The Authoritarian Impulse
The authoritarian impulse is always with us, and it has been since the dawn of time. It seems it is innate in the human psyche to want to exercise authority over others. In support of this I would offer as evidence…all of human history.
We can see evidence all around us of an authoritarian impulse in the desire of some to control the lives of others. It may be because they want to prevent them from doing things they don’t think should be done, or it may be to force them to do things they think others ought to do. Either way it involves forcing people to adhere to a standard of behavior based upon someone else’s values.
This almost always involves infantilizing others. At its base the argument is made that people do not know what is good for them. It may be that they are not considered competent to decide how much money to accept in exchange for work. Or perhaps, they can’t be trusted to know what are the “right” foods to eat. More menacingly the authoritarian impulse thinks people are too ignorant to decide what information to consume. The point is, that one way or another, people “need” to be made safe from themselves.
The other thing to understand about the authoritarian impulse is that it is always, always, always a violation of someone’s rights. The only kind of force anyone may even think about using in this world is defensive force to protect their life and/or property. That means that the only righteous human activity open to us is cooperative, consensual interactions. To be clear, we hold as Christians that we have many positive obligations to our neighbors, but the above formulation of rights is a thing that we may ask of all, even unbelievers. The authoritarian impulse always blows past these guardrails of our human rights and uses coercive violence and the threat of violence to make people behave in nonconsensual ways.
This desire for control, infantilization of others, and systematic rights violations are inherent in the authoritarian impulse even when these polices are voted upon. A democratic process does not change the dynamic of authoritarianism. Right and wrong are not determined by a show of hands. There are things that ought not to be voted upon and violating people’s nonviolent consensual interactions are chief among those things to be kept out of the voting sphere.
Now whatever else can be said about authoritarians, for the most part you cannot call them lazy. Most are working overtime to interfere with your rights. This is true from the well-intentioned busybody to the hard-core political operative (Donald Trump excluded, of course). These folks are usually so persuaded by the issues that inflame their passion that they work hard to take those choices from you. They are willing, and desirous to take your decisions from you and make those life choices for you.
Now, in the end all of society is a victim of the authoritarian impulse because these policies visit rights violations upon almost everybody, in addition to creating a deadweight loss for the economy. Those that are a part of the ruling class will come out ahead, but it comes a cropper for everyone else.
There are many types of authoritarians in society. There is the well-intentioned busybody who wants everyone’s house to look the way she wants it to. Then there is the hardcore socialist who wants some bureaucracy in charge of everything. There is one group of authoritarians that is often overlooked: parents. Yes, parents. These are some of the worst authoritarian pests on offer in society today. They are authoritarian not only because they want others to live according to their values, but also because they are too damn lazy to engage in active parenting themselves. Yes, they are actively seeking to have authority placed over their children because they cannot get their asses off the coach and away from the binge show du jour to do the job they signed up for.
Parents: Poster Children for Authoritarianism
The two examples that come most readily to mind in establishing parents as wanna be authoritarians are the controversy over school libraries and the use of social media.
There is a group of parents that are so incensed by the presence of some books (almost always of a gay or trans theme) that they want to prevent others from being allowed to read them. They want political entities, school boards and city councils, to force the librarians to remove these books so that no one’s eyes burn out from the sight. The other facet of this is that they do not want to actually do the job of a parent and pay attention to what their kids are reading. God forbid you get involved in your kids life. God forbid you trust that your kid is not going to turn into a serial killer (or worse a serial masturbator) from reading a book with a different point of view. No, you need to assign your role as a parent to someone that does not know you, your kids or your values. It is two obnoxious authoritarian impulses at once; the desire to mandate what others consensually do, and to delegate your role as a parent to a disinterested third party.
The other main area of stealthy parental authoritarianism is regarding the use of social media. Many are up in arms that the young are being mentally manipulated by Facebook, Instagram, and most especially (because of Asian ownership) TikTok. It is almost a fear of a zombie apocalypse, with kids starring as the zombies. In reality it is the “adults” playing the part of the zombies. Again, they could either trust that their kids will make decent decisions, and/or exercise some oversight of their activities in the role as, you know…their parents.
Instead they seek to have the government limit what is available, how long they can stay logged in to social media, and have the content strictly censored. They therefore align themselves with all sorts of neocons, and national conservative, and religious fundamentalist types in seeking to turn control over their kids’ lives to the state. All this because they are too lazy to do the job of a parent.
A Better Response
A far better response, and one much more consistent with the Gospel is to live and let live. Respect other’s nonviolent, consensual choices and leave them alone to live their lives. This does not mean disinterest as a Christian, nor a lack of charitable concern for others. It simply means treating them the way you want to be treated. The Golden Rule is not just for Sundays anymore!
At the same time we should all as adults, step up and seek to do our job as parents. Be involved in your children’s lives. Exercise some oversight as to what they are reading and why. And as they grow, trust them to make good decisions, even if they are decisions different from your own. As people of faith we should recognize children as gifts from God, and respond to that gift by doing the best for them that we possibly can. This, at a minimum, means not outsourcing our parental responsibilities. Asking for help is certainly appropriate, as we all need help sometimes. But that is wholly different from assigning your parental responsibilities to others, especially government agents.
All of this can be facilitated if we reduce governmental power to the level of your local weed control board. Limiting government necessarily means expanding the realm of consensual activity. This will focus us on the responsibilities we have as adults in this world. If there is not a government agency to palm off your adult responsibilities onto, then it is highly likely that people will…God forbid…do it themselves.
Creating as much of a private space as possible will help this along. If we had private schools and not political ones, we could send our children to those schools that more closely reflect our values. Private libraries can also facilitate the process of reducing the authoritarian impulse, and get people to be more intentional about the choices they make for themselves and their families.
There is no perfection available to us this side of eternity. Yet, we can make the world a better place, more consistent with how our Lord would have us live amongst each other if we let other people live the lives they choose, and we step up to actively live the lives God has given us.
Praise Be to God