We live in an age in which many of the old, top-down authority structures are collapsing before our very eyes. In large measure, the collapse of top-down authority is due to “democratizing” effect of technology, which is having an effect on our politics, on the media, on medicine, even on education.
What is it
Authority can refer to people or institutions that have the political power to make decisions, give orders, and enforce rules. It can also refer to a certain kind of expertise or knowledge that we might defer to. Sometimes we respect authority, and sometimes we resist it or even revolt against it. But where exactly does authority come from, and when, if ever, ought we defer to it? How do we challenge authority? What makes an authority figure authoritarian? And can there be anarchist forms of authority? Josh and Ken authorize a conversation with James Martel from San Francisco State University, author of Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat.
Josh and Ken begin the show by discussing the perceived erosion of top-down authority structures in today’s society. Josh views this as a positive phenomenon, claiming that less hierarchy results in more freedom for individuals. Ken argues that without the clear authority provided by such structures, there can only be confusion and chaos.
The hosts are joined by guest James Martel, political scientist at San Francisco State University and author of Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat. James posits that there are two types of authority: vertical authority, which is top-down and hierarchical, and horizontal authority, which is collective. He believes that we often rely too much on vertical authority to affect change and that anarchy is desirable because it only relies on collective authority which, in turn, can accomplish everything that members of a society might need. Josh and Ken push back on this, naming Brexit as an example where collective action led to an unfavorable outcome and raising the concern that collective action breeds conformity, respectively. James grants that there can be better or worse forms of collective authority but neverthless argues that good implementations of collective action are more desirable than good forms of vertical action.
In the final segment, the philosophers discuss the merits of a mixed form of politics in which the governing body recruits both regular citizens and those with expertise to be involved. James believes that the fact that some have better developed political skills than others merely reflects the lopsided nature of our current political system — something we can and should change such that everyone is equally competent at “doing” politics. He ends with the optimistic sentiment that although engaging in the political process may seem difficult at first, people generally enjoy it after taking part.
- Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:17) → Holly J. McDede explores how authority structures play out in schools. She reflects on her time at the Manhattan Free School (now known as the Agile Learning Center), which attempted to create an environment in which students had authority over their own education.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 45:46) → Ian Shoales takes a look at what our current presidential administration reveals about the relationships between authority, secrecy, and truth.