Of Might and Right
Differentiating Power and Authority
Webster's dictionary in 1828 defines ownership as having "the exclusive right of possession and use" and right as a "just claim." If a person has a just claim to the possession or use of a thing, we may say that he or she owns it. As the old saying goes, might does not make right, and the raw ability to possess or use something does not imply the right to do so. But how can we be certain whether or not a person has a just claim to something?
I want to suggest a radical repurposing of the word authority to establish a concise method of understanding where rights begin and how they grow through voluntary interaction. While popular usage of the word renders it almost synonymous with power, the words have starkly different meanings. If power is the ability to do something, then authority is the right to do it. As might does not make right, neither does power make authority.
But where does authority originate? The word itself derives from the word "author" which implies a relation to origin itself, and so it follows that the concept involves creation or, naturally, authorship, which shares the same root. If reason has led us to attribute the impeccable design and intricate order of this world to an intelligent creator, then with the authorship of everything came authority over everything. In creating us and endowing us with reason and free will, it seems that the author transferred or delegated authority over our bodies to us individually.
Conversely, if reason has led us to the opposite conclusion, that the universe does not have a beginning but is itself eternal and self generating along with the life and order and intelligence within it, then consciousness might be the next highest authority. We think, therefore we are. Whether we have a spirit or soul, or our consciousness is merely electrical impulses in our brains, is irrelevant. This consciousness, our life, is firmly attached to our bodies. The two cannot be separated. It is this life, and this will to exist and persist, that builds and maintains the body. If we have a just claim to anything, it is our body. Therefore we have exclusive authority over it, and can be said to own it.
If the principle of self ownership is not evident in theory, it is certainly observable from our experiences. There appears a nearly universal tendency for a person to take offense at aggressive force against their body, and for those who witness the same to perceive an injustice. We see that a person has exclusive authority over his or her own body, or ownership, and that unauthorized possession or use of it is an injustice. Authority differentiates consenting sex from rape, mutual combat from assault, and an Über ride from a kidnapping. One is authorized, the other is not.
Authority may be delegated or transferred by, and only by, its rightful possessor. This occurs constantly to varying degrees. We delegate authority over our follicles to a barber, our whole body to a spouse, and our time to an employer. Similarly, we transfer the authority over our property to a buyer in a sale. The use of force or the exercise of power over person or property without delegation or transfer of authority is, in my opinion, the only criminal act. It is cutting someone's hair without approval, touching or harming their body without consent, demanding their labor without prior agreement, or taking or using their property without permission.
A person may not have authority over another which has not been given to them, either by that person or by someone whom that person has authorized to act on their behalf. No group of people, no matter how numerous, wealthy, strong, intelligent, or charismatic, can possess authority collectively which none of its members possess individually. Were this not the case, any gang might be justified against their victims.
By this measure, what is widely considered civilized society today is in reality quite barbaric. Governments assert ownership and control of all persons and property within the geographic region they occupy. They call it authority, but if it is, where did they get it? Was it delegated to them by all the people over whose persons and property they exercise control? Or rather is it raw, primitive, and unauthorized power in which the illusion of popular consent is largely the result of intimidation?
Now, if an individual wishes to delegate authority over their own person and property to a government it is well within their rights to do so. But we cannot delegate authority we do not posses. None of us have authority over our neighbor's person or property unless they have expressly given it to us. Even democracy, revered as it may be, does not give us that authority. If a vote is 99 to 1, is that sufficient to justify trampling the rights of the 1?
So if governments have the authority they claim, where does it come from? Neither from individual consent nor democracy, as we have seen. Some will say it comes from God, but would God's authorization entitle one to transgress His own laws? This person would most likely agree that God commands us not to murder or steal, yet government practices theft and murder on an immense scale. Still others insist that government's authority comes from necessity. But necessity is far too subjective to be taken seriously. Every thief feels it necessary to steal, every murderer to kill, and every vandal to vandalize. Are they justified?
One argument of particularly pernicious prevalence is this: That if a government is established by consent, then the posterity of those who agreed to it are bound by their ancestors' consent. Assuming for a moment that any government on the planet was established with universal consent, does a parent have unlimited authority over their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc.? Consider that if a parent takes something that belongs to their grown child it is still considered theft, and if they beat or murder their child, even in infancy, it is just as much a crime as if they were not related. Thus we understand that the authority of parents over their children is limited in scope and time, but in no instance do they have the authority to commit an act of aggression against the child's person or property. If parents do not have this authority, neither can they delegate it, so we can safely disregard the concept of ancestral consent.
If, as it would seem, government acts without authority, why do we insist upon calling them "authorities?" Why do we tolerate their usurpations of our rights to person and property? How did such an immoral and unjust arrangement become so universally accepted? And why don't more people stand up to it? We have to remember that slavery was a socially acceptable behavior for thousands of years until recent times. Slaves were considered the property of their masters, and the majority of people embraced or at least tolerated this insane notion. Today we like to think we know better, but do we really? Are people not still serving the will of their masters in the absence of agreement or consent? Don't let a subtle change in aesthetics disguise what is by nature the same. Though political slavery today is abstracted by legal language, media propaganda, and all the relics, ceremonies, and rituals of nationalism, its true essence remains.
Might does not, has never, and will never, make right.