Who Authorizes the Authorities? by Butler D. Shaffer

Who Authorizes the Authorities?
By Butler D. Shaffer

I began my class one day with an apparently simple question: Does the U.S. Constitution have legitimacy? As a follow-up question, I asked: By what right does one group of men get together and impose upon others a particular system of government?

These questions, of course, do not apply only to the American political system, but can be asked, with equal force, of every government that has ever existed. By what right did the Bolsheviks, or the Catholic Church, or William the Conqueror, or Genghis Khan, or any other group or individual, assume the authority to make and enforce laws upon other men and women?

Having been educated in traditional schools, most of my students answered with the kind of conditioned responses that it has been the purpose of traditional education to provide: “We all got together and agreed to this form of government,” they declared.

Even though the fallacy of such explanations of governmental origins were quickly dispelled by asking the students to tell me the place and date at which they attended this “meeting” with “everybody else” to establish a government, I have no doubt that all of them truly believed that the American government was formed out of the common consent of all Americans.

I forged ahead with my questions: “If we all have inalienable rights, how can some men vote to take away the rights of others?” “How does the fact that ten men may choose to join together for their common protection impose upon the eleventh man any obligation to go along with them?”

True to their public school upbringings, my students tried to take comfort in the process of voting.: “If they majority are in favor of something, that makes it right,” a number of them agreed.

“But what makes the will of the majority sacrosanct?” I asked.

I went on. “Suppose three muggers confront you on the street and say, ‘We want your money. But don’t worry — we’re going to let you vote on whether or not you should give it to us.’ If this group votes three-to-one in favor of taking your money, does this legitimize its actions?”

A few of my students saw the obvious analogy to government, but for others the characterization of government as nothing more than sanctified theft and violence was too unsettling. One student tried to rehabilitate the democratic process with the weak plea that “It has to involve more than just a few people,” while another felt obliged to defend democracy and voting at all costs, as something in the nature of an ultimate principle.

“Majority rule is just the way our government is set up,” he argued, not seeing that he had succeeded in arguing himself into one big circle.

“But that’s what I’m asking you to explain.” I went on: “ How does this — or any other — system of government acquire the legitimacy to impose such processes upon those who do not choose to be bound by it?”

The discussion ended with a number of my students resorting to the traditional method of all totalitarian systems and ideas: “If you don’t like it, you should leave the country,” they shouted.

When the discussion was over, one of my students stated that this had been a very “unsettling” and “uncomfortable” experience. “It was my purpose to make you uncomfortable,” I replied, “ for only in facing hard, uncomfortable questions will we be able to overcome the dependencies on authority that we have accepted for our lives.”

I remarked upon how institutions not only cause most of the social conflict in the world today, but absolutely require conflict in order to maintain their power over our lives. Government, in particular, generates and manages conflict and, in the process, solidifies its base of power over us.

“But what is the answer to this?” a number of them asked. “What alternatives are there for us?” I told them that since the problem of government involves our self-induced dependencies on authority figures, for me to give you my answer is simply to substitute me as your new authority.

The social problems of our world are occasioned by our consciousness. They are the problem of how we think — about ourselves, others, and our responsibilities for our own behavior and our own conclusions. “The answer,” I concluded, “ is that you must figure out your own answers.”

That has always been the source of the human dilemma. Because we have come to enjoy the luxury of having other people make judgments and decisions for us, we are terribly uncomfortable when someone comes along and challenges our complacency.

We enjoy triviality — a fact that has spawned mindless television programming, gossip magazines, and a general banality in what used to be the art of serious conversation — and eschew fundamental inquires. But if life is to have any meaning, if we are ever to overcome the viciousness and vulgarity that are destroying the quality of human life, we must get ourselves in the habit of asking the sorts of questions we have been trained not to ask.

Butler Shaffer teaches at Southwest University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.


10 responses to “Who Authorizes the Authorities? by Butler D. Shaffer

  1. Lynn Atherton-Bloxham

    Excellent progression of questions. But my favorite comment was, “the answer is you must figure out your own answers.” So must we all.
    By the way, my husband Roger and I and many of our friends in Tulsa still remember when you spoke at our Oklahoma meeting. You were a stimulating and thought provoking speaker.

  2. Lysander Spooner said that “[t]he Constitution [of the United States] has no inherent authority or obligation.” Whether you agree with that statement or not, it is unlikely to convince all the adult citizens of our nation to agree to disband our system of government and to relie on cooperative agreements between honest people.

    Mr. Shaffer’s point is well taken. By what legitimate authority can my neighbor, let alone politicians in Washington, or in a State’s legislative body, tell me what to do when my behavior does not violate the rights of any other person? And that doesn’t even get into using my taxes to support programs that I do not support or think are immoral.

    Remember: To govern means to control. How much control do you need by a politician or bureaucrat?

  3. Asking the question, does the U.S. Constitution have legitimacy is an interesting question, but not a relevant one to ask today.

    Our current government is the result of decades of poor decisions made by voters that based their decisions on political campaigns that were created by the best political strategists that money could buy.

    We all have free will and are free to do anything we like if we are prepared to pay the consequences for our actions.

    I use to think that those types of people were in the minority, but one look at our current prison population and number of repeat offenders and it looks like they are quickly becoming the majority. For some it is as simple as paying speeding or parking tickets, for others it is for killing someone who cut you off in traffic or killing someone over a dollar.

    Lets face it most people don’t even know why they are a registered Democratic or Republican other than that is what their parents were. Most people base their political knowledge on what they see on TV or read in the paper. Candidates know this and hire neuroscientists to create marketing campaigns that play on your fears to sway your vote in their favor.

    We have become experts at creating complex systems and laws, then hiring the best and brightest minds to find ways around them. I’m sure the founding fathers never considered that one of the the biggest hurdles of appointing a cabinet member was whether they waited until they were nominated to pay their back taxes.

    We don’t make rational decisions. If we did, we would see that we go to war for many noble reasons, but we stay at war for only one reason and that is to make the banks that finance those wars very wealthy.

    If you look at the events that caused us to fight for our freedom from England and formed our current government, you would see that most of them would not be possible today without being convicted of treason or any number of other criminal actions.

    If any of us decided to take a stand against paying unrealistic taxes and choose to form a new government on land that we stole, we would end up in jail for the rest of our lives. So like it or not we are stuck with our poor decisions and current situation until a large majority decides to take a stand just like our founding fathers did.

  4. I agree with those who say you should leave the country. Leave geographically? How inconvenient. No, my brother – leave cryptologically: join the nobility that is the Shadow Kingdom.

    • oh Baron,

      you have stimulated my curiosity. Just what is the Shadow Kingdom? What is the benefit and obligation related to joining?


  5. The fact that the term America came out of the revolution by people you had a common interest not to be ruled by a king are now ruled by a president with a socialist agenda (Progressives) some over the years were republicans and democrats and these presidents have walked away from the constitution or interpreted the meaning of the constitution to their political agenda. This is not what it was intended for. Are we really free?

  6. I am a former student of Prof. Shaffer’s. I recall that after a similar discussion in his class years ago, a few of the students, whose senses of self and security had been rattled by Shaffer’s dissection of their belief systems, gathered around him. While they clumsily attempted to find some justification for their middle-class beliefs, Shaffer took delight in further eroding the underpinnings of their existences. Unfortunately, it seemed as if the Prof. was as interested in conveying his supercilious belief that his students were pathetic, unthinking automatons, as he was in opening their minds to new beliefs.

    Though I had agreed with most of his theory, I was offended by his mean-spirited method of “educating” his students and the very same sense of superiority as exhibited by those who usurp power in our society. I asked Shaffer if was doing anything to affect the dysfunctions of the government and social order, other than promulgating his ideas. He immediately became defensive. He didn’t answer me when I asked him if he owned a home; paid taxes, was married or voted.

    I pointed out to him that as a tenured law professor, he was a functionary of the system, complicite in perpetuating the government by manufacturing cogs for the machine. Uncharacteristically, Prof. Shaffer had nothing to say other than a weak, “What are you talking about?”, as if I was just another one of his clueless law students with my head in the sand.

    • Ian,

      That’s unfortunate. I guess we must all guard against becoming too prideful. This is a great article though. It is much harder to practice what one preaches – especially when the state encroaches on every aspect of our lives and we need to feed our families. One must also decide where they would be most effective to promote freedom. For some it may mean staying “in the system” if it gives them an avenue to promote libertarian principles. Maybe this is his chosen avenue.

      Claire Wolfe wrote an excellent book entitled “179 Things To Do Until the Revolution” where she called these people “moles”. These are people who are in the system working to bring it down from within.

  7. For me there is no legitimate form of government, but that is too much for most people to take. “Freedom,” however, “is a state of mind.” I don’t need to convert others to my position. I just have to learn to live as a free, sovereign individual.

  8. i am “mohawk” the way you’re suppose to do things like us !first thing,and probably the way is simple like everyone at the meeting,of course only representive can talk,but who ever wants to go can,Representive can only say what was instructed by the women and the clan,one issue at a time,all agree100%.If it is good for one then good for all,consenses from all.two sides and a judge.check out the iroquois Kanienerakowa