On Attempting to Control the Extended Use of Authority

I’m reading a book I began reading 40 years ago, but never finished: Politics and Markets by Charles E. Lindblom. Page 130 is the last place I put a mark, an asterisk, next to an especially interesting passage.

I bet if Prof. Lindblom, who died in 2018, had lived to write a new edition, he would have described our current president’s actions with understanding, mixed with disdain. This is from chapter 9, “Politics: The Struggle over Authority” [pp. 129-130]:

People struggle ferociously, . . . first over who will win authority and then over attempts to control those who have won it. However, the struggle goes, the pattern of authority always remains to some significant degree uncontrollable because of ever present possibilities, open to anyone who holds authority, to give it what we have called extended use.

However much the exercise of authority is hedged about with constraining rules, people with authority can always find some loophole to make possible its extended use . . .Β 

In Western history, the liberal constitutional movement has to be seen as a multiple response to this state of affairs. It was — perhaps first — a movement to convert an often deadly struggle for authority into peaceful procedures so that non-contestants could escape the pillage common to armed contests for authority and losers could go on living and enjoying their property.

It was secondly an attempt to achieve some predictability in the struggle for the use of authority — that is, to move at least modestly toward making the machinery of government systematically controllable in a purposive way (not yet controllable by the masses but by a nobility, merchant group, or middle class). In this attempt, the movement sought to curb the extended use of authority by laying down constitutional restrictions on how rulers might use their authority — to forbid, for example, a ruler’s extended use of his taxing authority to persecute a political adversary.

This attempt to limit authority will perhaps never run its course. The ease with which authority can be given extended use was revealed once more in the history of the Nixon administration and will repeatedly be revealed again [you said it, professor].

A third response of the liberal constitutional movement is the audacious attempt to institutionalize through detailed rules a high degree of mass or popular control over top authority. Since . . . government is in large part simply uncontrollable, since everybody controls it in complex, unpredictable, and ever changing ways, this third aspiration will always be frustrated. But it persists. The democratic faith is that any significant accomplishment in this direction is greatly to be prized.

In the next chapter, we look at this audacious attempt at popular control. Democratic designs amend, though they never replace, the underlying struggle for authority described in this chapter.


We have our chance to exert some control over authority, especially its remarkably extended use, in our upcoming election. I’m convinced Prof. Lindblom would have voted and wanted you to vote too.Β 

PS: Not following the news is boring but restful. I did hear that the president said something about political provocateurs (or maybe it was snakes) on a plane, but that’s all that’s leaked through this week.

Law Enforcement in the Suburbs

I’m driving on a one-lane road near a construction zone, and a police car is parked at the side of the road. There is a line of cars in front of me waiting for the light to change. The other cars start moving, but the car in front of me doesn’t. The driver is talking to the policeman in the police car. I see that the light has gone back to red again, while this conversation continues. So I honk my horn a little bit to remind the person in front of me that I’m behind her and would like to make the next light. The driver drives off to the side, apparently in order to continue her talk with the officer.

As I drive by, heading for the red light, the cop yells at me “Take it easy!”. I ignore him and keep going.Β 

This reminded me of the last time I was addressed by a local police officer. He was parked in a lane that is used to drop off and pick up passengers at the train station. He was blocking traffic. When we eventually got around him, by driving over a low divider, I gave him a look. He noticed and said something like “You got a problem?”. I can’t remember what I said — our car was moving and there wasn’t a lot of time for discussion — but it might have been something like “We’re trying to get around you”.Β 

As we drove around the nearby traffic circle, the cop put on his flashing lights and pulled us over. He was upset that I questioned his authority in public. We had a fairly long talk. I was kind of hoping he’d arrest me for something so I could sue the city. Perhaps he thought I was obstructing justice by interfering with the performance of his official duties, i.e., sitting in his parked car in a special lane that is designed for dropping off and picking up passengers.

I wonder if police officers in the suburbs are so pressed for real confrontations that they look for excuses to exercise their authority. To prove that they are in charge. They don’t have lots of bad guys to deal with, so they try to insure that we citizens treat them with total respect, even if they’re blocking traffic for no good reason.

It’s not an earth-shaking situation for sure, but this is my blog and there don’t seem to be any cops around.