Why David Brooks Is Right About Authority

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A free society needs rules -- and therefore rule enforcers -- to safeguard common resources and provide stability.

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The role of authority in a free society does not seem to be a valid topic for discussion nowadays. Perhaps that's why David Brooks's recent column -- criticizing a general "attitude of opposing authority" -- has elicited a firestorm of negative commentary. Commenters jumped all over Brooks for advocating "banal authoritarianism," and offered their own philosophical allegiance to the principle that freedom is defined by protection against authority. As one reader put it, "[C]elebrating ... individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing."

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Let's go to first principles. Freedom cannot exist without functioning authority -- to enforce contracts, safeguard common resources, and provide stability and predictability in social interaction. The need for authority in a free society is not a philosophical preference but a practical necessity. A crowded society requires common choices. Without a traffic cop saying go or stay, society descends into gridlock.

The paralysis of modern American government has several causes, but the most insidious is the breakdown of authority up and down the chain of public responsibility. In the name of law, we have created a structure in which humans can no longer make sense of daily choices. A few examples:

  • Teachers need authority to maintain order in the classroom -- otherwise disruption deprives students of their freedom to learn. The "rights revolution" had an unintended effect of corroding teacher authority, with predictable results. NYU Professor Richard Arum, studying changes in public school discipline since the 1960's, found that the decline of moral authority in schools now "threaten[s] public school organization survival" in many states and local settings.
  • Judges need authority to keep claims and defenses reasonable. Otherwise, justice becomes a weapon of extortion, and so expensive and time-consuming that it is unavailable to all except the rich. The ability of any angry person to make a legal claim in any amount against another free person -- because judges have lost the authority to act as gatekeepers, keeping claims reasonable -- has infected society with a debilitating legal fear. The loss of judicial authority translates directly into a loss of freedom in daily choices -- teachers won't put an arm around a crying child; doctors practice "defensive medicine," ordering 50 percent more caesarian sections than is medically indicated; and employers are trained never to be candid in employee evaluations.
  • Government officials need authority to approve public projects after a reasonable review. President Obama's stimulus program, targeting needed infrastructure projects, went nowhere, because, as he learned, "there's no such thing as shovel-ready projects." Environmental review has mutated into a decade-long process of no-pebble-left-unturned, and no one -- not even the president -- has the authority to say "go."
  • Officials need authority to respond to emergencies that threaten public safety in their own towns. This past winter, a tree fell into a creek in Franklin Township, New Jersey, causing flooding. But the town couldn't send in a tractor to pull it out, because it was a "Class C-1 creek," whatever that means, and any action required formal approvals through a legal process. Twelve days and $25,000 later, the town official was allowed to do what was obvious.

A free society has a formal structure: Law sets boundaries of what's required or prohibited, defining an open field of free choice. Those boundaries are not automatic but are maintained by people -- judges, officials, teachers, police -- who have responsibility to safeguard legal goals and provide common services. If they lack the authority to fulfill their responsibilities, we all lose our freedom. This doesn't mean they have carte blanche -- important public choices need checks and balances. But if public employees aren't free to act on their best judgment, then, pretty soon, neither are we.

The critics of David Brooks's column were especially contemptuous of his conclusion that one reason authority had broken down is that Americans were unwilling to be followers: "To have good leaders you have to have good followers." The notion of being a "follower" struck commenters as servile, even "creepy," and inconsistent with American individualism. But "the only definition of a leader," management expert Peter Drucker observed, "is someone who has followers."

Baying to the moon of American individualism won't get us out of the mess we're in. America needs to make new choices. This, in turn, requires giving leaders the authority to make these choices. America is, indeed, suffering a crisis of authority. The main flaw, as Brooks suggests, is that Americans aren't willing to accept authority. The chorus of his critics only confirms the truth of his observation. 

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

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