The Authoritarian Impulse

The Authoritarian Impulse

. 20 min read

'If violence is not solving all of your problems, you aren't using enough of it. Then again, there are often more efficient ways to solve problems than brute force.'

Many relatively thoughtful authors, often of a left/liberal persuasion, have tried to figure out exactly why there are people who support policies that are thought of in the mainstream as being hostile towards difference and complexity, with demands for simplicity and sameness. The first name that comes to mind in this corner is Karen Stenner, author of The Authoritarian Dynamic. I want to clarify that I have not taken the time to read any of the authors' major publications as of the time that I am writing this, but am reacting to the ideas from this and other works that have been advanced into the public square. This should not be taken as a critique of Stenner's work, but as a response to certain ideas related to it which seem to be missing perspective on important dynamics of the phenomenon. I would like to read more of Stenner's work when I have the time, but I feel strongly that the shallow public version of the ideas deserve a public response.

The core idea behind Stenner's "authoritarian dynamic" is that (in societies looked at) around 30% of the population are willing to back a "strong man" leader, one who will use the force of the government to insist that people who are not "homogenous" either conform or get out. Leaders and issues as diverse as enforcing immigration laws, Brexit, Donald Trump, Victor Orban, keeping sexualized materials out of elementary schools, and other disagreements that are often seen as tied to "openness", are all essentially linked to Hitler and his Nazis--if not in detail, at least in spirit. It is posited that most of this 30% are "latent" authoritarians; as long as everything is conforming to some ideal of the simple and the pure, they are relatively normal; but once faced with diversity, differentness, and complexity, their "authoritarian dynamic" comes out of the woodwork, and they start supporting the stripping of rights from minorities, marching their fellow neighbours off to exile--or worse. Frankly? I don't think these people actually know or understand the people they are writing about, or the views they hold, in a meaningfully detailed way. Why am I so confident about this?

When I first read about Stenner's ideas (I'm guessing it was around 2015 or so, probably in The Atlantic, or a similar publication), I was struck by how I was clearly one of the people being sloppily "described" by this concept. I've had years to ruminate and observe. I've observed and conversed with countless individuals, both those like myself and those who openly identify as explicit adherents of "authoritarian" ideology. Despite the conflation by the left/liberals, we are very clearly two different sets of people, with two different sets of attitudes and policy preferences; yet, we find ourselves as fellow travellers, in particular since we've been "painted into a corner" by those who conflate us. However, this is not simply a matter of labels and preferences in a vacuum. There are very real threats that we face to things we care about over here on the "activated" side, which are also seen as threats by the "perennial" side, and many of us see that not only is the enemy of our enemy our ally of the moment, but that we are being treated as the same brand of enemy by those who seek to prevent a social response against the very real threats to our society and its stability and coherence.

Let us start by taking a close look at what exactly is in dispute, between the "authoritarians", both latent and perennial, and the "anti-authoritarians" who have rallied under the flag of "diversity and tolerance". The primary point of dispute seems to be around the following proposition: "Those who oppose a certain type of contamination of their environment have a deep psychological need for sameness, conformity, purity, and simplicity in their environment; those who oppose authoritarian responses to the perceived threat of difference, diversity, complexity, are standing in solidarity with innocents who are being persecuted because of their innate differences that they did not choose for themselves." If I have any readers who see this stance as a credible one, I would honestly be a bit surprised; but I would like to make clear that I'm attempting a dialogue here, to let you see what I see, and not simply engaging in some sort of partisan cheerleading. This proposition is not believable to those it paints in a negative light. The purpose of this piece is to review why this view is a very distorted take on a very real phenomenon.

"The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities." - Ayn Rand

Humans, by their nature, tend to cooperate with others to pursue their own interests. To the extent that humans with shared interests can surround themselves with other "in-group individuals", or those who share values and goals with them, they can benefit greatly by contributing to collective efforts on individual challenges that the environment will present to individual humans. The issue is that this only works as a system if those who choose to "defect"--to reject the role or duty that is expected of them by the system--are rejected from it, in one form or another. At different points in the development of technology and civilization, this dynamic has manifested itself in different ways. In smaller groups of people, such as tribes or villages, those who could not "fit in" with a population would often be banished from the geographical location of the population and threatened with death if they returned. Some scholars have tried explaining this with narratives of "scapegoating"; however, all too often, when one looks at the details, one can see a significant form of damage to the integrity of the population that is being avoided by this exile (or even summary execution, depending on the extent to which the individual acts against the stability and interests of the group).

In other words, this move to banish "the human infection" from their society was very often quite rational, even if the motives in the heat of the moment were more emotional and less carefully considered. Where systems of social value have been naturally selected for (for example, systems that led to the failure of the people under them were very likely to be conquered by others, fall apart, or change course to a different approach to pursuing the social good), "competence without comprehension" is likely running rampant. Whether one sees either conflict or coordination and solidarity is often a question of where one is drawing the dividing lines between the categories or groups being considered.

One of the primary differences between the "authoritarian" and "anti-authoritarian" sides is a misunderstanding of the origins and value of hierarchy, and why humans willingly take up spots anywhere in that hierarchy but the top. Anti-authoritarian arguments are often essentially anti-hierarchy arguments, appealing to the fallacious idea that the "stick" approach of leadership is to be used against insiders, while the "carrot" approach is to be used with the "other". This shows both in their opposition to what the authoritarians see as "healthy hierarchy", and in their own failed attempts at imposing some inverted and distorted mirror of hierarchy within left-leaning movements. Humans are evolved to rally around those whose leadership brings security and prosperity, and to reject the individuals who side with the society's enemies and other threats against it. This means that, on average, the "stick" approach (do X or I will use force to do something you don't want, or alternatively, if you do X, I will respond by doing something you don't want) should be saved for intimidating hostile individuals and groups, whether they be outsiders or defectors from your own group. Anthropology has observed a clear record that "big men", those individuals at the top of most hierarchies, are getting there by being of value to those who agree to take up places below them in the hierarchy. This implies that offering "carrots" to those willing to follow, cooperate and coordinate will, on average, get much better results.

All too often, "anti-authoritarian" movements and leaders will be permeated with threats of violence towards those they wish to have as followers, and those they see as defectors against what they see as their group. All too often, this means that they are effectively both advocating on behalf of the interest of "outsiders" or defectors against the group, as seen by the authoritarian side, at the expense of the group itself. It also shows a clear difference in the nature of followership, between the authoritarians and the so-called anti-authoritarians. Rather than looking to incentivize participation in group goals and norms by offering clear benefits for doing so to the individuals whose cooperation is desired, "anti-authoritarians" depend on people living in fear of the danger of speaking out against whatever the currently announced movement goals and plans are, often asserted as the collective interests of the group, when in fact, they are often "special interests" whose agenda imposes a harm on the majority of individuals in the group (purportedly to help some minority of those being considered, who may not even be accepted by many members of the group).

Why is it that these two sets of people cannot seem to agree on who the in-group is, how people should be incentivized, and why they tend towards conflict? In the future, I am planning to write an in-depth piece on the importance of borders, but for now, I will focus on a simplified version of this dynamic. Intact societies have a pretty good idea of what their fellow citizens' values and interests are and seek to protect their values from contamination by harmful and dysfunctional changes in priority, as well as to protect their society from infiltration by individuals who seek to do the society harm--whether to the infrastructure and institutions, or directly by predating on individuals.

Sure, there will be some who, by their innate temperament, will perhaps err on the part of harsh responses to deviations from social expectations in certain key aspects of social life, such as the "sacredness" (set aside as special status) of certain ideas, whether simply in media expression or in direct action. They are far from a meaningful majority and are probably a smaller group than many who see them as a threat would believe. Most of the "authoritarian" individuals are actually latent, meaning that they want to avoid the use of force in unwelcome interventions into the lives of individuals, especially themselves and their group of valued peers. These individuals seem to be "activated" when they are credibly alerted to the presence of a threat to the stability of their society, and will then support a very different type of response by the government to get things back to order, where they can once again proceed with a minimal amount of heavy-handed involvement from above. This is the key point that so many of the left/liberal types seem to be missing, for whatever reason; "latent" authoritarians are not actually in favor of anything remotely resembling a totalitarian government, forced conformity, expulsion of indviduals for benign inborn differences, or anything of the sort. "Latent" authoritarians are just those who have an impulse to protect society from the kind of dysfunction that not only exposes all of us to harm, like individuals acting against our interests (with the "anti-authoritarians" protecting those doing the damage, and treating them as an in-group), but also dysfunctions that they realize will be used as an excuse by actual totalitarians who seek to use the excuse of certain individual bad actors to subject the entire society as a whole to extensive restrictions (including restrictions that will keep them from solving the problem and allowing a return to the previous light-handed status quo).

To a large extent, much of this response is an innate, "gut feeling" instinct that, as I have already pointed out, seems to be clearly adaptive, but often in that sense of "competence without comprehension". To the extent that the latent are activated into defending their society, as most of these individuals are operating from a defensive instinct, at least some innocents are likely to be "othered" even when they are not directly predating on others or attacking the integrity of institutions, merely by sharing some characteristics with the bad actors or outsiders who cannot or will not operate by the values and guidelines of the society. On the other hand, there is actually an extensive tradition of being thoughtful about these sorts of threats and making strong arrangements against them, including the inoculation of the population against the types of ideas that leave a society vulnerable to them.

One narrative that comes to mind is the ancient Greek story of the Trojan Horse. In the guise of providing something of value, the enemies of the city of Troy came up with a plan to present a "gift", a magnificent thing of value; in this case, a giant wooden horse set up on wheels (so it could be transported). Within this gift, they hid a small but strong army of individuals who could work from within to open the city gates and allow in the rest of the hostile army (threat). In modern times, it is not at all uncommon for newcomers to be framed by many of those left of centre as something of value, without regard to the actual value of the individuals, on the basis of their diversity, differentness, "newness" to the context. It is quite true that new ideas can reinvigorate a stagnant pool of social ideas--no-one is disputing this. There are some serious trade-offs involved in bringing in individuals with valuable talents that can contribute to the society they are being brought into; but at the very least, the value is measurable, even if there are some downstream consequences. In a dysfunction that mirrors many other "progressive" dysfunctions, immigration activists will tend to appeal to some notional "average value" of immigrants without actually vetting the would-be immigrants to be sure they are even offering such value.

On the basis that there is some benefit to allowing certain immigrants to join a community, immigration activists will essentially try to argue that the more immigrants we let in, the more total value we will be importing. This is amazingly fallacious thinking. Even if a certain number of new entrants to the labour force with skills in demand proves to be beneficial to the economy as a whole, it still often takes the form of benefiting one group within society at the expense of another. One person's lower labour costs is another person's lower wage. Unless one has the intention of collecting a large amount of data about who is being hurt by immigration, and somehow compensates them for the loss at the expense of those benefiting, then the more immigration that is allowed, the more extractive the policy is. In small amounts that essentially amount to a slowing in the increase in wages for workers competing with immigrants for jobs, the redistributive effect may go mostly unnoticed, and may even be so small that even those workers competing with the immigrants may still appreciate the various benefits that those immigrants bring.

On a personal level, I've found individual value in many immigrants, and enjoyment from having them in my community. However, as you increase the number of immigrants, even if properly vetted to be a net benefit to society, the negative effects on domestic employment (and, with enough immigration, on housing costs) start to become a true burden on those who compete with them for employment and housing. The harsh squeeze of rising housing prices, plus falling wages from employment, is a perfect storm to stir up populist rage. Do we even have to ask "why"? Apparently, we do. Why do people in most societies not appreciate the rising costs of housing in combination with a lessened ability to earn the money to pay for the housing and the other things in their life, such as investing in the future of their children? Simply put, it is the dream of most parents in modern societies to give their children better lives than they had themselves as children.

Although material standard of living is only one measurement of what we pass down to our children, it tends to press at our instincts to protect, love, and provide for our offspring. To the extent that a society loses its will to protect and provide for its own children, it is likely to do poorly in the long term. There seems to be a strong selective effect against putting the needs of others before the needs of your own children, and many people seem to have a tendency for resenting those who would seek to threaten or deprive children. When it is clear that the children of a society are being threatened or deprived, as a consequence of letting in too many outsiders (even those clearly of value), we can expect a backlash against allowing newcomers generally until the balance between established, assimilated members and newcomers is restored, to an arrangement that is not taxing the future of the existing citizens.

Often, there are those that simply try to make two simple categories of immigration: legal, and illegal, as though the rubber stamp of the legislature is the only factor that we should be considering when it comes to the trade offs of immigration. Considering that there are large movements of individuals who believe that assisting foreigners in violating immigration laws is a virtuous calling (because they see borders and national sovereignty as moral wrongs), the focus on the harms of illegal immigration is quite understandable. However, "legal" simply means "in accordance or compliance with the law", in this context. If the law is not written in the interest of the citizenry in the aggregate, but instead to meet the needs of certain politically interested classes who have "invested" in buying politicians, the result of "legal" immigration will not be without the harms caused by the competition for jobs and housing, even if they are model citizens and are genuinely excited to join the existing society, receive citizenship, and become true patriots of their new home.

One of the main challenges of illegal immigration (aside from the lawlessness, and the magnet for lawless individuals that "sanctuary jurisdictions" become) is the lessened tendency to integrate and assimilate into the host culture. Immigration advocates of various sorts have a variety of responses to this observation. Some activists will essentially try to lay the blame of lowered cultural assimilation rates of illegal immigrants on the hostility they receive from the legal system, and those who respect the concept of laws regulating presence in the society, for insisting that such laws be enforced, even if it results in illegal immigrants being unable to live where they wish to live. Such activists put the moral burden on society to adapt to its newcomers, and not on newcomers to obey the society's laws.

Other activists have started to argue that immigrants should not be forced to culturally assimilate, whether legal or illegal, and that asking them to do so is a form of bigotry, a moral wrong. They do not seem to see how those with authoritarian impulses, whether perennial or latent, are going to see their advocacy for lawlessness, dysregulation, and structural threats to the existing society. Other activists seem to understand all too well that they are presenting this threat, but are doing so intentionally, and see the tearing down of traditional cultures, and the fragmenting of traditional societies, as a moral good of some sort; one to be forced upon all of those who would defend the old "immoral" order of things. Whether the activists are clueless or malevolent, the push seems to be the same: "Diversity is our strength. If it is time tested, and works reliably, we hate it. No human is illegal."

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Benjamin Franklin

One of the nastiest "verbal slights of hand" that activists will often use is equating reliable enforcement of laws forbidding the predation on others with the oppression or persecution of those who are convicted of violating these laws. Frankly? It isn't that clever, and there is a large section of the citizenry who will not be fooled for a second by this framing. As long as the laws are actually just, and specifically prosecute those who are committing violations of the individual rights of others, law enforcement is a class of activity that is about UPHOLDING the rights of indviduals, and punishing those who violate the rights of others. It is a system based on reciprocity; as long as you are not out violating the rights of others, the system will enforce your own rights against those who would violate them. If you violate the rights of others and are convicted of doing so beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, you will be stripped of many of your own rights and restrained to a location and situation where you cannot further violate the laws of your fellow citizens. I'm an open-minded person; however, I have not seen a more viable class of systems for protecting the rights of individuals than of a system of consequences for those who violate the rights of others. Most humans are less open-minded than I am, are even more easily convinced of punishing those who gratuitously harm others through force or fraud, and are probably even less thoughtful about how convicted individuals, who prey on their fellow humans, should be treated. The more innocent the target of the criminal harm, the more the human instinct for punishment is likely to spring up among those who hear about the crime. Historically, the main worry has been around false accusations, which can be quite powerful, and so many legal systems have some form of "innocent until demonstrated to be guilty" principle built into them. When law is kept at this level of involvement--regulating against predators, and leaving non-predatory people with little to fear from law enforcement--public support for the law and its enforcement will be quite robust. For those who are against the current structure of society, and wish to subvert it, fragment it, break it into something else, or hand over the keys to another authority (such as a global system of governance), the obvious first step will be an attempt to discredit the law and its enforcers in the eyes of the general population.

"Bad laws", roughly defined as "laws that a huge chunk of the population will see as illegitimate, and will be unwilling to follow, or that they will only follow through threat of excessive punishment for violations", are a lawless activist's friend. If the population at large can clearly see the harm that is being forbidden, they will be willing to assist in reporting the crime, presenting any evidence they have access to, testifying in court, and giving the right kind of respect and support to law enforcement officers that makes little kids want to grow up and choose law enforcement as a career path. If the law is one that the people see as not legitimate, perhaps because they see it as violating their rights as individuals, we should expect the opposite to happen. A good example would be efforts at prohibition of intoxicating substances (especially ones traditionally consumed by the community). When law enforcement officers become involved in trying to regulate the possession of intoxicating substances, every person who feels entitled as an individual to possess and consume substances that are intoxicating will now have a clear reason not to trust law enforcement officers. Even those people who do not personally wish to consume the banned intoxicants will be inclined against informing on those who do. However, the consequences get even more extreme. To the extent that people still wish to purchase the intoxicants that are banned, this creates a whole industry of those being willing to break the law to produce, import, distribute, and sell the substance. Many "criminals" as defined under a law perceived as unjust will restrict their lawbreaking to actions which do not harm others; however, when someone who regularly violates the law runs into issues with other criminals, they cannot simply call in law enforcement to mediate the situation according to the law. So, in addition to the ban not resulting in an absence of the banned substance, it also results in predatory violence among those who feel unable to involve law enforcement, because law enforcement would then be in a position to threaten them too, often on a similar level to the predatory criminals.

In my country, many of those who have been willing to import and distribute intoxicants have also been willing to import illegal immigrants in the process. Open borders activists have seized upon the opportunity of those communities who enjoy their intoxicants (and perhaps prostitution), and are unwilling to cooperate with law enforcement because of this. There are whole communities of people who already have structural reasons to avoid involvement with law enforcement, and it was a simple extra step to extend that non-cooperation over the issues of intoxicants and prostitution to non-cooperation over the enforcement of immigration laws. The result has been the gradual spread of communities where there is no common respect for lawfulness in general, or assimilation into the main culture of the society more generally. Even though it is trivial to point at historical data to show the harm this does to individuals in those communities, especially the children (who have never been taught better), the activists in my country have been generally successful at convincing the residents that law enforcement does not have their best interests in mind, that the society at large hates them for reasons not under their control, and that the rational thing to do is to join the activists in siding with foreigners and criminals against the main bulk of individuals which make up the society.

Globalists of various sorts, who see sovereign governments as contrary to their own interests and plans, have begun to explicitly fund movements that push for allowing predatory criminals to run free, on the basis of "disparate impact" (certain groups have a higher tendency to violate the rights of others), and to financially back candidates for district attorney and prosecutor positions who will then intentionally fail to enforce the law against dangerous criminals and blatant fraudsters (such as illegal immigrants), leaving their communities to suffer their prolonged presence in the community, where they go on to victimize others. Amazingly enough, pointing out this obvious dynamic, which the globalists themselves are loud and proud about, is enough to get accused of bigotry against the ethnic groups of the individuals who are engaging in the harmful behavior. To someone who has bought the framing that the activists are selling, this may seem like a healthy thing; that those trying to "protect minority groups" are making the world a better place, and that those who oppose making the world a better place should be "pushed back against" by decent people. To someone who has seen through the framing, the activists are being useful idiots for the globalists and other lawless causes and are allowing criminals to run rampant in minority communities, causing harm to innocent, law-abiding minorities.

"When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn." Proverbs 29:2

Most people who are pushing for consistency in law enforcement, simplicity in the law and required processes, with preferences to live among people who share a culture, are far from backing a government which wants to regulate more and more of their lives. To the contrary; what most people see when they look at the "anti-authoritarian" activists is that the lawlessness of those activists, besides the poisoned fruit of their direct consequences, are actually providing an excuse to act for those who really do want top-down regulation of as many aspects of the economy and daily life as possible. If you have a relatively homogenous citizenry, who get along with each other, who can agree on what types of behaviour are in need of punishment, and of how individual rights should be respected and enforced, then they will have a reduced need for top-down regulation of most aspects of life.

To the extent that the anti-authority activists, and the totalitarian kleptocrats (calling them technocrats is an insult to real technocrats), are putting a one-two punch on society, it works by the lawless drumming up support for their suppression, and the totalitarian regulation enthusiasts using this as an opportunity to dictate more and more of the economic details of daily life--from their positions in government, or positions of influencing the government (academia, media, buying politicians, etc.). The kleptocrats and their allies will drum up the votes of those concerned with the protection of minorities from those nasty authoritarians (people like me who just want the law enforced against those who violate the rights of others), then use the politicians that those votes elected to further corrupt the law into something that many people will reject, and to use the law to ban competition in whichever niche they make their money. This paragraph should seem boring and obvious to most readers. To the extent that this surprises anyone, I would challenge you to think about why any of this surprises you. Are you unfamiliar with dialectical thinking, where you purposely align your actions to turn a problem into a benefit? Are you unfamiliar with the actual fruits of these activists in the communities that they influence? Are you unfamiliar with the concept of "regulatory capture", where you codify your own business model into the legally required way of running a business, to make any different/better ways of doing business literally illegal? Have you never noticed that the politicians pandering explicitly to minorities also seem, for whatever reason, to vote for globalist policies, even when they are blatantly harming the minorities they claim to be representing?

For the rest of you, I would challenge you in three ways. Firstly, I would challenge you to make sure that your children, and clear-thinking people you know, understand the difference between pushing for proper laws and proper enforcement which benefits all law-abiding citizens, including minorities... versus calls for totalitarian top-down regulation of the details of people's lives (or businesses). Secondly, I would like to challenge you to call out "minority advocate" activists for the harms that their efforts are bringing to communities of minorities who get stuck with their criminals on the streets, rather than imprisoned to where they can no longer hurt individuals in the neighbourhood. Thirdly, I would challenge you to think about which laws are necessary and should be enforced as consistently as humanly possible, versus those that are a waste of the public good will towards law enforcement. Regardless of how little or how much you learned while reading this piece, I hope it inspires you to more clearly consider what your goals are in supporting or opposing various laws, and to avoid the trap of letting the media scare you out of supporting various candidates for office just because some activist playing journalist labels them "authoritarian".