Authority or Autonomy

“There is only one political sin: independence; and only one political virtue: obedience. To put it differently, there is only one offense against authority: self-control; and only one obeisance to it: submission to control by authority. […​] Autonomy is the death knell of authority, and authority knows it: hence the ceaseless warfare of authority against the exercise, both real and symbolic, of autonomy”
— Thomas S. Szasz
The Control of Conduct
“Whether I am in the right or not there is no judge but myself. Others can judge only whether they endorse my right, and whether it exists as right for them too.”
— Max Stirner
The Ego and Its Own
“Our society seems no longer able to understand that it is possible to exist otherwise than under the reign of Law, elaborated by a representative government and administered by a handful of rulers”
— Peter Kropotkin
Law and Authority
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. […​] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
— Henry Thoreau
Civil Disobedience

Each of us can live our lives according to one of two competing rules of conduct: our own or somebody else’s. Self-rule or subjection. Autonomy or authority. Of course they are not unrelated: we are not born with our ideas of moral right, we develop them by reasoning about our experiences and considering what others consider to be right. But there may come a point where what you believe is right is in irreconcilable conflict with what I believe is right. Who’s rule will you follow?

A criminal is a person who gains ownership over another person or their valuables by forcefully exerting his will, his code of conduct, over them. Early in the evolution of human societies, criminals discovered a clever and useful innovation: law. Through law the coercive will was often accepted not only by threat of force but even as legitimate in the minds of its very victims. Law is a synthetic morality which — by convincing its subjects to accept only one meta-legal precept: that law is always right — can otherwise entirely replace the true morality of individuals.

In describing the rise of property in the pastoral phase of society, Adam Smith noted the purpose of legal institutions thusly: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” (Wealth of Nations, V.1.b)

Of course law as the morality of the despot imposed on his subjects is not accepted by the citizens of liberal states today. No, we will only surrender our individual morality to a fair law, an impartial law, the rule of law. The policeman, unlike the common criminal or warlord, does not impose his will over his victims, but the collective will, the law, and is so justified in whatever the People’s representatives deem worthy of legislation. A hundred years ago Anatole France gave perhaps the most succinct distinction between despotic rule and the rule of law: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” (The Red Lily, Chapter VII)

Those who defend the authoritarian rule of law and the top-down organization of society, although they may be conscious of its opposition to individual morality, often do so not because they think it is good but because it is a necessary evil. Pointing to examples of crime, chaos, marauding bands of murderers and rapists in less fortunate and more lawless regions of the planet, they run their utilitarian calculations and conclude that law is better than its alternatives. Fear of the most authoritarian acts one human can subject another to — rape, torture, murder — are thus also made the justifications of authority.

Of course living in a democratic (if ultimately authoritarian) society is a huge improvement over chaos, plunder, death, and destruction. And so we cling to law out of fear. Over the generations, the valid dichotomy ‘authority or autonomy’ has been subtly replaced in the minds of many with the invalid ‘law or crime’. As if the only alternative to physical homicide is spiritual suicide. Any criticism of the necessity of Law is inevitably seen as an attack on peace and order, despite the overwhelming body of law today having nothing to do with protecting against violence. As Kropotkin noted a century ago, “the protection of exploitation directly by laws on property, and indirectly by the maintenance of the State is both the spirit and the substance of our modern codes, and the one function of our costly legislative machinery.” (“Law and Authority”)

Doing away with law would still leave us at our original dilemma: how to resolve conflicts. Doing away with law as the order of society does not solve ethics, does not brighten the demarcation between aggression and defense, does not provide protection against the passions or perversions of our neighbors, and does not end all suffering or reveal the meaning of life.

But authority solves the first problem simply by denying individual reason and morality, and the rest only poorly if at all. As Kropotkin also argued, a sunny day and happy economic conditions contribute more to the reduction of crime than all the thousands of pages of statutes ever written. Mindless obedience to law does little other than upholding property rights which have made for the sovereign and owner their own private anarchy at the expense of everybody else.

Living in mutual relations with my neighbors does not require law but thought, love, and autonomy. I don’t need a policeman to tell me not to commit assault or theft, and likely neither do you. Or if you do, then you will be careful not to speak to any policemen in the first place. Bakunin said it: “Freedom, morality, and the human dignity of the individual consists precisely in this; that he does good not because he is forced to do so, but because he freely conceives it, wants it, and loves it.” (“Man, Society, and Freedom”)

Just as an authoritarian society depends on one moral precept (“law is right”), a moral society depends on only one legal precept: there must be no Law!


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