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What are the constituent parts of authority?

By John Tomlinson - posted Thursday, 3 August 2006

We sometimes refer to a person as being an authority on some aspect of human existence. This is usually because most informed people regard their writings in a specific area of study as truly insightful. John Rawls on ethics, Philippe van Parijs on basic income and T.H. Marshall on social citizenship are but three examples.

Other writers might contribute significant ideas to the debate but we can choose to discuss their work or ignore it. With the three writers just mentioned, however, were we to be writing in the area of their expertise, we would be wise to acknowledge their authoritative contribution and indicate our general acceptance of, or intellectual departure from, their position. Implicit in this recognition is one sense of authority, authority as guidance. This meaning of authority is authority at its least oppressive.

We sometimes talk about authority figures. By which we mean people whose direction we must follow or suffer some penalty: police, military officers, prime ministers, teachers and parents being some examples.


John Howard as prime minister committed us to wage war in Iraq even though public opinion was running strongly against the war. He is the parliamentary leader of what is claimed to be a “representative democracy”. In his deciding to go to war, he confused his role as our leading representative with that of our “absolute” ruler.

Authority figures sometimes exercise their authority by persuasion:

  • parent: “It’s for your own good”;
  • teacher: “It will help you to understand”;
  • police: “It’s the law”;
  • Howard: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, they are developing nuclear weapons and they will pass them on to terrorists”; and
  • army officer: “It’ll save the nation from terrorism”.

But if you or I choose to ignore such entreaties the authority figures’ authority
relies ultimately upon the extent of power at their command:

  • parent: “If you don’t do it, you’ll get belted”;
  • teacher: “If you don’t read books, you’ll fail”;
  • police: “If you don’t do what I say, you’ll be arrested”; and
  • military Officer: “If you don’t stop, I’ll shoot.”

Of course, some teachers, parents and police kill people. This fact usually brings them to the attention of other, more powerful, authority figures. Even on the odd occasion, the killing of an unarmed civilian has led to the police being charged, but courts and juries are inept at handling such cases and most police killings are whitewashed. So-called independent judicial inquiries amount to a small hindrance. Still such killings are not lawful uses of authority.


Authority here is being used in two main senses: persuasion, force … though some find force persuasive.

If the aim is to instill compliance then, at one level, it is of little consequence whether one is persuaded or compelled, although many people find persuasion is more appealing than compulsion. We know that people who can be persuaded are far more likely to comply in the absence of the authority figure than those who, though unconvinced, can be forced to comply in the presence of a figure of authority.

We know about the policy of redemptive “pre-emption” and the coalition of the killing’s invasion of Iraq. According to George W. Bush, they won the war some time ago. But American troops are still getting killed in Iraq. Over 2,500 American troops have died as of June 2006. Here we see an example of people who were initially forced to comply by the overwhelming force of the invaders have not been persuaded of the righteous authority of the American imperialists’ claim to be imposing democracy.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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