Political Authority’s Origins in Persuasion and Coercion

On while I was trying to come up with a cost/benefit analysis of my self-employment tax resistance method, I mentioned as one of the benefits:

Making the tax collector seize the money from me, rather than handing it over voluntarily, more authentically represents the sort of relationship I feel we have.

Kind of droll, but there’s something behind this that’s more than tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t until yesterday that I thought about it more carefully.

I was about half-way in to Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future where she starts to discuss the nature of political “authority”:

Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly taken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance. Against the egalitarian order of persuasion stands the authoritarian order, which is always hierarchical. If authority is to be defined at all, then, it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments.

It seems to me that political authority typically evolves from an origin of mixed coercion and persuasion. It is the pinnacle of political achievement, and almost all political bodies strive for it (with the exception of a few totalitarian systems which are content to rely mostly on coercion). A political system of 100% persuasion — the anarchist ideal — is what takes place in non-state settings: a group of friends deciding what sort of pizza to order will typically use persuasion, even if this results in setting up a democratic or monarchical decision-making process by temporary consensus.

But at the large-scale political level, even a 100% persuasive origin can evolve (or devolve) into an authority-based state. This is the mythical origin of Hobbes’s Leviathan, of Robert Nozick’s minimal state, and various others in-between.

Outside of philosophy, things are typically more mixed: The Federalist Papers were a measure of persuasion, the repression of various unpersuaded Americans was a measure of coercion. Mixed together with many other ingredients, of such a recipe was the republic made, and it is the relatively high proportion of persuasion in that mix that gives its founding such a good reputation.

One way of looking at political authority is to think of it as a mixture of coercion and persuasion that is held in reserve: an energy that is potential, rather than kinetic — like a battery. Another physical metaphor is to consider authority as the momentum built up through the application of coercion and persuasion, such that the momentum itself has the same sort of power that the original coercion and persuasion did.

Authority allows the government to coast: “we would persuade you, but you are already persuaded, remember?; we would compel you, but you are already compelled, remember?” Meanwhile its subjects feel persuaded without knowing quite which arguments persuaded them, and feel compelled without ever feeling the grip on their shoulders or the bayonet at their backs.

Over time, a government that has reached its maturity in authority, even one that was born largely from persuasion, will tend to abuse this hard-earned authority — to cash it in for all of the various and notorious tempting corruptions of power. This it could not have done originally by persuasion alone, though perhaps it could have if at the beginning it commanded the tools of coercion it now commands as an authoritarian government.

But such a government, because the coercion behind its authority is held mostly in reserve — frozen, invisible — may still hold the esteem that it earned from having evolved through a relatively high proportion of persuasion. Indeed it may insist that its present corruption is fully justified by its humble origins, and it may use its authority to embellish its own origin myth.

If a government’s authority is challenged, it will temporarily retrench into a position from which it can unleash its potential political energy as kinetic political energy and thereby remove the challenge. This involves using the tools of coercion and persuasion that it has kept in reserve.

And this may expose the true mixture of coercion and persuasion that represents the power-behind-the-throne. As Gene Sharp wrote about Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaigns in South Africa:

The original “naked force of conquest” had been translated into the sanctity of law. … [Leo] Kuper points out that civil disobedience brought the violence behind the law and the domination into actual operation. “Satyagraha strips this sanctity from the laws, and compels the application of sanctions, thus converting domination again to naked force.” The nonviolent challenge had not created, but only revealed the violence. “Force is implicit in white domination: the resistance campaign made it explicit.”

In other words, by challenging the authority of the government, you call its bluff and force it to reveal its hand. If it has a strong, persuasive hand, well, there you go, and maybe you’re even persuaded. If it has a strong, coercive hand, suddenly people begin to feel its grip on their shoulders. If the hand is weak on either count, suddenly this too is exposed, and the power-behind-the-throne is revealed to be not so powerful after all.

The point is that it may be important and useful to force the government to retrench from authority to its more concrete basis in coercion and persuasion, even if you do not have the power to overcome it once it has retrenched.

The danger of this approach is that if you demand the government drop its mask of authority and show you the fangs of coercion that lie behind it, it may show them to you good and hard. And the stronger your challenge to authority is, the more vicious will be the government’s reaction.

The more benign the government you challenge, the more it will retreat into a stance dominated by persuasion over coercion. The more malign it is, the more it will bring out the hardware. But the paradox is that the longer you wait and the more malevolent the government becomes, the more dangerous it is to challenge it while at the same time this challenge becomes more imperative.

The way out of this dilemma is to become less averse to challenging political authority (and this means saying “no” to its commands, not merely grumbling “I disapprove” to its heralds) — and to make this challenge at the first sign that authority is misused, rather than waiting until it has become so tyrannical that it knows no limits.

I later () stumbled on this quote from James Baldwin: “[N]o kingdom can maintain itself by force alone. Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. Furthermore, it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him, but — to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call — the honor roll — of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain.…”

“When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities — and seas of blood. The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this — paradoxically — by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principles on which a new world will be built.”