Power and authority

Recently I have been aware of statements regarding the power of the Presidency and the power of Congress. Those statements have directed my mind to the relationship between power and authority.

Power is the capacity to make another do something whether they would ordinarily do it or not. Every society, in fact, every social system, has a power structure. Over the centuries, the two most frequently examined social systems have been authoritarian oligarchy and democracy. When a society is small, power can be expressed directly. In such a circumstance, power and authority are the same.

I have heard it said that pure democracy is only possible in small groups. You may have heard the same expression. Upon deeper examination, I have concluded that pure authoritarian oligarchy is also only possible in small groups.

Herein lies the relationship between power and authority. When a social system grows to the point that one authoritarian oligarch can no longer force obedience because of what is called “span of control,” authority must be delegated into an authoritarian hierarchy. In a democratic society, the power lies with the people. In such a system, authority is granted to representatives to act on behalf of the people.

The two systems are diametrically opposite each other. In an authoritarian oligarchy, the power is at the top and authority to represent the oligarch is granted downward. In a democratic society, the power is in the hands of the people and the authority is granted upward.

In the United States of America, the structure is very mixed. Sometimes it seems as though the power is in the form of money. Money grants authority to whoever holds it. A person can exercise considerable authority based on their control of financial resources. A sudden turn of “fortune” might cause the individual to lose control of their financial resources, in which case, they would also see a reduction of their authority.

It is sobering to think that money, which was originally only a useful device to simplify trade, is now the purveyor of power. Sadly, even those political leaders who claim to have power in United States society, only have second level authority, the primary level of authority being in the hands of the holders of wealth.

Then, there is the issue of political parties masquerading as democracy. In a pure democracy, each individual would have a voice in selecting the person, someone they have access to, to exercise authority on their behalf. Instead, at periodic intervals, the people who are supposed to have the power, are given a choice between two candidates. Many eligible voters are so disenfranchised that they do not even exercise their right to vote.

I know that we can do better than this.

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