January 14, 2011


Affirming Authority: a review of Victor Lee Austin's Up With Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings. (R.R. Reno, 1/13/11, First Things)

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

Simon had a technical way of describing this function of authority, which has the effect of liberating those who submit to it. A concentration of responsibility into various offices or positions (such as conductors) allows us to formally intend the common good while we materially intend a more particular good. The authority of the conductor allows me to say, “I’m going to play as well as I can so that the Beethoven symphony is ravishingly beautiful,” while in point of fact I’m concentrating on my own part, not the symphony as a whole.

We often discount the way in which authority and hierarchy contribute to our freedom to pursue the particular goods that we care about (and that give society texture and interest). In a democracy I have a duty during election season to cast an informed vote. But if I accept the legitimate authority of Congress, then after I vote I can largely concentrate on raising my family or doing my job well. I need not pore over the details of the Federal budget.

In this way, Simon’s analysis helps us see that the important Catholic principle of subsidiarity depends upon authority. Local goods can properly occupy my attention, because the society-wide common good is being looked after by those who are in positions of authority. When that’s not the case, our basic duty to serve the common good becomes imperial, and we’re no longer free to follow our more personal and private projects.

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 14, 2011 5:49 AM
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