Authoritarians


 A talk presented by Trevor Watkins at the 2014 Libertarian Spring Seminar in Jeffreys Bay.

I wish to plant a new dichotomy in your brains. You can forget your liberals and conservatives, your communists and anarchists, your republicans and democrats, your christians and atheists. The world can be divided into just 2 groups, libertarians who value freedom, and authoritarians who value control.

Don’t just take my word for it – Robert Heinlein, the great libertarian author, said it more than 30 years ago – “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

The advantage of this dichotomy is that it strips away the camouflage that the other terms tend to hide behind. As we all know, liberals used to value freedom, but now prefer political correctness. Conservatives used to cherish freedom, but they now prefer moral correctness. Just as we had to substitute libertarian for liberal, we can now substitute authoritarian for conservative or republican or statist, or any of the many similar terms.

On most political identity scales, libertarians tend to be consigned to some 3rd dimension, some nebulous place way off the simple left-right scale. We are a bit conservative, a bit liberal, but mostly strange and hard to identify. With the libertarian-authoritarian dichotomy our place and our purpose is clearly defined, freedom versus control.

Of course, there is a continuum from pure libertarianism to unadulterated authoritarianism, with each individual occupying their own unique niche. But the desire to control provides a very specific inflexion point.

So what is an authoritarian?

Fortunately a Canadian professor by the name of Bob Altemeyer has written an entire book on the subject. It is called, unsurprisingly, “The Authoritarians”, and is available free on the internet, because, as he says, “the greatest threat to [American] democracy

today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation”. Although Bob Altemeyer has been studying authoritarians for many years, the motivation for this book came from John Dean (yes, the Watergate John Dean), who wrote a book called “Conservatives without conscience” about the capture of the Grand Old Party by the Religious Right and its seemingly amoral leaders.

What is an authoritarian? Well, they come in 2 flavours, authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers.

An authoritarian follower, because of his personality, submits by leaps and bows to his authorities. It may seem strange, but this is the authoritarian personality that psychology has studied the most. He’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy  knows best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, – just as parents are when one is young. In a democracy no one is supposed to be above the law, but authoritarians quite easily put that aside. They also believe that only criminals and terrorists would object to having their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their lives put under surveillance.

Because Bob Altemeyer is a psychologist, he has devised a 22 question test to identify authoritarian followers. Predictably he found that most people score in the middle range of this test, they are authoritarians in some parts, but not in others. But the test allowed him to isolate the hardcore authoritarians amongst his students and submit them to various tests.  He discovered that these students

  • will tell you that people should submit to authority in virtually all circumstances
  • trusted President Nixon longer and stronger than most people did during the Watergate crisis
  • believed President George W. Bush’s false claims about Saddam Hussein
  • did not support President Clinton during his impeachment and trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal
  • tolerated many illegal and unjust government actions
  • go to church enormously more often than they go to bars
  • send just about anyone to jail for a longer time than most people would
  • favored, more than others did, a law to persecute even themselves

While on the surface strong authoritarians can be pleasant, sociable, and friendly, they seemingly have a lot of hostility boiling away inside them that their authorities can easily unleash.

Where do authoritarians come from? Are they born or made? While there is some evidence from identical twins that there is a genetic component, environment seems to be a far bigger determinant of authoritarian attitudes. Authoritarians are, in general, more afraid than most people are.  Maybe they’ve inherited genes that incline them to fret and tremble. Maybe not. But we do know that they were raised by their parents to be afraid of others, because both the parents and their children tell us so.  Authoritarians’ parents taught fear of homosexuals, radicals, atheists and pornographers. But they also warned their children, more than most parents did, about kidnappers, reckless drivers, bullies and bad guys. So authoritarian followers, when growing up, probably lived in a scarier world than most kids do, with a lot more boogeymen hiding in dark places, and they’re still scared as adults. If the children of authoritarian parents enjoy experiences which contradict what they have been taught, they become markedly less authoritarian (“Hey, sex isn’t scary, its great.”) If they are denied these alternative experiences, their authoritarianism is reinforced.  Wide-ranging travel at an early age may reduce authoritarian tendencies, so long as you are not in someone’s army. Higher education also reduces authoritarian tendencies, although aging and having children appear to increase them.

It turns out in experiments that a person’s fear of a dangerous world predicts various kinds of authoritarian aggression better than any other unpleasant feeling. It seems that we do have to fear fear itself. This why an event like 9/11 was so successful in bringing out the latent authoritarian tendencies in the US population.

What releases the aggressive impulse that comes from fear? If you’re an average human being, you’ll think you’re a better than average human being. But authoritarians think they are way better than most. They got the 3-for-1 special on self-righteousness. And self-righteousness appears to release authoritarian aggression more than anything else.

If we measure how fearful and self-righteous a person is, we can predict rather well who, in a sample of people, will show authoritarian aggression. It is a cruel contradiction that the people who feel holiest are likely to do very unholy things precisely because they feel holiest.

Research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do. They exhibit sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and–to top it all off–a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic. As Hitler is reported to have said,“What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, authoritarian leaders exhibit a completely different set of personality traits to authoritarian followers. Authoritarian leaders can be identified using a psychological test called the Social Dominance Scale, also used for measuring prejudice. High social dominators tend to score low on the authoritarian follower test. Since dominators long to control others, and  followers yearn to follow such leaders, more social prejudice is therefore connected to authoritarian leaders. Social dominators favour conservative economic policies, right wing political parties, exhibit strong racial prejudices, crave power for its own sake, want to control others. They are inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful. They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and are happy to be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful.  Authoritarian followers do not feel this way because they seldom have such a drive to start with.

For socially dominant authoritarian leaders, it’s all about them, not about a higher purpose. If trouble arises, don’t be surprised if they start playing “Every man for himself” and even sell out the group to save their own skin. They are not particularly religious, but may act so in order to attract followers.  Dominance is the first order of business with them in a relationship, like dogs encountering each other in a school yard, and vulnerable minorities provide easy targets for exerting power. Might makes right for social dominators. The dominator acts out of meanness, as an act of intimidation and control; the follower out of fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority. Most authoritarian leaders show strong reasoning abilities, broad thinking, sound logic. They don’t trust people who tell them what they want to hear. They are not dogmatic or particularly zealous. They’ve got their head together.

Authoritarian leaders share several attributes with libertarians. They think equality is a myth. People should have to earn their places in society, not get any free rides. If life treats you unfairly, that’s just tough. But we believe in freedom for all individuals, the Authoritarian leader believes in freedom for just one.

Why is all this an issue? From a libertarian perspective, it releases us from any obligation to try to convert or educate authoritarians. Authoritarianism is not an error in their thinking, it is a defect in their personalities. If we are subject to authoritarians in an authoritarian state, we should not plan to appeal to their conscience or better nature – we should plan to leave. Any negotiation with an authoritarian is likely to end either in submission or in violence, as we have seen with the state a million times. Authoritarians do not want to live and let live. They are on a mission, either from God, or personal self-righteousness, to export their particular brand of dogmatism far and wide. Its either their way, or the highway to Hell.

Is there anything we can do? Not much, not in the short term, because we would be asking authoritarians to act against their own narrow self-interests. Most authoritarians  would compartmentalize, misinterpret, rationalize, and dogmatically deny that any of this applied to them  personally. Nevertheless, here are some ideas.

  • Reduce fear. Fear ignites authoritarian aggression more than anything else. By reducing fear of global warming, of Muslims, of other races, we may reduce authoritarianism.
  • Reduce self-righteousness. Encourage people to be less certain, less bigoted. Demonstrate alternative views.
  • Reduce religiosity. Throughout history religion has been a driver of authoritarianism and aggression. Authoritarian aggression from religious zealots remains one of the biggest threats to peace and prosperity today.
  • Undermine authorities. Teach children to question leaders. Show the emperor has no clothes. Laugh out loud at politicians.
  • Encourage diversity. Authoritarians are prejudiced against everyone outside their core group. Exposure to diversity within society may reduce that prejudice.
  • Encourage education and experience. Authoritarians are often ignorant and unaware from an early age. Tolerance improves with learning and travel.
  • Become a libertarian. Probably the best approach.
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