Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Paternal Function of Authority

The issue of authority, just as much as the related issue of freedom, is one plagued by the kind of confusion that intractable emotions cause and entertain. A common mistake is to identify authority with coercion, which is but the most conspicuous of its instruments. It is important, also, not to postulate a necessary connection between the essence of authority and any of the particular forms in which this essence is embodied; yet many hold it axiomatic that authority means absolutism and exploitation. Finally, few, if any, bother about distinguishing, within authority itself, a diversity of functions; yet this diversity is so fundamental that, if it is not expressed, we hardly know what we are talking about when we speak of authority. Clouded by such confusions, an unfruitful dialogue goes on between those who feel inclined toward authority and those who, on principle, put all the emphasis on liberty. Platitudes about the difficult task of maintaining the proper balance between the two are nearly all that can be expected.

Our present purpose is to describe the diverse functions of authority and to show that authority, according to the diversity of its functions, calls for diverse interpretations in terms of foundation, duration, relation to progress, and relation to freedom. Instruments and forms will be discussed in later parts of this book.

By way of mental experiment, let us assume a radical negation of authority and watch the unfolding of its implications. This puts a heavy strain on our imagination. Let us boldly picture towns without town meetings, cities without aldermen and mayors, workshops without foremen, committees without chairmen, rescue parties without leaders, universities without chancellors, and republics without presidents. The hardest is to imagine a home where little children would not be subjected to any sort of authority. It is desirable that children, even very young ones, should be trained in self-government; but, unless children, even big ones, are governed to some extent by persons possessed with more mature intellects, stronger wills, and wider experience, they cannot survive. These words describe completely the paternal function of authority. Let us formulate its characteristics.

First, in this function, authority aims at the proper good of the governed. A child needs direction because he is not able to take care of himself, i.e., to direct himself toward his own preservation and perfection. Thus, apart from all consideration of social good or common good, authority is needed for the survival and development of the immature person.

Secondly, authority here is made necessary by a deficiency. Parents take care of the child, inasmuch and in so far as the child is unable to take care of himself. The father substitutes his mature judgment and will for the judgment and will of the child, which are still immature. The paternal function of authority is not essential but substitutional.

At this point it seems necessary to elaborate briefly on the concept of "deficiency." This concept admits of degrees. Deficiency always signifies the lack of a perfection that a subject should possess in order to satisfy fully the demands of its nature. Yet a deficiency is not necessarily an evil, since a nature subject to growth normally goes through a period of inachievement.{8} A child is an incompletely developed person, and there is nothing wrong about a child's having only a child's powers; but there is something wrong about an adult person whose mental age is seven. Thus, among the deficiencies that make paternal authority necessary, some have the character of evil, and some do not. Some are normal, and some are not. There would be no room for paternal authority in a society free from deficiencies, but there would be plenty of room for it in a human society free from evil, since the members of human societies are bound to be children before they are men.

Thirdly, paternal authority is pedagogical and consequently aims at its own disappearance. This follows from its substitutional character. It is wholly good for a child to be guided by a mature person, but the main purpose of this guidance consists in the attainment of the ability to exercise self-government. If paternal authority remains necessary past the earliest possible date for its disappearance, it has failed to a degree; if it intends its own maintenance and manages things in such a way as not to have to disappear, it is guilty of abominable abuse.

Authority as engaged in this substitutional and pedagogical function we call "paternal," following the good usage that extends to the whole genus the name of the most familiar species. Besides the father-to-son relationship, there are many situations in which authority of the paternal type is exercised. Let us briefly discuss some of these situations.

1. Controversies about the freedom of women supply a perfect example of the confusion which spoils ethical issues when a stand is taken for or against authority without any attention being paid to the diversity of its functions. At the time when the feminist movement took shape, it was still a common belief that women, with rare exceptions, were imperfectly able to take care of themselves and to manage their own affairs. Accordingly, legal systems kept many self-regarding actions of the adult woman subjected to control by some male person -- father, husband, or guardian. The feminist movement asserted the ability of the woman to govern herself and fought all legislation enforcing the postulate of her lasting minority. In short, it wanted the adult woman to enjoy freedom from paternal authority. The cry for the "emancipation of woman" might have meant nothing else. But for many it meant much more. Most societies, then, granted the woman but incomplete citizenship and barred her from many occupations and from many phases of public life. Such restrictions might have expressed nothing else than the belief that law, war, politics, surgery, etc., are masculine concerns. Actually, tradition connected these exclusions with the theory of woman's permanent minority. In most phases of feminism, argumentation designed to refute this theory was supposed to destroy also the foundation of the traditional restrictions. In good logic the ability of the adult woman to govern herself does not entail the desirability of her going into such occupations as law, surgery, etc. The contention that all offices and careers should be open to women has to be vindicated in terms of calling and in relation to the proper division of tasks between man and woman. Feminism suffered from a much more serious lack of logic, as the refutation of the permanent minority theory was understood to imply also the end of structural inequality in the couple. Confusedly the movement for the emancipation of the woman asserted (1) a claim for the complete legal majority of the adult woman, (2) a claim for the lifting of traditional restrictions with regard to trades and public office, and (3) a claim for the abolition of man's authority in the man and wife community. The notion that authority has essential functions, i.e., functions determined not by any deficiency but by the nature of community, was ignored. This was very much in harmony with the anarchistic and liberal views then in fashion. Notice, however, that J. S. Mill, in his celebrated book on the subjection of women, hints at the need for a leader in common action. But he does not see why leadership in the couple should always belong to the same person. Most of all, he does not see why the leader should be designated by law.{9}

2. Let it be observed that the proper good with which paternal authority is concerned is not necessarily individual: the common good of a city has the character of a proper good for any unit in which the city is contained and for other cities as well. Just as an individual may need to be directed in the pursuit of his individual good, so a community may be unable to attain its own common good without guidance. Thus, if certain duties relative to the welfare of a city and normally discharged by it are taken over by the state on account of the city's inability to discharge them satisfactorily, the authority so exercised by the state is of the paternal type: it is not concerned (at least directly) with the common good of the state but with the proper good of the city; it is substitutional, since it does things that the governed should be able to do for themselves; and it aims at its own disappearance or becomes abusive. As in the case of individuals, the deficiencies calling for the exercise of paternal authority over communities may either be abnormal and have the character of evil or consist in conditions of immaturity normal for societies as well as for individuals during early phases of growth. The status of territory, as opposed to statehood, is the legal expression of a condition of immaturity, of incomplete development on account of which a community is supposed not to be able to exercise all the prerogatives of self-government and consequently remains, with regard to its own affairs, subjected to guidance by a more perfect community, viz., the Union. The legal concept of "territory" does not imply any pejorative connotation; aside from any accident or mischief, the newly settled wilderness does not admit of the completeness required for the full exercise of self-government. The status of territory is a condition of minority. But a time comes when subjection to paternal authority can no longer be maintained without there being something wrong, either on the side of the subordinate society by way of failure to accomplish normal development or on the side of the controlling society through abusive maintenance of power.

What holds in the case of territories is supposed to hold also in the case of colonies. The extreme frequency of abuse gives an appearance of falsehood and dishonesty to any interpretation of the concept of colonial rule in terms of ethics. Yet this concept is intelligible and the conditions under which it finds application are by no means fictitious, though they may not have been realized very often in the history of colonization. When European nations, for example, subjected to colonial rule the tribes of Equatorial Africa, their action was rendered suspicious from the beginning by the fact that these tribes were not, prior to the establishment of power by conquest, contained in these nations. Plainly, there is no ground for the paternal authority of one community over another unless the latter is contained in the former as a child in his family. The colonization of African tribes by European nations had an ethical title if, and only if, the colonizers acted as agents of the human community, then entirely unorganized. With such attempts at the organization of the human community as the League of Nations and the United Nations, things became definitely clearer; the character of colonial rule as paternal authority was proclaimed and to some extent sanctioned. The very substitution of the words "mandate" and "trusteeship" for the word "colony" signified that the justification for the rule over primitive peoples resided in duties of paternal authority to be discharged by mankind toward immature societies.

3. There are many instances of a colonial rule being exercised at home by an upper group over a lower one. Particularly clear examples are supplied by societies sharply divided into a so-called "superior" race and a reputedly "inferior" one: North Africa, the southern states, the Union of South Africa, etc. In order to understand the practices prevalent in such societies, it is necessary to consider, beyond an extremely high amount of falsehood and iniquity, the system of relations which justify those practices (or some of them) if they are justifiable at all. The so-called "inferior" race is considered as a distinct society, contained in the bigger unit of which the upper race is the main part, but not merged with the upper race into an integrated community. It is generally assumed that in the lower race most individuals never attain complete majority; accordingly, their personal happiness depends upon helpful guidance by the master-race. Too immature to share in self-government by way of merger, the lower race is also too immature to found a self-governing community of its own by way of secession. Further, secession is, in almost all cases, ruled out by the physical circumstances. Thus a compromise is effected. There is but one state, one political community. The upper race identifies itself with this community. The lower race is contained within the community as a sort of collective and permanent guest and is subjected to the paternal authority of the upper race. Such colonial rule at home has been operating silently, if not harmoniously, in many countries and over centuries. In our time it does not work either harmoniously or silently.

Colonial rule at home helps to understand the situation of the common people in the conservative theory. A conservative of the usual description postulates, most of the time confusedly and not quite consciously, that every society, according to the statement of Alexander Hamilton,{10} divides itself into the few and the many. The few are men of property, of education, of quiet judgment; their economic position, together with their experience and knowledge, enables them to resist the whims of the moment and to conceive and perseveringly to carry out long-range policies. They identify themselves with the nation, just as the whites of Georgia, in the theory of white supremacy, are the State of Georgia. The many are like an inferior race; there may be among them men of great ability, who will inevitably find a place sooner or later among the distinguished few; on the whole, they are juvenile, immature, impulsive, subject to irrationality, easily duped by flatterers, ignorant, incapable of foresight. The few have a group consciousness of their own, and so do the many. The many make up a distinct community inside the state which is properly the concern of the few. They are the guests of the distinguished few, and perfectly welcome ones so long as they behave. Thus, in conservative philosophy or at least in its extreme forms, the domain of paternal authority comprises, over and above children, feeble-minded, habitual felons, criminals, communities in the early stage of development, primitive tribes, decadent societies, etc., the multitude of the common people.{11} Let it be noticed that the feeling of paternal responsibility toward the common man, in conservative circles, is not always insincere. Great historical movements were dominated by the conviction that most men are permanently incapable of autonomy and that the best that can be done for them is to turn out, from within the world of the distinguished few, an elite of leaders trained and educated by men of rare knowledge and superior virtue. There is nothing particularly mysterious or perverse about such an ideal, but it is not a democratic one.

Let us, to conclude, consider whether democracy has a stand of its own on the subject of paternal authority. This function of authority, as repeatedly mentioned, is animated with a dynamism of autonomy. Its substitutional character entails its being pedagogical, so that its very essence necessitates that it aim at its own disappearance. It is impossible to posit the principle of paternal authority without positing simultaneously a principle of autonomy. With regard to the proper good either of the individual or of the group, the possibility of self-government makes it obligatory for authority to disappear; and the possibility of progress toward self-government makes it obligatory for authority to follow the ways of such progress. The undue postponement of self-rule can never find an excuse in the principle of paternal authority, which contains a demand for the production of autonomy. In so far as government exercises paternal authority, it is plainly true that the best government is that which governs least. It was said that an ideally successful government can afford to disappear; this proposition certainly holds for the paternal function of authority, both in civil government and in any kind of government. Whether it holds for the other functions of authority remains to be seen.

The dynamism of autonomy, contained in the essence of paternal authority, is very congenial to the democratic mind. Yet it does not by any means pertain to the distinctive features of democratic government; it rather pertains to the common features of just government, whether democratic or not. A democratic rule that proceeds according to justice would not exercise any paternal authority without also practicing thorough dedication to the production of autonomy. But a non-democratic rule, if it is just, would not act differently. The annihilation of paternal authority into autonomy, whenever possible, is an affair of justice, not an affair of democracy.

The distinct stand of democracy with regard to paternal authority concerns primarily the relations between those whom Hamilton calls "the few" and those whom he calls "the many." Any theory which maintains that the many need to be governed by the few in paternalistic and quasi-colonial fashion is undemocratic. There is no question of denying that in certain times and places a quasi-colonial government of the many by the few may be the best arrangement or even the only conceivable one. Under these circumstances democratic government is not possible, and there is no more to be said. But the philosophical conservative maintains that such circumstances are not particular to a time and to a place. He believes that, so long as men are what they have always been, nothing will be better for the many than paternal domination by the few. Democratic doctrine has nothing to say about the relation actually existing between the many and the few under particular circumstances; such relation is no more than a matter of fact. But the theory that paternal rule of the few over the many is necessarily and always a desirable state of affairs is in plain conflict with democratic doctrine. If this theory were true, democracy would not admit of any application: this theory is refuted by any successful operation of democracy.

Against a fanciful interpretation of what is confusedly called "democratic faith," let it be said that it is not up to democratic doctrine or to any doctrine, frame of mind, vision of life, or spirit to determine judgments concerned with factual reality. There are circumstances in which paternalistic government alone can remove both anarchy and tyranny; such seems to be the case, inevitably, wherever ignorance is so prevalent as to render election by universal suffrage nonsensical. An act of "democratic faith" which would proclaim the wisdom of the many when the circumstances are such that the many cannot possibly know what it is all about would be obnoxious absurdity.

Besides its willingness and anxiousness to declare that there are cases, whether frequent or not, in which the many do not need to be ruled paternalistically, the democratic spirit is characterized by a certain sort of audacity highly uncongenial to conservatives. Consider that the ability of the grown subject to achieve self-government is never perfectly ascertained until it is confirmed by practice. In a number of cases events have demonstrated that it had been overrated; the disappearance of paternal authority produced disorder and revolt rather than autonomy. In order to give the subject a chance to be autonomous, society has to accept a risk. So far as the common man is concerned, democracy demands that such risks be accepted. It also favors early granting of autonomy in all domains of paternal authority. Under the general influence of the democratic spirit the adult woman obtained a status of complete majority, and the domain of authority conceded to young people by laws and mores was considerably increased. In our time the same spirit urges the end of almost all colonial rule, regardless, as it were, of the risks.

All too often the hard exigencies of democratic action were concealed by the association of democratic rhetoric with hedonistic philosophy. Politicians and theorists, all hungry for cheap popularity, spread the belief that democracy exacts little, welcomes soft characters, keeps men away from heroic enterprises, lessens pain and exertion, shuns dreams of grandeur, and prefers the easy way. This picture became so accredited that one method used by Fascist parties to win over the youth was emphasis on the beauty of the dangerous life. The success of hedonistic expediency in the democratic movement shows how an institution may incidentally lend itself to interpretations in sharp opposition to the requirements of its essence. In order to understand that democracy increases enormously the demand for heroism, it suffices to consider the risks that the abolition of paternal rule, in no matter what domain, inevitably involves. Again, paternal authority commits abuse whenever it outlives its necessity. Yet, after it has ceased to be strictly needed, it may prove very handy in forestalling evil, and the granting of autonomy, even when altogether desirable, may release forces whose control requires additional fortitude. Few persons would, in our time, object to the emancipation of women in so far as it means the end of paternal rule over adults. But it cannot be doubted that the end of paternal authority in the relation of man to woman is partly responsible for the unprecedented trials to which the family institution is subjected today. This remark does not mean that women should have been kept in a status of minority; it means that the emancipation of women demanded as its proper counterpart new forms of discipline calculated to guarantee the stability of the home against the threats resulting from newly won liberty. Instead of which, the feminist movement, in the vast majority of its expressions, promoted soft emotions, identified freedom with the whims of desire, and exalted pleasure. Similarly, increased independence conceded to young people often caused sheer disorder.

Many conservatives, considering that the end of the quasi-colonial rule of the few over the many opened an era of uncertainty, feel confirmed in their paternalistic philosophy. Yet the conclusion suggested by the restlessness of the emancipated is not that the many should have been kept under quasi-colonial rule; it is rather that the end of traditional paternalism called for new and costly forms of heroism. Feats of organization accomplished, in the last decades, among industrial laborers give an idea of the kind of creative struggle which ought to follow upon the end of paternalism in order that genuine autonomy may be produced. The general evolution of modern societies suggests that the regrets of conservatives are all in vain; whenever there are fair evidences that self-government is possible, paternalistic rule is actually forced to go. The operation is known to be risky, but modern societies seem to be necessitated by the weight of their history to accept the risk. Under such circumstances, the promise of an easy life is but seduction into decadence.

{8} See Aristotle Met. 5. 22 (on privation).

{9} J. S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, in On Liberty and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan Co., 1926), pp. 236 ff.

{10} Alexander Hamilton, Speeches in the Federal Convention, in Works, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), I, 401.

{11} There is a striking resemblance between the conservative theory of paternal government by an enlightened elite and the concept of revolutionary leadership generally received among Marxists. See Edouard Berth, Du "Capital" aux "Réflexions sur la violence" (Paris: Rivière, 1932), p. 111: "According to the conventional interpretation of Marxism, the proletariat is not yet a mature person; it is still a kind of passive instrument in the hands of a general staff of 'revolutionary thinkers,' an army whose role it is to take by storm the capitalistic stronghold and to establish in it these possessors of the definitive social truth in whom we recognize, accordingly, mere successors to the ancient utopists: the latter expected that a millionaire, an emperor, a king, or a prince would give them the power of realizing their utopias; our 'revolutionary thinkers,' our 'Marxist leaders,' expect the same service of the proletariat, considered as an arm of which they are the head: that is all the difference."

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