We use the word “authority” to mean lots of things — police and state actors are “the authorities”, an expert may be “an authority on the matter, etc. But I want to suggest that it is very useful to think of authority as a characteristic of information in a social context. In particular, information is “authoritative” when some community of people to coordinate upon it and behave as if it were true, regardless of whether or not the information is in fact true, or even of whether the individuals doing the behaving personally believe it to be true. If information is authoritative, members of the community behave as if the information is true even despite strong, often opposing interests in the question. When we claim that someone “is an authority”, we are claiming that the information they produce will (or should) alter behavior within some human community. Authority subsists in the relationship between information and behavior in a social context.

Let’s take an example. A judge, in the context of a trial, is an authority. Suppose a judge pronounces a defendant guilty, despite her protestations of innocence. Both parties have produced information. But it is the information produced by the judge that guides the behavior of the vast preponderance of the community. Suppose the bailiff, who was present for the trial, privately came to a different conclusion than the judge, and believes that the defendant is in fact innocent. The bailiff will nevertheless behave as if she were guilty, taking her back into custody rather than setting her free.

More often than not, there is not so much cognitive dissonance. Most of us, most of the time, take a huge variety of conjectural “social facts” as given, condition our behavior as if they were true, and to the degree that we even give them a second thought, we believe them to be true. I log into my bank’s website, and check the balance of my account. Most of the time, I take the number presented as an authoritative representation of how much money I have “there”. I would prefer, quite strongly, that the number be millions larger, and my deposit balance at a bank is nothing more or less than what the bank acknowledges that it owes to me, so it is in a small way extraordinary that the bank and I are so willing to agree, despite diametrically opposed economic interests on the matter. But the miracle of authority is that it quells many disputes so thoroughly that parties don’t even imagine that there is any ambiguity or question to argue about. Authoritative information presents itself as factual, even when it (like a bank balance) has no external, empirical referent and is purely a social construction.

As surely as we depend upon the laws of physics to suspend us in our fifth floor apartments, we depend upon authority to give structure to our social and economic lives. Our very identities — our names, our credentials, the entity to whom our properties belong — exist as “social fact” by virtue of authority. The production of authority is the production of the social reality upon which we all coordinate. We talk sometimes about “defying authority”, by which we mean resisting some particularly crude and visible attempts to render information authoritative. But for the most part, to fail to coordinate on the “same facts” our community has settled upon comes off not as courageous but as insane. As Ijeoma Oluo writes:

A lot of things in our society are social constructs — money, for example — but the impact they have on our lives, and the rules by which they operate, are very real. I cannot undo the evils of capitalism simply by pretending to be a millionaire.

It’s hard to defy the authority of your bank account, even though the value that ends up there is the result of myriad social and institutional contingencies and is in a certain sense quite arbitrary. Of course we can, and under some circumstances we do, claim our bank balances are wrong. But whatever we believe the “true” figure should be is irrelevant as a practical matter unless and until an authoritative source (in this case, the bank itself) produces it. As individuals, we can dissent, but what makes information authoritative is how a larger community treats it, which often renders our own private judgements immaterial.

If authority is defined by information that a human community behaves “as if” is true, one might conjecture some relationship between processes that produce authoritative information and practices that might be colorably argued to be truth-generating. In most societies, a judge pronounces guilt, rightly or wrongly, after some kind of trial in which evidence is gathered and presented and the facts of the case are argued. In some societies, we might imagine the truth-generating power of legal procedure to be pretty good. In other societies not-so-much and we might mumble dismissively about “show trials”. As an anthropological matter, it’s clear that having some sort of narrative that connects the information we coordinate upon as “true” to processes that might mean they actually are true is helpful to the production of authority. Let’s call this “soft power”. On the other hand, if there are people with economic resources they can withhold to starve you, or with the physical capacity to harm and imprison you, they can, um, persuade the collective you to behave as if the information they produce is true. Let’s call this “hard power”. In nearly all societies, authority is generated by a combination of hard and soft power. We have a dispute. Is this house your house or my house? I can show you the deed to the property, evidence of a transfer of funds for its purchase, all of those things. But perhaps you can do the same. Our economic interests are opposed, and our standards of evidence are unlikely to be neutral. If we bring our dispute to the attention of the broader community, is it hard power or soft power that wins the day? Who knows? In most societies hard power is usually deployed under a fig leaf of soft power (the police evict me or they evict you following a trial with evidence and all of that). But sometimes this fig-leaf is so thin as to be meaningless. Even under procedures we consider decent, the ultimate “truth of the matter” will very often remain uncertain and contestable after all of the formalities have been deployed. A verdict will nevertheless be pronounced, and we will collectively behave as if the unknowable truth is known. Sure, that’s true in part because we believe hard power might eventually be deployed against those who defy the decision. But then, if the procedures were truly decent, you can argue that it is those who manage the institutions of soft power that determine the direction of the gun. And in practice, it’s rare for any overt hint of the exercise of hard power to be required to persuade most of use to behave as if some set of social facts is true.

It is a mistake — an easy, common, and foolish mistake — to imagine that hard power tells the whole story, that “how many divisions does he have?” is the beginning and end of the question of authority. The exercise of hard power is expensive. Even from the perspective of a “rational bandit” (ht Elaine Ou) whose ultimate source of legitimacy is the barrel of the gun, producing information about the world that causes people to behave in the ways you would like them to behave is cheaper and more efficient than frog-marching everybody everywhere all of the time. You’ll have more firepower available to defend your domain and plunder new lands if you can point your guns outward and your subjects still do what you want, then if you have to be pointing your guns inward at everyone. The law of the jungle selects for “voluntary compliance”. Further, relying upon the exercise of hard power butts up against the same informational limits that give rise to the economic calculation problem. No leader or ruling junta can even figure out what even they want the millions of people they rule to be doing all the time, let alone stand behind them with a gun and make them do it. [1] It’s much better if you can shape social reality so that people behave in roughly the way you’d like them to behave without your even having to tell them specifically what to do all the time, let alone point your scarce guns at them.

Communities want authoritative information on which they can coordinate. All sorts of valuable forms of collaboration are practical only when we are not bickering over every contingent and contestable social fact. Even flawed authority is better than no authority, and authority has network effects (the more people act as if some set of information is true, the more costly it is for others not to also act as if it were true). Nevertheless people dislike the cognitive dissonance associated with acting “as if” certain facts are true when they privately believe them to be false. We denote authority “Orwellian” when it is clumsy, when under threat of hard power or overwhelming convention it becomes in our interest to behave as if things we think false are true. Much more powerful (and so potentially dangerous) is authority that is not Orwellian at all, whose “soft power” is sufficiently persuasive that we privately believe nearly all of the social facts that we collectively coordinate upon. [2]

Authority, like most coordination problems, is relatively easy at small scale. We can choose a wise woman to judge and declare. However, the benefits of coordination grow nonlinearly with scale (“agglomeration effects”). Economic and military power accrue to polities that are able to produce authoritative information that coordinates behavior over large geographies and populations with minimal exercise of costly hard power. Modern, developed countries devote a significant fraction of their energies to the production of authority. Much of the work of the legal and accounting professions in the private sector, and of courts and the regulatory state in the public sector, is devoted to the production of authority. Finance, which concerns itself with contentious questions of who owns what and how scarce resources should be invested, is necessarily intertwined with the machinery of authority. The court system, the training and professional standards that apply to law and accountancy, the bureaucratic procedures that surround the operation of the regulatory state, all embody complicated sets of compromises between interests (which try to shape the social facts we coordinate upon for their own benefit) and the broader necessity of maintaining “credibility” and “legitimacy” so that recourse to hard power in shaping social behavior is rare. The production of “soft power” authority is the sine qua non of the modern state, and a source of competitive advantage for those who do it well.

The production of authority is a socio-technological problem, albeit a far-from-neutral technological problem (but technologies are never neutral). Although “soft power” authority is cheaper than resorting frequently to hard power to manage behavior, the systems by which we currently manage the production of authoritative information remain extraordinarily expensive — lawyers and judges and regulators and bankers don’t come cheap! Contemporary practices are also discriminatory. Most of the work of producing authority is done by a particular professional class, which is often socially and geographically segregated from the rest of the polity. Enfranchisement in the production of authority is skewed towards those within that class or capable of accessing (and paying) members of that class. This is problematic on technical grounds (those whose interests and perspectives are not included in the production of authority are more likely to privately dissent, diminishing the effectiveness of authority at coordinating behavior and increasing the degree to which hard power may be required), and on ethical grounds (the facts upon which we coordinate social behavior largely determine social outcomes, the determination of those facts is never neutral and always to a very large degree arbitrary).

The entropy of an individual human body is extraordinary large. It is a miracle, the degree to which even people we lock up as batshit crazy control and manage that entropy to yield elaborately functional behavior. The entropy of a human community or society is many of orders of magnitude larger, the space of potential social behavior is incomprehensibly vast and multidimensional. The behavior of so many bodies must be improbably constrained and synchronized to yield functional societies, which requires elaborate social coordination. Authority is an invisible drummer that helps to organize this dance. We construct authority. How we construct it is among the most important social, ethical, and technological problems we face.

[1] As with questions surrounding socialism and economic calculation, there is an case to be made that emerging information technology will render practical more pervasive and direct forms of state compulsion. So, um, exciting.

[2] When we are in it we are in it, but while we are thinking about authority from a distance, let’s remind ourselves that the absence of cognitive dissonance does not imply the presence of truth from some larger perspective. History is full of communities that produced authority effectively (in the sense that the “facts” that conditioned social behavior were widely privately believed), but which we now look back upon as having been egregiously in error, scientifically or morally. We might be “wrong” too. But authority is not about truth or falsehood in the eyes of God. It is about coordinating human behavior.


6 Responses to “Authority”

  1. Steve Roth writes:

    Good stuff as always. A pet-peeve example of mine: econs and others accord often-unquestioned authority to national-accounts measures and data.

    Problem not just many difficulties of measurement, imputation, omission. The very structure of accounting presentations is itself reified as authoritative, blind to that structure itself being an economic model based on “authoritative” assumptions.

  2. ThorntonHall writes:

    Which is why the post war media, turning a business model—regional monopolies producing “objective truth” in order to get classifieds and department store ads to the widest possible audience, including voters of both sides—into an ethical model as well as theory of truth has been a powerful force undermining our democracy.

    To this day, the news media cultivates the idea that truth is not just apolitical, but non-political. That democracy turns everything it touches into falsehood. “You and me are far too savvy to believe those silly politicians,” writes someone who proudly does not vote as a matter of ethics. He has never witnessed a lobbyist meet with a politician but writes authoritatively on the evils of money in politics. He has never witnessed two politicians negotiating but writes authoritatively on appropriations. He has never organized a town hall…

    If democracy were baseball, life in the United States is like a baseball fan in Chicago who has only one choice for baseball news, a paper that claims to love baseball and proves it by hating the Cubs and the White Sox with equal vigor. The paper employs writers who have held a baseball but never thrown one, held a bat but never swung. Is it a surprise that our baseball fan’s love of baseball causes him to hate the newspaper? Or that his source of news causes him to hate all the players? Or that he encourages his most promising child to stay away from tryouts for the high school baseball team?

  3. Wisdom Seeker writes:

    I wandered by and, as a scientist, I found this article fascinating, particularly the point that “We construct authority. How we construct it is among the most important social, ethical, and technological problems we face.”

    I’d like to argue that over the past 30-odd years the U.S., and possibly the world, have shifted our approach to constructing authority. Too little is based on individual observation and logic. However, this is shifting. The hype-driven media, exposed by the primary content now available on the internet, have destroyed their veil of authority. We have lost a lot of value that can be produced when authority is constructed wisely and well, but we now have the ability to begin reconstructing authority through more scientific means.

    1) The OP contains an illustrative error regarding judicial authority: In the U.S. criminal trial system, Judges don’t pronounce guilt; Juries do. That’s a vital distinction because a jury is assembled from the community, not a part of the government like a judge. The authority produced by a peer jury is qualitatively different than that produced by a judge. This makes the legal system more democratic, that is, open to change via public authority.

    2) It’s an error in mindset to think that the bank is the authority on how much money you have in the bank. Math is. Every transaction is reported to both parties on the account (you and the bank), so that both parties (and indeed any third party) can verify the accuracy of the values. (And dispute them as needed.) Such a system is essential precisely because the interests of the parties are diametrically opposed. Why is basic math an authority? Because it’s verifiable by all. This makes it more “scientific” in the sense I’ll describe below.

    3) The laws of physics are an authority not because of the textbooks that explain them, but because anyone can verify them independently. This is the whole point of lab projects in science classes. Science doesn’t require social authorities to enforce it. In that sense I believe it is the ultimate soft power (as the term was used in the OP). Now, in using “science”, I’m not talking about facts to be memorized by students from authoritative textbooks, nor am I talking about pronouncements by government-funded researchers claiming a mantle of authority through expertise. Instead I’m talking about the old-fashioned but extremely valuable process by which anyone can establish knowledge from independent observation, trial and error, experimentation and so on. Taking a scientific approach to one’s own life is out of fashion nowadays, but IMHO it is far superior to the current deference-to-authority approach embodied by the latest “trendy” fads and fashions.

    4) Apropos of ThorntonHall’s comment – the news media has lost its authority in large part because those with a “scientific” approach to the news are now, in the internet age, able to go to the primary sources and demonstrate the inaccuracy of the media’s biased ad-selling output. “Let me see for myself” is possible now, not just in questions of math or physics, but also in politics and social matters. When the media tell you someone said one thing, but you can go and watch the relevant video clip and clearly see that they’re misinterpreting the data, that’s incredibly powerful and empowering. Credibility is being lost by many, and earned by some.

  4. Steve Randy Waldman writes:

    Wisdom Seeker — It doesn’t much affect the argument either way, but even in the US there are bench trials of criminal matters. The right to trial by jury can be waived, and defendants (who may fear an unfair jury due to the inflammatory nature of a crime, for example) can and do sometimes waive it. See e.g.

  5. ennui writes:

    The problem with this kind of analysis is that you are never going to pin down exactly what this “authority” is that the argument depends on. You can see the difficulties begin when you decide the substance of authority can be “hard” or “soft”:

    a cop is considered to have more authority if their commands are complied with without the use of force. yet, being a cop is usually defined having been granted the “authority” to use violence to achieve compliance and it’s hard to imagine soft compliance without the imminence of hard compliance. if a police office asks a motorist to pull over to allow an emergency vehicle to pass is compliance derived from: soft authority, hard authority, or perhaps the motorist is engaged in a shared sense of social responsibility regardless of the police order…

    my point is that, in practice, it becomes difficult to distinguish all of these different “authorities.” no social situation requiring compliance to authority is ever removed from imminence “hard” material facts. the courthouse is caught up in a web of material relations eg. bail. lawyer fees, work interruption, education in the law, attire, etc. that you will never disentangle hard from soft power in any application of authority within it’s confines, ad infinitum.

    which is why when you think about authority and the production of authority it’s hard not to be lead back to material facts and material laws. i don’t think you will even disentangle the production of authority from the production of the material conditions that authority is represented within…

  6. gelboak writes:

    Is this a subtweet of Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book?