"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." ~ John Stuart Mill
The Philosophy of Authority
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“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?
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.