Back to main page

Back to home page

Printer friendly

Powerful Authorities

The word "authority" has a couple of different meanings when it comes to sources of information that we may or may not believe. One definition indicates a person that is an expert on something, as in the statement "Dr. Scribner is an authority on ancient Greece." In this section we will be concerned about a slightly different kind of authority - the person with power. We might hear "The man who broke into the building was turned over to the authorities," implying the police or people in the criminal justice system. There are other kinds of powerful authorities, such as religious authorities who are high ranking officials of some religious organization, business authorities who hold high positions in a corporation, military authorities who are high ranking officers, as well as people in government who have powerful elected or appointed positions. People who happen to be very wealthy may sometimes be thought of as authorities as well. To a large extent authorities are the people who control the world. They have much greater influence on what happens in the world than the rest of us.

One of the things their power gives them is the ability to express their opinions to large audiences. The media reports what authorities say, and in ceremonies authorities are invited to give speeches. People in charge of organizations often speak to the people in those organizations or send memos or other communications to the people under them. Authorities often have the power or wealth to send out mass mailings or buy advertising.  As a result, we get a lot of information from authorities. An important issue for those who want to be responsible thinkers is the question of how much trust we should put in what authorities tell us.

Assumptions we may make about authorities

There are some common stereotypes about people in authority that relate to their credibility:

One common idea is that people rise to positions of power because they are wiser or more knowledgeable or in some other respect more capable than other people. If we assume this is true, then it makes sense to trust what powerful authorities tell us. We might listen to a speech by the President and assume he is giving us a fair and accurate description of problems facing our country. We may read a memo circulated by the CEO of our employer and think of her as an expert how our business should be run. Sometimes there are seminars given by famous and successful people to tell us how to improve our lives. Many people pay to get their advice.

On the other hand, powerful people are sometimes thought of as more likely to engage in underhanded schemes to help themselves and their cronies. It is commonly said that "power corrupts." If we assume this, we should always be suspicious of what powerful authorities tell us. Politicians, particularly those we disagree with, are often seen as scoundrels. People in management are often seen as clueless by the rank and file, as exemplified by the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert comic strip. We might talk about a "good old boys" network of powerful people who help their cronies at the expense of the common people.

To what extent are these stereotypes true?

How do people get to be powerful?

To answer this question it is helpful to ask how people get to positions of power. Normally getting to a very high-level position requires working one's way step by step through other positions of increasing importance. Often the process is very competitive, so at each step there are many people trying to be elevated for each person who succeeds. People who lack the qualities for climbing this ladder are more and more likely to be left behind at each step, so it would not be surprising to find that those who do make it to the top are quite different from the average person in terms of having the qualities for success. In other words, it may be that certain stereotypes often do apply. What, then, are some of the qualities that are important to achieving powerful positions? Here are some important ones:

  • Ability to do the job well (authorities would like us to assume this is true)
  • Integrity (at least it's best to avoid scandals)
  • Ambition and hard work
  • Charisma (this is very useful for getting votes and raising money)
  • Luck (there's nothing like being in the right place at the right time)
  • Wealth (you can pay for the best help and publicity)
  • Connections (other people with power can help you get power)
  • Catering to others with power (getting better connections by buttering people up)
  • Ruthlessness (not letting anything get in the way of ambition)
  • Ability to deceive (it may not matter if you're not good as long as people think you are)

Some of these don't tell us much about whether the person is a source of reliable information. A person who has risen to the top because of wealth or connections or luck may or may not be honest or well-informed, so perhaps we should trust them no more or less that we would trust the claims of other people who we don't know personally. We should only have confidence in what people tell us if they both know what is true and honestly relay what they know. Integrity implies they are honest, but it isn't clear that integrity is typically an important part of climbing the power ladder as long as serious scandals are avoided. Having valid knowledge can usually be assumed for people who have a strong ability to do their job well. While this is often a major factor in success, power positions often depend more on skills managing people than they do on a deep understanding of the issues that apply to making policies. So at best, we would only expect a weak relationship between rising to power and providing accurate information.

A greater concern is some of the more negative aspects of getting to the top. Ruthlessness can be important to success. We occasionally hear politicians talk about the necessity of "playing hardball". If a person refuses to take a career enhancing step because it would violate her ethics, she will be at a disadvantage relative to others with no such concern. Perhaps most important for our purposes, though, is the ability (and willingness) to deceive. Since people usually gain high positions either by being elected or appointed by other authorities, the direct cause of their success is what people think their abilities are, not necessarily what their abilities really are. As a result, being able to put on a good act can be an very valuable factor in success.

Each authority has her or his own path to power, and sometimes we may know enough about a person to feel some confidence that they got where they did because of good qualities. Most of the time we don't know these powerful people very well, however, and if we want to protect ourselves from false beliefs, we should be very careful about putting too much trust in what authorities tell us.

Authorities promote the idea they are superior

Since authorities have a disproportionate ability to communicate with us, there is the special problem that they will consistently encourage us to believe that they got where they are because of talent and integrity, whether it is true or not. If we look at some of the most powerful, and often corrupt, people in history, we find that they strongly promote the idea that they have naturally superior characteristics.

In ancient times, kings considered themselves as divinely chosen. People believed in the divine right of kings. Some leaders, like Egyptian Pharaohs, claimed to be gods themselves. Europeans have the concept of "nobility" in which a portion of the population is considered superior by virtue of who their ancestors were. The word "noble" indicates being superior in moral and other qualities. The fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" indicates that a princess is so sensitive to perfection that even a single pea beneath a pile of mattresses will prevent her from being comfortable. Other cultures have similar concepts of virtue by nature of lineage as in India's caste system.

Dictators, even though they might in reality be ruthless thugs, always try to present themselves as heroes to their people. Typically they spend considerable effort in making themselves appear as brilliant and virtuous and as great benefactors to their country. This is helpful in maintaining power, since the more they can get people to adore them, the more these people will obey them and help thwart the efforts of others to depose them.

In democracies such as those in most industrial western countries the situation is considerably better, but still has many of the same problems. Maintaining power, particularly political power, requires support from the people, and so those who have power or hope to have it must still convince people that they have superior qualities.

Without a doubt it is helpful in convincing people you are good if you genuinely are good. On the other hand, the activities of politicians and executives and administrators involve issues complicated enough that there is usually a way to put a positive spin on even the worst of outcomes. Problems can be blamed on their predecessors, outside influences, and lack of cooperation by their opponents. They can claim things would have been worse without their actions and take credit for favorable things that were not their doing. As a result, the leader with exceptional charisma or an exceptional ability to deceive us may gain power because of their words rather than their deeds.

Talking to an audience

When authorities say things to the public, whether in a speech, interview, press conference, or paid advertisement, it is almost universal that they carefully contrive to make their statements as self-serving as possible. This is probably true not only of people in power, but of anyone who is speaking to a wide audience, few of whom are personal friends. Even people who I respect and believe are genuinely interested in the public good, tailor their public pronouncements to what they think the listeners want to hear. Frankness and openness is pretty much limited to people speaking to personal friends, and even then it can't be guaranteed. With people who hold powerful positions, I suspect that truth is virtually never an issue except when the speaker knows that an untrue statement would be exposed. People rarely ascend to positions of power if they reveal a damaging truth when not forced to. I don't know if I can think of a single case when an authority has admitted to an unsavory truth when there was any chance of covering it up.

There is no point in us blaming the authorities for that. It is our own fault, because often we are not responsible thinkers. When a public figure tells us a self-serving story, all too often we believe it. When they are caught in a deception, we don't take it that seriously. When, on rare occasions, a public figure is open and frank, we, often at the instigation of the press, think of it as a blunder. In order to be successful, powerful authorities are forced to pretend they are concerned with the same things most people are. They always praise the country and the family and education and religion and hard work and anything else that they think most people will like. They will always flatter their audience by saying they are the best and the smartest. They almost never take a stand supporting an unpopular cause (even if they know it is a good cause). If they did, they would probably lose some of their power.


Another reason to be concerned about authorities is that they have incentives to engage in corruption. Typically authorities have control of, or at least influence in, how very large quantities of money are spent, quantities that are usually far greater than the amount they are paid to do their jobs. The President of the United States has a considerable degree of control over a budget of trillions of dollars. Congressmen also have influence in how this money is spent. Politicians in other countries and at other levels of government, corporate executives, high ranking military officers, and even religious leaders also can control very large amounts of money. There are other people, particularly those with business interests, who can benefit greatly if that money is spent on their behalf. They may offer the authorities favors, kickbacks, or bribes in exchange for such cooperation. This is illegal, but people in authority have been known to accept such arrangements when they think they won't get caught.

Campaign Contributions

In the United States, campaign contributions can work similarly to bribes but with very little risk of getting politicians in legal trouble. It is illegal to give a contribution directly in exchange for a vote or action, but it is quite legal for powerful companies and organizations to give contributions to politicians who have benefited them in the past and who are expected to continue in the future. Politicians can be pretty sure they will get their contribution if they continue to vote the right way and that they will lose it if they don't.

So what policies should we use when evaluating the claims and actions of powerful authorities?

Don't assume they got to their position because they were trustworthy. There are many factors in becoming powerful, and actual trustworthiness is not usually high on the list (although the appearance of trustworthiness is).

Don't assume they are working for the public, particularly if their actions seem to serve their own interests. People move up on the power ladder by advancing their own interests, but not necessarily by advancing ours.

Don't assume you can judge a person's motives based on their personality. We might be able to tell when our friends are sincere, but when people have advanced to positions where they are nationally recognized or are in control of budgets in the hundreds of million of dollars, they are not necessarily typical of the people we meet. They may be some of the best in the world at displaying false sincerity. It is very risky to think we can detect liars simply by observing their mannerisms.

Look for neutral sources to evaluate actual accomplishments. No sources are absolutely neutral, but most news organizations and academic sources stand to lose credibility if they stray too far from the center. If a variety of relatively neutral sources agree on what is going on, and the only dissent seems to be from obviously biased sources, the neutral sources are likely to be close to the truth. Of course we should always be open to additional information. We should also recognize that the more an issue is open to interpretation, the less we can rely on it. It is always best if we form our own opinions on the basis of relatively uncontroversial facts.

Be wary when told that we should show blind obedience to a leader because it is a time of crisis. While it is understandable that we should work together in difficult times, an untrustworthy leader is still untrustworthy. It is common for leaders to take advantage of crises to advance their personal agendas, and it is not unheard of for them to deliberately create a crisis just to distract from problems and frighten their people into supporting policies that might otherwise be rejected. An interesting example of this was when Argentine General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands (held by the British) in 1982. His government was at a low point of popularity, but, as he no doubt intended, the people immediately rallied behind him. His popularity quickly faded when the islands were retaken by the British.

Judge authorities by their actions, not their words. This is a good policy for judging anyone, but especially for authorities, since no matter how undesirable their actions are, they will always find a way to put a positive spin on them. Actions speak louder than words. If a senator says education is one of his top priorities, but he has consistently voted for cuts in spending on education, I will assume that in reality education is a low priority for him and I will vote accordingly.

Ignore Political Advertising. It is probably wise to ignore almost all advertising, except when getting basic information about who is selling what. Political advertising is almost always worthless as a source of information. The persuasiveness of a political ad has everything to do with how much money was paid to produce it and virtually nothing to do with the quality of the candidate being promoted. If you vote for someone because of their advertising, you have voted for them because of the money they have raised. In effect you have allowed your vote to be purchased (but you don't even wind up with the money). The fact that a candidate has raised a large amount of money almost always implies that she or he has catered to special interests. It does not imply that they have done or will do a good job on behalf of the public. (Example of a deceptive political commercial)

Seek the true story. While the discussion here is very critical of people in power, its purpose is not to promote the idea that these are bad people. Often authorities say what they say because it is necessary to survive in their harshly competitive environment. The important thing is that we are not fooled by propaganda. If we want to make good decisions on behalf of ourselves and others, we must do everything we can to see the reality behind the spin.

Both sides will manipulate the truth. We are often tempted to assume the people who agree with us on controversial issues are honest and truthful. My experience is that virtually every powerful authority will distort the truth to suit their own purposes, whether or not I like where they stand on the issues.