All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1981

Freedom and Authority, A delicate Balance

Mr. Gow is a freelance writer in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

In his book Power, Adolph Berle discussed what he believed are five laws of power: (1) Power inevitably fills any vacuum in human organization, (2) Power is invariably personal, (3) Power is invariably based on a system of ideas or philosophy, (4) Power is exercised through, and depends upon, institutions, (5) Power is invariably confronted with, and acts in the presence of, a field of responsibility.

Power, in other words, is the capability of accomplishing something. It means control over others. It can mean, but does not necessarily imply, the legal ability to do or accomplish something.

Authority, on the other hand, involves the moral right (and sometimes, too the legal right) to settle issues or disputes. It means the right to control, command or determine. Authority is natural: that is, it emanates from the intense demands of man’s nature. Human beings require and desire authority, even as they desire and demand friendship, love and family. Any human group, organization or institution demands authority. A family needs parents to lead it and set guidelines. A baseball team requires coaches, a manager, a general manager and an owner. A police or fire department requires a chief who will make and enforce the rules for the department. A church group needs leaders who will help decide and enforce church policies. Everyday experience, then, reveals man’s need for authority.

But something tragic happened during the past decade: A total war on authority erupted. What resulted was an inordinate emphasis on “freedom,” and the wrong sort of freedom at that. As Russell Kirk and other scholars have observed, the consequence of the total war on authority was freedom without order, freedom without discipline or restraint, freedom without authority. Certainly, though, any tolerable social order demands a delicate balance between freedom and authority, for authority helps to teach man self-control and keeps human beings from committing mayhem against their neighbors.

A harmful breakdown of authority in one area of life almost inevitably leads to the erosion of authority in other areas as well. For example, we witness in our society today a virulent and officious assault on authority in the family and in schools—elementary through university.

Restoring Authority

What steps should we take to achieve the restoration of reasonable authority (not blind force or coercion) in our society? One way that authority can and will be restored in society is when those who have (or should have) authority begin to exercise it in their appropriate spheres of responsibility. Thus, authority in the family can be restored when parents fight to regain their right to educate their children. Teachers can help to restore authority by exercising their right to discipline unruly and discourteous students, who are infringing upon the right of other students to learn.

The state too can help to restore authority in society by guaranteeing the authority of other institutions—for example, families, schools and churches—by exercising authority in its own proper sphere, and by not usurping the authority of other bodies. It can serve to promote authority in society by guaranteeing that God-given rights are protected, and by enforcing laws justly.

  • Mr. Gow is a freelance writer and English teacher who lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois.