The Philosophy of Authority

By tzo.
Exclusive to STR
“Authority” is one of those words that is commonly used but less commonly understood. It may be claimed that a person has the authority to decide what to do with his own life and property, and it may also be claimed that a police officer has the authority to arrest a person who has broken the law. How does the concept of authority properly apply to these claims?
To possess authority is to possess a power: An authority may justly decide how a possession or a person is to be treated. An authority has power over all possessions and persons that are subject to his authority. But just how does an individual acquire such a power?
I contend that here is where the common understanding of authority goes astray: By not considering how the power of authority originates, it is easy to misidentify thuggery as authority. And there is a critical difference between the two.
Please note that I used the word “justly” in my definition of authority. An authority has the moral and ethical right to exercise power over whatever or whoever is subject to his power. Thuggery, on the other hand, is the exercise of power over persons and property by force. Stealing a person’s money at gunpoint, an example of thuggery, is unjust, immoral, and unethical.
I don’t think I am stating anything too controversial here so far.
So, then, the big question is this: How does an individual acquire authority? Again, keep in mind that authority is equated with justice, and is a good thing. From whence springs forth this font of just power?
Innate Authority
The original source of authority lies within each individual. Consider the phrase “All men are created equal.” What do these words mean, and how do they help us understand the concept of authority?
If all men are created equal, then no individual is innately subject to another. Everyone owns and controls his own person and therefore does not own and/or control any other. We can conclude from this that every individual has the innate power of authority over his own person, and that no individual has the innate power of authority over any other individual.
This is a very simple concept, and it explains very neatly why slavery, for example, is thuggery. The slavemaster assumes authority over another individual against that individual’s will. He may claim natural authority because of his race, nationality, or religion, but the claim is false. His actions are unjust, immoral, and unethical. His modus operandi is aggression. He is not an authority, but rather a thug.
Aggression is the initiation of—or the threat to use—force in order to infringe upon, steal, damage, or destroy the person or property of an individual, assuming that individual is not aggressing or has not aggressed against anyone else. Aggression is the main tool of the thug’s trade.
Aggression against individuals who have not aggressed against anyone is always unethical. If you disagree, please cite examples to support your claim.
If I were to stop you on the sidewalk and demand to see your identification, you would no doubt (and justifiably so) tell me to take a hike. Why? Because you don’t recognize my authority to command you? Exactly.
Would it be unjust, immoral and unethical of me to point a gun at you and force you to show me your identification? The question answers itself.
So how does a police officer, for example, have the authority to command me to do something (assuming I haven’t aggressed against anyone) if I do not grant him any authority? He doesn’t. Period. What he has is overwhelming force. Without my consent, any action he forces me to perform under threat of violence is unethical. See the previous paragraph if this seems confusing.
But society has given police officers the authority to enforce the laws of the land, you may counter. But all you would be saying is that if you collect up enough individuals, then each individual within that group enjoys more rights than any one individual outside the group. That idea cannot be reconciled with “All men are created equal,” since it is equivalent to the statement “Some men are created more equal than others.”
Well, comes out the inevitable trump card—usually slapped down on the table with great pride and satisfaction, as it is no doubt a brilliant and clever rejoinder to any individual sovereignty argument—it sounds like you do not want to belong to the society that we have set up here, and that’s fine. Nobody is forcing you to be a part of it. If you don’t like the rules here, then you are free to leave.
Property Rights and Delegated Authority
The core of this “Love It Or Leave It” argument is property rights. The assertion is that the United States government is the property owner of all the land within its borders, and it has the right to decide what the rules are on its own property. If a person wishes to stand upon government property, then he must follow the rules or else he is committing aggression against the government, and the government then has the right to defend itself against the aggressor.
The government, this assertion claims, is like a homeowner who has the natural right to exert authority over his own private property. If someone were to break into your house, you should certainly feel that you have the authority to protect your property, even if the intruder does not recognize the authority you claim. The fact that you are standing on your own property gives you the authority that flows from your natural rights to defend yourself, and by extension your property, against aggression.
And so, the theory goes, the government has delegated authority to the police officer, assigning him to protect the government property by enforcing the property owner’s rules. You are invited to stay if you obey the rules and if not, you are a trespasser and the security force of the property owner will use its delegated authority and power to defend the property owner’s land.
Consider the case of an individual who kills the occupants of a house and takes it as his own. What authority does he possess in attempting to hold on to his stolen goods if someone else tries to appropriate them? Does he have a natural right to take whatever he wants by force, and does this give him the just authority to use force to stop anyone else from taking it?
No. By stealing the house, he is the aggressor. He has no rights or authority concerning the stolen house. None whatsoever.
How does one acquire property? By killing whoever is in possession of something and taking it for onesself? Yes, that could work, but would it be ethical? Would it be just? Again, I certainly hope the question answers itself.
The mafioso who claims you owe him protection money because your business is located on “his” turf has no authority over you if you choose not to give it to him. What he may have is a small army backing him up, and perhaps the wise thing to do is pay up, but are you willing to concede that he has a legitimate claim to authority over you? His claim to his turf was won through aggression and is held by aggression. He is a thug. That is all.
How did the United States government acquire the 3.8 million square miles of land it now holds? Was there someone else occupying the land before the United States government came into possession? Was the land transferred in a just and ethical manner? Does anyone remember anything about Native Americans in their history classes? About how there were millions who lived within the borders of what is now called the United States? Where did all those people go?
Thugs broke into their houses, killed them, and took their property. Mafiosos claimed their land to be part of their mafia’s “turf.”
And no, this is not meant to be a guilt trip. No, we can’t do much for those who were treated unjustly over a century ago. But the passage of time does not exonerate the criminal from his previous actions. All of the authority—the just power—that is claimed by the United States government is based upon a claim to property rights on land acquired through thuggery. This renders the claim to authority false for any individual who chooses not to recognize it.
And there you have it.
Delegated authority is always a voluntary proposition, and it can be withdrawn at any time. It is a privilege bestowed—an extension of a natural right from one individual to another. Assumed authority is thuggery.
So whenever you hear “Love It Or leave It,” or some variation thereof, what is really being said is this [sfx: a dangerous Marlon Brando voice] “Love It Or We’ll Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse.”
I would urge all here to just please, give up the gangsta life.
Respect authority. Reject thuggery. Know the difference.

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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


Suverans2's picture

"Authority" is a fascinating subject, tzo, and, in my opinion, you handled it quite well. Most individuals, even many dictionaries, ignorantly treat “power” and “authority” as though they are synonymous, which of course they definitely are not.

power c.1300, from Anglo-Fr. pouair, O.Fr. povoir, noun use of the infinitive in O.Fr., "to be able". (source:

Authority. Permission. Right to exercise powers; to implement and enforce laws; to exact obedience; to command; to judge. Control over; jurisdiction. Often [but not always] synonymous with power. The power delegated by a principal to his agent. The lawful delegation of power by one person to another. Power of agent to affect legal relations of principal by acts done in accordance with principal’s manifestations of consent to agent. ~ Black’s Law Dictionary, Abridged Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 89 [Emphasis and bracketed information added]

(Question, can you "lawfully delegate" a power you, yourself, do not rightfully possess? tzo gave the proper answer to this question in his treatise.)

"Power" is simply the ability to do a thing, "authority" is the "Permission", from the author, to do it, i.e. "...deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".

Two more things that might have strengthened your treatise, (1) the word "author" comes from the French word autor, which means "father", and, (2) -ity is a suffix forming abstract nouns from adjectives, meaning "condition or quality of being ______", in this instance the “condition or quality of being father”. Did parens patriae come to anyone's mind with that knowledge?

This all has to do with the fundamental truth, “What one creates, one controls.” (To be more precise, "What one creates, one has the lawful right to control". And for those of you who don't believe in rights, because you can't pick them up and bounce them like a rubber ball, please ignore this.)

So, can someone tell us what the the “government” has created? First hint: What has DONALD DUCK, (a fictitious entity, for those who didn't know), created? Second hint: “Kind after kind”, fictions can only create more fictions.

This, my friends, is getting to the “root” of the matter. “The honour of kings [sovereigns] is to search out a matter.” ;)

Suverans2's picture

"States are more vulnerable than people think. They can collapse in an instant -- when consent is withdrawn. This is the thesis of this thrilling book."

The Politics of Obedience, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Étienne de La Boétie

jd-in-georgia's picture

The head of the nail has been hit. This article brings to mind another article I read in STR a while back found here:

Andy Griffith and Civil Society

B.R. Merrick's picture

"No, we can’t do much for those who were treated unjustly over a century ago." I agree, but it appears to me, from reading what is available on Wikipedia:

concerning the vastly confusing, multitudinous rules established by the state, that natives may live on the reservations, but as the reservations are enforced by law, they cannot be said to truly own the land. Since no one can buy it, no one can assign a value to it. Therefore, the "tenants" have land of no value, which is the death of wealth. All this, thanks to a government that killed many of their ancestors, and then spent the remaining decades lying to everyone about what they'd done, in textbook after textbook.

One thing that could be done is to walk away from systems of coercion, even those meant to "protect" others, and let those who live on the land own it outright. They will find, all of a sudden, that their land has tremendous value.

golefevre's picture

There is an old expression in Yiddish that essentially translates to, "You can't win." Nothing is worse than a thug who has gone "respectable" by going into public service. We have a litany of laws and very little justice.

Paul's picture

Excellent article, although I might point out that "love it or leave it" is not necessarily a bad idea:

A couple of comments though.

Indian tribes, while not having strongly-developed individual property rights did recognize collective property rights, for example the control of hunting grounds by a tribe via superior force. One example might be the contesting of Crow hunting lands by invading Sioux and Cheyenne (who were in turn pressured by "white" Americans); Crow scouts worked with Custer around the time he was killed, because of this invasion. So their lands were not held statically; they could only hold that which they could protect by force, and what they did own was originally taken by force. Thus the takeover of their lands by "whites" was not actually any different than what they were already operating under; the real difference was that they did not have the numbers or technology to successfully defend their land.

Also, it was not entirely a case of the US government invading and taking their lands. It very often was civilians doing the invading, and the government played the role of support in that endeavor. Problem is of course, that our own ownership of that land is not any more valid than the government's, since it derives over the years from originally stolen land.

Well, our title to land is not based on an ethical foundation, but that's no excuse for not starting to work that way. Reparations may be addressed in various ways; Walter Block has addressed this point.

I prefer to think that you don't really own any property that you cannot defend against theft, the defense being either direct do-it-yourself style, or something delegated to an institution you voluntarily subscribe to (e.g. vigilance committees, or something similar such as Molyneux' DROs). The problem with any kind of government "protecting" your property "right" is that you don't voluntarily subscribe to them, and they steal more property over the years than they protect.

Suverans2's picture

Main Entry: prop·er·ty
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English proprete, from Anglo-French propreté, from Latin proprietat-, proprietas, from proprius own
Date: 14th century
2 a : something owned or possessed

If you don't "own it", you merely "possess it", which, (if I have my facts straight), is what the American Indians believed.

It seems to me that if "you don't really own any property", then there can be no such thing as "theft". Correct me if I am mistaken.

Paul's picture

I did not say "you don't really own any property", I said "you don't really own any property that you cannot defend against theft."

What I'm saying is that it's meaningless to talk about owning something if you cannot hold it. Theft of course just means taking something from someone who does not relinquish it willingly. If you can hold it, that is if any theft attempt is unsuccessful, you own it. If you can't hold it, if a theft attempt is successful, then you don't own it, not in any meaningful way. Might as well give up any ownership fantasies in that case.

Guy steals your car and takes it to a chop shop? You no longer own it. Government steals your house through eminent domain? You no longer own it.

Suverans2's picture

"Might makes right[1]" is what you are describing. Is that really what you believe?

"Theft of course just means taking something from someone who does not relinquish it willingly." ~ Paul

Not, "of course", Paul, because that is not what theft means. For example, it is not theft for me to take back, from some thieving bastard, something that I have a "right" to, i.e. "just claim" to, even if he refuses to "relinquish it willingly" --- not even in your world, Paul, where, apparently, "might makes right".

No, Paul, theft is taking property that another individual, or group of individuals, owns, i.e. has a "just claim" or "right" to, without his, or their, voluntary consent.

And each of us has a natural "right" to his life, liberty and justly acquired property. End of ******* story!

[1] RIGHT, n. Just claim; legal title; ownership; the legal power of exclusive possession and enjoyment.

Paul's picture

There's that religion, popping out again. Nothing like circular definitions to get a person running in circles.

If I take something back that was stolen from me, I don't care at all if my "victim" claims it was a theft. What matters is whether I can hold it.

Call it "might makes right" if you want. If you, all by yourself, or in voluntary association with others, can prevent theft of your stuff, what's the problem? If might *at base* doesn't guarantee your retaining it, then what does? Begging the state? Or are you saying, "Right makes right"? Ah, the wonders of circular reasoning.

Don't worry, Anarchyville won't descend into chaos. There's this little meme that sits in almost everyone's head: "people shouldn't steal". If someone does steal, he won't be able to hang onto it because the whole community will be against him. "Rights" are superfluous to this picture (and any other picture).

B.R. Merrick's picture

Good on ya, Paul.

Suverans2's picture

Paul spews all that unconnected gibberish and you say, "Good on ya, Paul"? Come on, admit it, you're just applauding the fact that he attacked me. LOL

tzo's picture

Rights do not exist in the same way that the number 2 does not exist. Both are constructs of the human mind, arrived at through human reasoning in an attempt to describe the world around him. Both are abstractions and both are very useful.

That little meme in people's heads that says what is right and what is wrong is part of what keeps the human race going. Claiming the word "rights" is too abstract a term to apply to things that we all know are "right" doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to me.

You have the right to life (meme = don't kill people)

You have the right to your property (meme = don't take people's stuff)

You have the right to defend yourself and your property (meme = use force to stop people who don't respect the previous two points)

Pretty simple set of rules. Not being able to defend yourself or your property does not make rights vanish, just like mathematical illiterates do not invalidate the existence of the number 2.

tzo's picture

If I cannot obtain food, then hunger does not exist.

Suverans2's picture

Well, yeah-h-h-h, and if anyone doesn't believe it, I believe I can direct you to a "person", or two, you may be able to get confirmation from. ROFLMA [rolling on the floor laughing my ass off]. We have to keep our sense of humor, tzo.

Suverans2's picture

Moved it to "reply".

Suverans2's picture

Or, at least, I thought I did. LOL Not sure why, but "Reply" doesn't put it where it belongs.

Suverans2's picture

"There's that religion, popping out again. Nothing like circular definitions to get a person running in circles." ~ Paul

What "religion"? What "circular definitions"? If you think that defining "right" as "just claim" is "circular definitions", you've been "running in circles" long before you met my writings.

"If you, all by yourself, or in voluntary association with others, can prevent theft of your stuff, what's the problem?" ~ Paul

Was this supposed to be a reply to something I wrote? That would be a completely irrational extrapolation, i.e. you are "running in circles".

"Call it "might makes right" if you want." ~ Paul

Um-m-m, okay, what you described is "might makes right", plain and simple. Sorry to break it to you, Paul, but I'm reasonably sure that almost everyone else here can see that...well, with perhaps one exception.

"If might *at base* doesn't guarantee your retaining it, then what does? Begging the state? Or are you saying, "Right makes right"? Ah, the wonders of circular reasoning." ~ Paul

*at base*?? Are you "free basing", Paul, or on some kind of medication, (because that might help to explain your completely irrational conjectures)?

"There's this little meme that sits in almost everyone's head: "people shouldn't steal". ~ Paul

That's a prime example of an oxymoron, I believe; if it was a "meme", i.e. "cultural", Paul, it wouldn't sit in "ALMOST EVERYONE'S HEAD". From your criticism of this "meme"[sic] may we conclude that you believe that it's okay to steal, i.e. to take things that one has no "right" to, (that means things that one does not have a "just claim" to, Paul)?

"Don't worry, Anarchyville won't descend into chaos." ~ Paul

There is no such place as Anarchyville, Paul, it's only the drugs that make you feel this way. ROFLMAO

"If someone does steal, he won't be able to hang onto it because the whole community will be against him." ~ Paul

Well, yeah, Paul, except for a few exceptional assholes who think that if the thief can hold on to it, he has a "right" to keep it, (that means a "just claim" on it, Paul). The reason the rest of the community will be against him is because they know the thief does not have a "right" to it, Paul, (that means a "just claim" on it, Paul). There can be no such thing as stealing if no one has a "right", (that means a "just claim", Paul), to their rightfully acquired property. Hope that's not to "circular" for you, Paul.

"Rights" are superfluous to this picture (and any other picture). ~ Paul

Yes, of course, Paul, having a just "just claim" on a thing is "superfluous", it serves no "useful purpose", Paul. We understand.

Paul's picture

"From your criticism of this "meme"[sic] may we conclude that you believe that it's okay to steal"

Where the heck did you get that? You need to work on your reading comprehension.

I said they have that meme, and implied that is a good thing. And that's why Anarchyville will work. But it is the "might" you don't like that causes it to work. There will be consequences to stealing, both from the intended victim (he might shoot the thief) and from the rest of the people in society (who will help prevent the theft and recover the stolen goods if necessary). That's might.

Again, if you don't think might prevents theft, tell me what does. Please, please don't say your right to property. Tell me what keeps a prospective thief in Anarchyville, who doesn't give a rat's ass about your rights, from taking your stuff.

My criticism of "rights" is as always, that they are superfluous. If most everyone thinks, "People shouldn't steal", why do we need to posit some "right" to property? What does it add to the picture? People simply don't think this way. They don't think, "People have property rights, therefore people shouldn't steal." They just think, "People shouldn't steal."

Besides the superfluous nature of "rights", they have a much more serious problem of being used by the state to further their ends.

But I've already gone over this. Beating a dead horse...

Suverans2's picture

I apologize for misunderstanding your point about "meme", Paul, but hopefully my point that "people shouldn't steal" is more than just a "meme", which means a "cultural" thing, because it crosses cultural lines, [making it an integral part of the "natural law"], was not lost on you.

Natural law. ...a system of rules and principles for the guidance of human conduct which, independently of enacted law or of the systems peculiar to any one people, might be discovered by the rational intelligence of man, and would be found to grow out of and conform to his nature, meaning by that word his whole mental, moral, and physical condition. ... ~ Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 1026

Speaking of "reading comprehension" skills, "There can be no such thing as stealing if no one has a "right", (that means a "just claim", Paul), to their rightfully acquired property."

Ayn hit the nail square on the head, it is precisely because we have a natural right, i.e. a "just claim", to our life, liberty and justly acquired property, and no one else's, that we are able to rationally determine what is "right" (moral) and what is "wrong" (immoral).

"Without a moral code no proper human society is possible. Without the recognition of individual rights no moral code is possible." ~ Ayn Rand

So, you see, Paul, you also hit the nail on the head when you wrote, "Right is right", because "it is what it is"; it is the "right", i.e. "just claim" to a thing that determines whether or not it is "right", or "wrong", for you to have and defend that thing.

Hope this helps you resurrect your dead horse. ;)