American Authoritarianism and the death of Liberty (Confessions of a somewhat reformed Authoritarian).
Note: The reasonable assumption would be I wrote this recently. In fact, I wrote it early in 2016 while attending the Command and General Staff College and contemplating life (as amateur philosophers are want to do). What follows is a copy-paste out of my Google Drive and some minor edits.
There are two very distinct sides to the political spectrum in America today, but they are not what people generally consider them to be. A brief perusal of print, online and televised media clearly highlights the struggle between the republicans and the democrats. This battle for control of the American government sees each of those parties attempting to carve out a unique identity, a brand image, that they can sell the American people. It makes for quite a show and it is easy to understand how we, the American people, lost sight of the bigger picture while engrossed in some truly spectacular political theater. Today’s reality is that both the republicans and the democrats are authoritarian — they exist on the same side of the political spectrum. They are not arguing about sweeping ideological differences — they both believe they know what’s best for America and that Americans just need to do as they’re told. The differences are in the details — the trees, not the forest. The real ideological divide in America today is between authoritarians and libertarians (edit: the people, not the party). The real problem in politics today is that the mainstream is now heavily weighted towards the former, so much so that the concept of individual liberty seems extreme and the voice of liberty is often lost in politics.
How did this happen? Simply put, Americans raise authoritarians. The unquestioning homage to authority is perhaps the single greatest act of calculated malfeasance by our institutions of learning (and parents!). It is understandable, though, given that we live in a culture that places an inordinate amount of value on strength and the authority that derives from that strength. In this way we are, very disturbingly, not dissimilar from Arab culture (edit: I say this after spending a good portion of my adult life playing “Team America” in this part of the world — I doubt I need to expand on this, but will upon request). Americans love a strong leader. Americans love a strong organization. It’s as true in politics as it is in everyday life and in sports. In strength, Americans see victory — and Americans love a winner (even if that love is fickle). Americans are quite happy to cast their lot in with, and tie their personal identity to, strong leaders. There is hardly a concept more antithetical to the idea of individual liberty than the giddy, zealous follower-ship of Americans. Historically, what acted as a counter to that was the glorification of the rebel, the entrepreneur, the person who made their own rules, acted as their own authority. That part of the American spirit still exists, but its form and function no longer seem sufficient to what the republic demands.
I grew up as an Authoritarian without even realizing it…as most probably do not. There are two basic strains of Authoritarian. There is the “moral high ground” strain that believes people should be held to a set of rigorous standards for their personal conduct (and punished if they fail) while building self sufficiency. The second strain is the “one big family” variety wherein all persons are considered part of one, unified collective and authority must act for the greater good of all (and punish those that do not). It’s not hard to see which political party has internalized which particular strain of authoritarianism. The commonality is that both strains believe they have THE answer to how governance should be conducted and how people should act, opposition should be eliminated, and force employed to ensure compliance with their world view. Naturally, both strains can blend together into a sort of super strain. If you knew me as a kid (a boy scout, a Catholic) it’s no surprise that my particular brand was “moral high ground.” I was pretty sure I knew what was right and what was wrong and that people should be made to do what’s right if unwilling to do it of their own volition. How exactly did that happen, and what changed?
I was blessed with lots of respectable authority when I was growing up. I have outstanding parents. I had a number of outstanding teachers. Bastiat is credited with saying “The safest way to make laws respected is to make laws respectable.” The same is certainly true of the authority behind/enforcing the law. When you grow up surrounded by authority figures that seem to be kind, reasonable, smart, generous and are good role models it is natural to develop respect for authority. When authority figures seem to enact reasonable rules, fair punishments and believably profess to represent your best interest it is natural to develop not just respect, but trust in authority. Everyday, millions of Americans learn to respect and trust authority above their personal, individual choices or desires. It’s easy. We are taught obedience, and rewarded for it, from a young age. We learn that we don’t solve our own problems, we bring our problems to an all powerful authority and they solve our problems the “right” way for us (or give us instructions we must follow). The trouble is, our personal desires don’t go away. Humans, crafty, tool using animals that we are, quickly learn to wield authority as a tool to attain those individual desires that would otherwise be denied us. This is, simply put, long term indoctrination with an extremely comprehensive incentive structure tuned to produce obedient people trained to defer to a higher authority and follow instructions/orders. It can hardly be a surprise that modern politics reflects this aspect of our society and our culture. Rather than strong leaders influencing us to be our best selves, ambitious leaders have sought to harness our base selves as a reliable path to political power…and we have let them.
How did any of that change for me? Honestly, critical thinking is a difficult skill to employ because it must be done consciously. Most people have the tools, the capacity to think critically…but, there is a catch. We need some sort of cue, something to raise our awareness to the point that we see the need to apply those tools. Rational, critical thinking requires a significant and focused mental effort. As Daniel Kahneman observed through his research (expounded upon in Thinking, Fast and Slow) the human mind is naturally wired for efficiency. You might call it lazy, even. We prefer to apply heuristics and patterns (rules?! egad!) to reduce our mental burden. It would be exhausting to approach every aspect of every day as some new challenge to be extensively pondered, and we don’t! I credit my military experience, particularly my first tour in Iraq, as creating that mental cue for me. I arrived to a point where my experience and observations were no longer in accordance with my mental model for “life, the universe and everything.” I had the tools I needed and enough trust and confidence in myself that when confronted with things that just did not fit my heuristics, my understanding of the world, I did what any rational person does — I started thinking about things. That’s what humans do, right? We receive new stimuli and then start thinking about it, trying to understand it — learning. I think that quite a few people never get their cue — they never get that event or sequence of events that says “…it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down?”
What’s the point? Why bother to write all that? People need their cue. Do what you can to be that cue. Encourage critical thinking. Encourage people to question authority. Encourage people to take responsibility for their lives. Encourage people to define the role of government in their lives on their own terms instead of blindly trusting that determination to existing political parties. Start thinking about America’s role in the world and start thinking about whether constantly resorting to force to solve problems at home and abroad is really who we want to be or the best way to attain our desires. Encourage people to participate in the political process. It’s not too late nor so far gone that Americans cannot achieve positive results at the polls. Never forget that America’s greatest strength is actual Americans that work, produce and achieve every day. The hard work, productivity, ingenuity and industry of the American people, despite all its imperfections, is arguably the greatest driving force in history for the last 250 years or so. The essence of America is not found in Washington, D.C. It is not created there, nor is it effectively put to use by the cadre of political insiders and elected officials that reside there. The idea that 535 people can effectively manage the affairs of 300+ million from vastly different backgrounds is a ludicrous one. No army of bureaucrats, no amount of well intended legislation, no collection of executive agencies can change that reality. The allure of authoritarian government persists so long as your voice is the loudest. The appeal of limited government intended to protect individual rights and liberties becomes apparent when it is not.
Note: Well, there it is, as applicable today as when I wrote it. Now if only I knew where to get cool, click bait images to suck people in…