Law is a radical left-wing concept. To those with superior strength, cunning, or influence it says “just because you can harm others doesn’t mean you may — and if you do harm others, there will be consequences.” Over time, law has become society’s primary tool for thwarting selfish or stupid strategies to reduce vulnerability — strategies that by definition cause harm to others.
The earliest written legal codes date back more than four thousand years. In the preface to the famous one, Hammurabi’s, we are told the gods called upon him “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers, so that the strong should not harm the weak . . .” The ubiquity of law since then suggests it answers a primal need for fairness.
It also presents the powerful with a conundrum. We all do what we perceive is to our advantage. The powerful typically perceive dominating society as to their advantage. But they can’t just say that. So they’ve developed three strategies for subverting law.
The first is to argue that laws are bad and we should have as few as possible. The second is to accept the need for laws but insist the powerful should write, interpret, and enforce them. The third is to simply ignore laws and dare society to do something about it.
All too often, those strategies work, a fact we’ll be reminded of repeatedly over the next few months.
They usually don’t work without authoritarianism, the symbiotic relationship between autocratic leaders (the powerful) and their followers (the wannabe powerfuls). The powerful have grown adept at exploiting the element of uncertainty within us. In a Christmas Day New Yorker article, Maria Konnikova summarized the research of University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand: “When people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they flock to leaders who promise tighter rules, greater strength, a more authoritarian approach.”
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Over the past few years democracies across the world have elected authoritarian leaders. There’s Orban in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, el-Sisi in Egypt, Netanyahu in Israel, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines — and those are just the winners. Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, anybody?
Because authoritarian strategies for reducing vulnerability tilt toward the selfish and stupid, they cause widespread harm. To the wannabe powerfuls, the harm is always someone else’s fault. The ideology, mindset, and leader are blameless except to the degree they could have been purer. So no matter how many laws we write and enforce, we can never eradicate authoritarianism. We can only mitigate the damage it does.
And though you wouldn’t know it from the nightly news, we’ve been succeeding. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has done some interesting quantitative work suggesting that collectively, humans are safer and better off today than they have ever been. There are probably additional reasons, but the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the International Court of Justice, and myriad treaties and international trade agreements are likely responsible for much of that progress.
So why is authoritarianism making a comeback? My pet theory is that it’s been two generations since World War II, when authoritarian solutions so blatantly led to catastrophe. The vast majority of people alive today have no memory of that horror. If only memories could be passed down like physical traits! A visceral sense of the fear and violence our grandparents experienced in the 1940s would serve us well right now.
Then there’s a second factor, which I’ll discuss in my next post.
Addendum: I know I’m not sourcing all my statements. Nonetheless, I try to base my assertions on reputable scholarly research. Among other references on authoritarianism, check out this free download by Robert Altemayer, an eminence in the field. Altemayer defines authoritarians by the following characteristics: a high degree of submission to their chosen leaders; high levels of aggression in the name of their leaders (so if you’re tempted to troll this post, you’re an authoritarian); and a high level of conventionalism, i.e. the conviction that “everybody should have to follow the norms and customs that your authorities have decreed.” Based purely on my own observation, I would add a fourth characteristic, which Altemayer might consider a corollary of the third: authoritarians restrict their compassion to groups favored by their leaders. There’s additional interesting information in this 2011 article by Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay in the American Journal of Political Science, and in this somewhat less scholarly but more timely March 2016 article by Amanda Taub at Vox.com.