Fair Questions: Why are people authoritarian?

Recently, I mentioned that Trump’s supporters are frequently authoritarian in their political views and tried to explain why people might favor him as a Presidential candidate.  Obviously, the explicit reasons are often along the lines of him being the anti-establishment candidate, but given that our personality pathologies often shape our political perspective in ways that we don’t consciously choose, it seems worth considering other factors.

As I’ve mentioned before, my personality pathologies and upbringing lead me to be extremely independent.  This independent streak tends to show up quite often in the libertarian movement and its various tributaries.  And I do indeed have a great deal of attraction to libertarian ideas, unsurprisingly.  Also unsurprisingly, I have very little attraction to authoritarian ideas.  But because I think it’s worthwhile to understand the perspectives of others, I would like to present a possible explanation for authoritarianism.

I could discuss evidence from evolutionary psychology and anthropology which suggests that it is perfectly normal and natural for us to want a pack leader who is strong and decisive.  But this applies to those of us with libertarian inclinations just as it does everyone else, and so I think it fails as an explanation for why some people are politically authoritarian while others are not.

Jonathan Haidt quite rightly points to personality differences which shape our conclusions about politics and everything else.  But even this doesn’t necessarily get us to a complete explanation of why some people are authoritarians, because there are people with personalities we would expect to drive them to libertarian views who nonetheless have authoritarian views.  Granted, those are the exception rather than the rule.  But what would drive them to become authoritarian in their political views?

I am going to propose what may seem like a wild-eyed hypothesis: people become authoritarian (at least in part) because there is good evidence that it works.  Unsurprisingly to Haidt, this is going to seem especially strange to the typical modern liberal/progressive academic whose experience in higher education is that consensus-based decision-making works well.  And it does in fact work well in small homogeneous  groups in which people are likely to have mostly the same values, analytical approaches, and personality types.

It may indeed seem like downright nonsense to libertarian-left folks who share my intuitions about the role of government and the primacy of individual liberty.  Especially for those of us who look at the history of the tribe, the kingdom, and the nation-state and see it strewn about with constant wars and nationalistic hatred, the authoritarian position seems to have a great deal of evidence against it, the weight of which presses us to turn to its opposite.

But people like me are exactly the people who most need to understand the evidence for authoritarian policies; it is a serious gap in both our knowledge and our empathy.  We should be wary of reactionary behaviors which lead us to run in the other direction when we feel that our existing security is threatened by the political views of others.  Maybe their political views, like those of Stalin or Hitler or Mao, are objectively a threat to the lives of many and to flourishing societies.  Or maybe they are a different way of arriving at a flourishing society and preserving the lives of many.

Like the academic who believes in the value of consensus-based decision-making because it has worked over and over again in department meetings, committee meetings, and perhaps even in their marriage and family life, the authoritarian believes in the value of decisions made by the authority for the whole group because it too has worked over and over again.  Perhaps the evidence started accumulating when it worked well to corral a fractious family who couldn’t agree on much but still needed to accomplish goals necessary to survival.

Perhaps the evidence grew when it worked well for a small business to be able to compete in the market for groceries because only one person in the business had the experience and training to make the to decisions effectively penetrate a tough market.  Perhaps the evidence expanded after reading about various kingdoms that are relatively stable and peaceful in otherwise unstable and warring parts of the world divided by fractious tribes with wildly different values.

At that point, even someone without an intuitive grasp of the appeal of authoritarianism might understand that it is (at least in some cases) a working model that can handle the large, diverse, heterogeneous groups which fight over whose values are best and cause senseless violence and death among populations.  And that this is something that purely libertarian approaches that leave people to enact their own values and purely consensus-based approaches which only work well in relatively homogeneous groups are not equipped to do.

This of course is not to ignore the many problems associated with authoritarian approaches, but I do think it’s also valuable to keep in mind the problems with our own approaches when we critique the approaches of others.  There is evidence for my political views, and there is evidence for the views of authoritarian views also.  This is something to keep in mind when engaging in dialogue or debate with an authoritarian so that we can be genuinely tolerant an respectful of other views.

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