Authority! How the #@%$! Does It Work?

This is Fred Hoiberg coaching the Chicago Bulls. Fred Hoiberg completely humiliated me in the two minutes I played against him in junior high basketball. He makes a lot more money that I do now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authority for a number of reasons. I’m the father of a toddler. Donald Trump. I’ve found myself in management. I’ve been reading Andy Sabl’s Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the “History of England”. And I recently reread and was pretty much convinced by this insightful paper by Christopher Morris (my former grad school advisor), which argues that contemporary liberal political theory’s nearly universal uptake of the Weberian notion of state power as fundamentally coercive is really pretty baffling and seems to be based on some sort of confusion about how authority actually works. So how does it work? Please, tell me.

Thomas Christiano’s SEP entry isn’t giving me what I want. It seems to embody the problem that Morris points out. Philosophers are obsessed with the legitimacy of political authority. That’s cool. But it seems like you first need to know how authority works, as general descriptive matter, and then move on to how specifically political authority works as a descriptive matter. Then you can ask about when it’s legitimate, such that the law ought to be regarded as a truly authoritative source of obligation. Though he doesn’t go too far into it, I think Morris is suggesting that political authority works a lot more like authority generally works, and authority often doesn’t work through the threat of sanctions, and rarely works through the threat of coercive sanctions.

Authority mostly works through buy-in, seems to me. Authority is incredibly important to humans because humanity’s ONE GREAT TRICK is learned hyper-social cooperation, but it’s a super-hard problem to solve, which is why we’re the only species that can do it. Complicated collective enterprises can’t possibly work unless everybody’s on the same page. We solve this problem by first coordinating on norms and figures of authority. That’s what keeps complex coordinated collective action from constantly falling apart from the “problem of private reason”–the problem of everybody acting on their own, idiosyncratic ideas about what they ought to be doing at any given moment. If everyone’s marching to the beat of a different drummer, you don’t get a parade and you don’t get music. You get pointless noise.

If the Golden State Warriors’ starting five had never met, but you threw them on a court against pretty much any five random guys, they’ll almost certainly destroy them. But if you throw them on a court against a well-coached Cleveland Cavaliers team, they’ll get absolutely throttled. They won’t be able to coordinate with the level of planning and precision needed to compete. Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue are there (and are lavishly compensated) for a reason and the reason is authority. You may think it’s just that the Warriors need a strategy. It’s true, but it’s not just that. Who decides on the strategy? Who gets everyone on the same page? Who decides when the strategy needs to change? How do you get the sort of tightly-knit, well-oiled (oiled fabric is a thing!) collective compliance that makes strategy effective? Authority. There has to be someone whose judgments are decisive, and whose judgments are treated as decisive. There needs to be someone who occupies a role that obliges them to issue commands and that obliges the members of the collective enterprise to comply with them simply because they were issued. If doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It might be a set of rules or norms, the authority of which we’ve coordinated around in advance, which provide coordinating guidance. Even if they’re strangers, the Warriors’ starting five will do pretty well—probably crush any college team—because they’ve all internalized authoritative norms about basketball strategy. But they’ve internalized those coordinating norms so deeply and well because they’ve all have effectively authoritative coaches for decades. In the possible world in which those five guys had never seen a basketball, their raw, uncoached physical talent would leave them helpless against well-coached high-school team.

Coaches have authority and it works mostly because team member simply agree that they have it. The threat of sanctions reinforces it and shores it up. But it’s really almost totally irrelevant to the question of what their authority is. If a coach benches a player and the player just stays on the court, what can he do? If the referee ejects him, and he sits down at half-court, then what? It never happens because the coaches authority, and the referee’s authority, comes from the fact that everybody involved agrees that they have, which means that they agree that they really are duty-bound to treat their commands as authoritative, which actually does supply generally elicit compliance. If you tells you to do 10 killers in practice, you can just walk out of the gym and not come back. The threat of sanction is effective, and can be enforced, only because you already accept the legitimacy of the coach’s authority.

Philosophers generally draw a sharp line between de facto and legitimate authority, but it can be a confusing distinction because it’s not really a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive or positive and normative. De facto authority is already normative. Normativity is built in at the ground floor. Authority supplies binding reasons for action. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. That’s how it coordinates. So when we’re asking about the legitimacy of authority, we can’t be asking about what gives authority its normative force. If it’s de facto authority, it already has it. So we must be asking for some sort of higher-order moral validation of authority’s reason-giving power. De facto authority does produce obligations, but do we really have reason to really do what authority supplies us with reasons to do.

The problem of political authority, as it’s generally understood, really only arises if you assume that political authority, unlike the authority of basketball coaches, functions through the threat of sanctions, and coercive ones at that. But why think that? Why not think that people grant authority to rules for granting authority (like, “the person with authority on this set of questions is the person a majority of us vote to have authority on these questions”) in the same way they grant authority to coaches. They just sort of agree that it works this way. If the city requires you to get a permit to build, and you don’t get a permit, then they give you a piece of paper that tells you to cut it out, and mostly this is effective in just the same way a coach benching a player is effective. Sometimes people sit down at half court or keep building anyway, and in those cases, its often not actually clear at all what to do because the system isn’t really built around sanctions. The city may send you a fine, and if you keep building, send you more fines, and get a collection agency to collect them, hoping the sanction will elicit compliance with the authoritative command, but it’s actually just sort of confounding when people don’t consider them authoritative. They may put a fence around your property or condemn it or seize it or threaten to put you jail for not paying your fines, and now we’re getting to coercion, but it seems crazy to think that’s what makes the building code authoritative. It’s authoritative because the city council approved it, and we picked and conferred authority on the city council by rules we’ve coordinated around as authoritative.

It just seems to me that pretty much everybody, and not just libertarians (who are super wedded to the idea that political authority is essentially coercive) are fundamentally misdescribing the nature of politics and therefore the problem of political authority.

Anyway, who’s good on WHAT AUTHORITY REALLY IS and HOW IT REALLY WORKS? David Hume! Who else?

[Photo: That’s Fred Hoiberg coaching the Chicago Bulls. Fred Hoiberg completely humiliated me in the two minutes I played against him in junior high basketball. He’s a pretty good coach and makes a lot more money than I ever will.]

  • Swami

    This reminds me of a similar way that people frame property as fundamentally grounded in violence. I have pointed out that this seems to, rather than capture the essence of the thing, to miss what is special about property.

    Dogs and chimps don’t need a shared concept of property. The strong takes from the weak, end of story.

    With humans the very concept of property is a shared understanding of what is off limits. The concept is fruitful for the very reason that it establishes a shared norm of non coercion and non violence.

    Long lead in to an agreement that authority and property share this characteristic. Yes, if someone chooses to attack the shared norm, authority and property have to be defended with coercion. But the reason for existence of legitimate property rights and legitimate authority is to avoid conflict and coercion.

  • Eric Barnhill

    This applies to education. Although I would say this truth is at present unfashionable. Progressive educational philosophy now empasizes each child freely discovering her independent path. There is a lot of merit to a constructivist approach, as buy-in is probably the strongest catalyst for learning. However taken to an extreme, unmoored from a proper group context, this results in atomized classrooms with a lot of kids pursuing learning solo, or maybe in small groups, punctuated by individualized teacher guidance.

    My view on how to teach was more like what you state here. My goal in every class was to get the kids to buy in (implicitly let’s say) to the notion that if they follow me and we act together, we will each of us get farther than if we were separate. In my experience group learning (as in 15+ kids), done right, is by far the most effective form of learning. The students learn from each other and the teacher equally, and learn much more, much faster. Teachers circulating the room to coach each kid on her independent path is in my experience much less effective but currently more fashionable.

    However the “done right” comes down entirely to how authority is handled. This is why I find a Suzuki approach lacking. There group learning is heavily emphasized, however the children are handled passively, expected to repeat and imitate. That does suit some. But it is much weaker than, say, a Dalcroze environment in which children are asked to create and improvise in the group context, creating a sense of self-ownership and by extension buy-in.

    I haven’t peeked in on your blog in well over five years and hope you are well.