On Authority

by quanticle1 min read5th Jul 20181 comment

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Personal Blog

Stephen Randy Waldman (Interfluidity) writes about the process by which authority is created. His definition of authority applies to information in a social context. Namely, information that is authoritative is information which we take to be true by our actions, regardless of whether that information is true or not.

The method by which human societies cause coordination to scale is by producing authoritative information. While a certain amount of coordination is possible via brute coercion, voluntary coordination is far cheaper and more scalable. In order to engender voluntary compliance, one needs authoritative information upon which to coordinate.

Small societies can easily produce enough authoritative information by choosing one of their members as a designated source of authoritative information, an authority. However, the problems of producing authoritative information grow non-linearly with scale. As a result, much of the social infrastructure we have today (courts, the press, the financial system) is dedicated to the production and (social) validation of authoritative information.

The construction of authority is necessary in order to constrain society enough to produce useful outcomes. The methods by which we construct this authority is among the most important social and technological problems we face.

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I just noticed this post, by sheer chance, and am now aghast that I overlooked it earlier; it is excellent, and well worth reading.

The practical definition of “authority” or “authoritative information” that Waldman gives seems to me to be very useful. The linked post gives enough examples, so I’d like to put forth a question that occurred to me as I read, and which I was slightly surprised the post doesn’t address:

What happens when authority conflicts? Or, to be precise: under what circumstances does it come to be the case, that we (as individuals, as organizations, etc.) are in possession of two (or more) sets of authoritative information, but find it impossible to behave as if both of these sets of information are true?

Do such circumstances occur because of factional conflicts? Because of insufficient coordination on the part of the authorities? For some other reason?

Are they noticed when they occur, or are they resolved without being noticed?

How are they resolved? “Top-down” resolution (with one authority explicitly or implicitly overruling the other)? In that case, does other authoritative information from the losing authority become less authoritative? Or “bottom up”, with individuals selecting (and by what means?) behavior from among the possible options that satisfy at least some of the sets of the authoritative information they have? And likewise, do the sources of some of this information become less authoritative as a result?

Are there any cases in which such conflicts (i.e., practical incompatibilities of sets of authoritative information) are advantageous to some or all of the authorities involved?