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.