David Brooks wrote an interesting piece the other day. In it he posits that we're not good followers. He starts off with musing about monuments, particularly in Washington and segues into his main point. He also divides authorities into "just" and not. As you might expect, he was on the receiving end of a lot of scorn.
He was definitely straying into Stanley Fish's arena (he writes about morality and philosophy for the Times), and he definitely invoked William F. Buckley's famous "God and Man" concept. The difference is that Mr Brooks didn't have a tome, only a column, and didn't actually get around to reciting an example of a "just" authority. I think he got a bit confused, to be honest.
Now, one of the precepts of modern conservatism is authoritarianism. It pervades the movement, which shouldn't be a movement, it should be a political philosophy. And its leaders, such as they are, and many of its followers try to extoll themselves as "just" and "righteous". It's what makes them so irritating! :-) To be fair, Mr Brooks does point out this moral hazard.
The thing is, there are differing authorities and they all have varying degrees of rightness. For example, there's the authority of the idea. We accept that women are equal - it's an idea that had to be fought over, so we can't (and shouldn't) simply state that it's a right women have simply for being human. It's a right they should have for being human, but in many parts of the planet, it's a heresy. The fights over abortion are about the division of authority; it should be accepted that women have a right to determine their fate and what happens with their bodies, others vehemently disagree. They ultimately don't consider women to have fundamental rights like men do.
And then there's the authority of the law. Contracts are important; they often have an overriding authority, dictating what is to be done, by whom, by when and for how much. Other aspects aren't so desirable; Citizen's United, which opened the floodgates to basic political corruption (not the overt bribe sort, but the more insidious and dangerous "influence" of money). The ubiquitous cameras that watch every move Briton's make are a dangerous authority, although they're touted as being able to catch murderers and rapists. They make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on the population.
Finally, there's the authority of people, of individuals. Majorities use their authority to deny equal rights to others; some minorities use the power and authority of the all-mighty dollar to ensure passage of their favored legislation. A boss uses his or her authority to demand certain actions from you - it's an authority that's been so roundly and consistently abused that there are laws to circumscribe and limit such authority!
All of these authorities are interconnected; you can't have contracts without people; you can't have the idea of women's equality unless you accept that women are individuals, and you need the authority of some piece of legislation to ensure that a woman isn't subjected to harassment in the workplace. So when people deride Mr Brooks with sweeping statements, they're showing they haven't thought the issue through. Some authorities are worth "following", if only because they keep the place running. The problem, as Mr Brooks points out, is deciding which individuals and crowds have the moral worth to be followed. Which ideas have the necessary morality to be considered an overriding authority?
Personally, I'd say that any idea that relegates someone, or some group, to an arbitrarily derided status morally fails. You have to acknowledge that a leader who promotes and adheres to ideas that reduces others is a moral failure. People who promote discriminatory ideas fail morally. People who promote the idea that some group is worth worshipping, simply for being that group, morally fail. Majorities (and minorities) that reject equal considerations and rights are promoting discriminatory ideas, and they fail. These people have, at the core of their argument, the idea that you need to follow their prejudices as they impose them upon you. They are, clearly, not worthwhile authorities to follow.
On the right - it always gets to politics! - there is an overbearing authoritarianism. It's didactic, bullying and cruel. On the left, there's a mess of conflicting ideas, ideals and authorities. Some of it didactic and bullying but most of it isn't. But what's strange about it all is that, in America at least, it is to the left that we have to turn to if we want equality and equal opportunity for all.
That's an idea I can, and do, get behind. :-)