social, it becomes a danger and a source of suffering. We may conclude that authority produces order only in proportion as it is needed.


—The second proposition of the zealous partisans of authority is partly true and partly false. There are kinds of progress which can be realized only through a central authority clothed with the most ample powers. Of the two motives which determine most of the actions of men, i.e., private and public interest, it is natural that the first should act almost exclusively on the minds of individuals, and the second dominate in the councils of the representatives of the body politic. It is not less natural that individuals should take in only the sphere in which their life moves, and remain strangers or indifferent to whatever has no direct relation to their persons. Even if we, instead of considering individuals, suppose limited corporations of the state, such, for example, as cities, is it not evident that the administration of a city would be concerned only for the interests of its own territory? And is it not evident, on the other hand, that there are national enterprises whose success is more important for the prosperity of each individual city than anything they could do themselves within their own territorial limits? No matter how enlightened local administrators may be, they are like travelers at the bottom of a valley whose horizon is necessarily restricted; but the chiefs of a state, like men stationed on the summit of a mountain, take in a wide sweep of country in their view, and judge points of detail better because they know them both in themselves and in their relations. The superiority of their view arises partly from their position, and partly, perhaps, from an increase of capacity due to the importance of the part they play. Man, like every other created thing, is made up of that which is essential to him, plus the modifications for good or ill which are added to his essential being by external circumstances. The history of every human life is the record of what has been produced in the man by virtue of that centre of action called the will, together with all the circumstances that have excited, developed, modified or paralyzed that will, or which have restrained or increased its effects. Save some too poorly gifted natures, whom chance has placed in high position, and who, in a certain fashion, are sometimes perverted by the disproportion of their faculties to their missions, it may be said that the capacity of men increases with their responsibility and authority.


—And again, on the other hand, liberty has its own power and efficacy which it is impossible to ignore.


—In the first place, liberty is a right. Man has a right to liberty only on condition of being capable of enjoying it. It results from this, that whenever a person does not enjoy the sum even of liberty which he is able to use without injury to the liberty of others, justice is violated in him. This right which is absolute should not be sacrificed to the requirements of progress, even if it could be shown that progress is impossible except through the action of authority; but it must be added that justice is never violated with impunity, and that a force intended by nature to act freely decreases, and produces imperfect effects when it is transformed by social convention, and, from being autonomous, as it should be, becomes dependent and subordinate. It is not the violation of right alone which belittles the man, but baseness of motive as well. A person under command acts from obedience which generally means that he acts through fear, the independent man is inspired by hope. Which is the more powerful of these motives is doubtful to no one. The man governed by others never moves except from some impulse from without; from which it follows that he neither anticipates the impulse, nor goes beyond the point to which it carries him, and that his power is quiescent whenever it is not called into requisition. The free man seeks action as water does its level; for the tendency to repose would be in him a weakness, and, if chronic, a disease. Not only does he execute better, but he seeks and he finds. Material and intellectual force developed by constant exercise, and the habit of relying on himself, make of him an incomparably superior agent in the rare cases when he needs to subordinate his action to the commands of authority. Two equal forces being given and composed of an equal number of forces, the collective force which is directed by a single will produces the more powerful effect; but the collective force of a people composed of forces which are always directed and obedient, is considerably inferior to what the collective force of the same people would be, if the simple forces composing it were developed under the influence of the strengthening breath of liberty. Now the true wealth of nations is the increase of force and the increase of action. Let us admit that unity is absolutely indispensable to certain deeds, but, in this very case, the forces united to form a collective force, are more powerful in proportion as they have been previously accustomed to liberty. Authority and liberty are consequently both parents of progress. Progress can dispense with neither; but still it is liberty which has the higher place.


—The third proposition, that liberty is disinterested when authority has a popular origin and popular agents, or more simply when it is always exercised according to the wishes of the majority, is a sophism. If the cause of liberty could ever be lost, it would be by reason of this sophism that it would perish. The government of the majority thus understood is the government of number, that is, the substitution of might for right. It seems indeed, at first sight that popular government and the government of majorities are identical; because in no case can the will of the people be expressed by the minority. It is this idea which makes so many enemies for the dogma of popular sovereignty. The error consists in considering only the rights of majorities, and forgetting those of minorities completely. These two rights are very different but equally sacred and equally necessary to liberty and order. It is self-evident that all the members of a minority have the same rights individually as the members of the majority; and that these rights may be assured, it is necessary, by virtue of the laws themselves, and the formulæ established, to regulate their application, that every citizen should be dependent on the law and the law only. This point settled, it is the right of majorities to make the law, and the right of the minorities to form by means of discussion, a new majority to replace a bad law by a good one. If the rights of the minority are respected, the government of majorities ceases to be one of force for to pretend that the government of majorities is the government of force it would be necessary to maintain that nations are not capable of, and that the human mind was not made for, truth.


—We may thus resume the whole discussion: what is authority without any liberty whatever? It is the absolute immobility of the social fabric, an abnormal belittlement of the collective force of society, and the approval of permanent injustice. What is liberty without any authority whatever? It is the absence of society, a state of war, an hypothesis so absurd that it can not present a precise idea to the mind. In all society, therefore, both liberty and authority are needed. Liberty being the right and the interest of the citizens of whom society is composed, it is the object of society. Authority is only its condition. Liberty exists for its own sake. Authority is established in order that liberty may flourish. Since liberty is less dangerous in proportion as the minds of men are enlightened, liberty must advance and authority retreat as enlightenment becomes more general. Authority, in its relations with liberty, is like a wise tutor who never substitutes himself for the will of his pupil; except when that will is powerless or imbecile, who works unceasingly to render his presence unnecessary, and to retire at the precise moment when the child has grown to be a man. There is not and there can not be a fixed limit between liberty and authority; for the true rôle of authority is gradually to prepare the way for liberty.


—Authority should always be strong, but it should not be extensive save in countries and among people but slightly civilized. The best proof of the civilization of a people is that they are but little governed, and do not suffer from being so governed. This does not mean being feebly governed, for a feeble power is one which can not fulfill its mission.


—Power should not go beyond the limits of its rights, that is, of the necessary; it should also avoid the arbitrary, and always find support in the law.


—It is a fundamental error to suppose that the force of authority consists in its extent. On the contrary, it consists in an exact proportion between its extent and its necessity. It may almost be said that authority is the stronger for having, in the highest degree, the faculty of restricting itself at the proper time. Confined within the limits which the civilization of each epoch assigns it, authority is beneficent and necessary. That it should fulfill its mission without fail is of vital importance both to society and liberty. Liberty itself requires that power be strong, for power is its guarantee and hope. It fears only encroachment and arbitrariness.


—Arbitrariness to which authority too often aspires is as fatal to it as to liberty, and fatal in the same way. Power as soon as it wanders away from the law, no longer represents the will of majorities but its abdication. Arbitrariness is in the body politic what the useless would be in the system of the universe. It is looked upon as the height of authority of which it is but the shadow. Between it and authority there is a contradiction, since it is of the nature of authority to produce order. Arbitrariness is the very essence of disorder. Under the appearances of centralization and absolutism, it is in reality but one of the forms of anarchy. It is to authority what privilege is to right, and in the domain of psychology what the liberty of indifference is to true liberty. Everything should be subordinate to law, even force.


—The following are a few formulæ in which the whole theory of authority may be expressed.


—The conditions of liberty are: 1, the enjoyment of natural rights; 2, the possibility of vindicating the rights of the minority by discussion; 3, the transformation of a majority into a minority whenever the majority on a question have changed views.


—Authority then should be: 1, the guardian of natural rights; 2, the guardian of the rights of discussion; 3, the guardian of the rights of transformation.


—Consequently it is necessary: 1, that it make everything attainable by legal means, by restricting itself within narrower limits as civilization extends; and 2, that it prevent the employment of illegal means. It should therefore be very strong in so far as it exists.


—Conditions of force are: 1, stability; 2, liberty of action within its own sphere; 3, promptness of action; 4, infallibility of action; 5, sure repression, after clear proof before tribunals equally but necessarily independent of opinion and power.


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