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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Authoritative and Authoritarian; what's the difference?

I have heard comments against the proposal we have for a sustainable socioeconomic system that it has an authoritarian characteristic. To me, that suggests that people either don’t understand our proposal or they don’t understand what the word “authoritarian” means or perhaps they have some other agenda? Either way, I thought I would go through this again and highlight our system as compared to an authoritarian system.

The socioeconomic system that we propose falls within the classification of authoritative but not authoritarian. Both systems rely on authorities and both systems have rules, so, to some degree I can understand why people might get confused, especially if they just take a quick look. So, how do the two systems differ?

In an authoritarian system you do what the authority tells you to do because they have the authority. You can’t question the authority. Authoritarian governments tend to have a centralised characteristic and uses force to enforce the decisions of the authority. Examples of authoritarian governments include Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.

In an authoritative system the authorities have their position because they have knowledge or expertise in a given area. In a complex system, no one person will have knowledge or expertise on every aspect of society but some people will know a lot about a certain part of society. This leads to a distributed system of government made up of multiple authorities (in direct contrast to an authoritarian form of government). So, people do what a given authority says not as a result of force or through fear but as a result of mutual respect; they acknowledge that that authority knows more about the subject than they do and the best course of action means following the authorities instructions.

In an authoritative system you can also question the authority and the authority listens to the people. If people can object in a rational way with supporting evidence the author could even change its advice. Also, due to the distributed nature of an authoritative system, you also have multiple authorities to go to; if you disagree (and in an authoritative system you can disagree and even disobey the authority but in doing so you follow the less optimal path) with any one of them, ask another.

Authoritative systems also have a characteristic of openness. They don’t just say “do this” but they also say why and support their decision with evidence. Other authorities can review the authority in an open peer to peer review process.  So, the system also has a self-checking nature.

Today we have no really good examples of an authoritative form of government but you can get some idea of how such a system could work and how it differs from an authoritarian system if you look at authoritative parenting. 

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