You Keep Using the Term ‘Authoritarian’ – OpEd


You know the term “authoritarian.” You think you know what it means. 

An authoritarian dad, boss, or government says: my way or the highway. They are forever barking orders and see compliance as the answer to all human problems. There is no room for uncertainty, adaptation to time and place, or negotiation. It’s ruling by personal dictate while tolerating no dissent. 

To be authoritarian is to be inhumane, to rule with arbitrary and capricious imposition. It can also mean to be ruled impersonally by a machine regardless of the cost. 

Sounds like a conventional government bureaucracy, right? Indeed. Think of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Think of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy which are right now issuing edicts that will end in the ability of your washing machine to clean your clothes and your car to go the distance. 

They have been doing this to us for many decades, with or without the permission of Congress or the president. The agencies have become literally out of control in the sense that no one can control them. 

Any society managed by a large and intrusive bureaucratic machinery is necessarily authoritarian. A government that is not authoritarian is necessarily limited in size, scope, and range of power. 

Let’s say you have a political leader who has routinely called for less in the way of authoritarian rule by bureaucracies. He intends to use whatever power he has to curb the autonomous rule by administrative bureaucracies and subject them more to the wishes of the people, who should ideally be in charge of the regime under which they live. 

Such a leader would not be called an authoritarian. He would be called the opposite, an emancipator who is trying to dismantle authoritarian structures. 

If all of the above makes sense to you, try to make sense of this news story in the New York Times. It’s about the growing efforts on the part of many activists to resist a second term of Donald Trump. 

In passing, the story says: “If Mr. Trump returns to power, he is openly planning to impose radical changes — many with authoritarian overtones” including “making it easier to fire civil servants.”

The story quickly adds that he intends to replace the fired employees with “loyalists.” Maybe. But consider the alternative. The president is supposed to be ostensibly in charge of 2 million plus bureaucrats that are employed by 400-plus agencies in the executive branch — but they don’t actually have to carry out the policies of the elected president. They can in fact completely ignore him. 

How is this compatible with either democracy or freedom? It is not. There is nothing in the Constitution about a vast army of bureaucrats who rule behind the scenes that is in no way reachable or manageable by elected representatives. 

The attempt to pull back, rein in, and otherwise do something about this problem is not authoritarian. It is the opposite. Even if “loyalists” replaced the fired employees, that would be an improvement over a system of government in which the people truly have no control at all. 

Two years into Trump’s first term, the administration came to figure out that this was a problem. The administration intended some dramatic turns in policy in a number of areas. All they experienced was dogged resistance from people who believed they and not the elected president were in charge. Over the next two years, they undertook many efforts to at least solve this problem: namely, the president should be in charge of the government that falls under his jurisdiction. 

This only makes sense. Imagine you are the CEO of a company. You discover that the main divisions that actually run the company care nothing about what you say and cannot be fired even if you demand it, and yet you are personally held responsible for everything these divisions do. What are you going to do?

It is not “authoritarian” to unseat or otherwise attempt to gain control over that for which you are held responsible, professionally or politically. That is truly all that the Trump people are suggesting. This is nothing other than a Constitutional system: we are supposed to have a government by and for the people. That means that the people elect the administrator of the executive branch. At a minimum, the winner of the election needs to be able to have some influence over what the agencies in the executive branch do. 

And for suggesting this and trying to make it happen, Trump is called an authoritarian. Prepare yourself: this will be said millions of times between now and November and following. Can the mainstream media just flat-out change the meaning of a term like this? They can but there is also every reason to push back and not let it happen. 

Language is a human construct. The more vibrant and fast-moving society is, the more the language changes. That can be a wonderful thing. In fact, one of my favorite books to read in off-hours is H.L. Mencken’s The American Language, written by this genius when he was otherwise censored for his views in wartime. 

It’s a marvelous chronicling of the evolution of American usage, published in 1919, but oddly pertinent even today, applicable to the dwindling number of people who can still form coherent sentences. 

When it comes to vocabulary, there are two schools of thought broadly speaking: prescriptivist and descriptivist. The prescriptivist view is that words have embedded meanings that you can trace from other languages and should be used as intended. The descriptivist approach sees language as more a living experience, a tool of utility to make communication possible, in which case anything goes. 

As Americans, we mostly accept the descriptivist outlook but this can go too far. Words cannot mean literally anything, much less the opposite. But this is exactly what is happening. It’s the same with the word “democracy,” which is supposed to mean the people’s choice, not whatever elites dish out to us. If Trump is the choice, so be it. That is the unfolding of democracy. 

If we want the president to be the CEO of the executive branch of government — and that’s a pretty good description of what the US Constitution establishes — then the administration ought to have that managerial authority. If you don’t like it, take it up with the Founders. 

Again, any society managed by a large and intrusive bureaucratic machinery is necessarily authoritarian. A government that is not authoritarian is necessarily limited in size, scope, and range of power. 

Any one president who takes action to curb the power and reach of arbitrary authority is not an authoritarian, but rather one who seeks to give authority back to the people. Such a man would be an emancipator, even if everyone said otherwise. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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