Finding Your Inner Sovereign

On any given day, I can find dozens of people who think they have some kind of authority over me. Like the lady who wants me to take down my life-size Elvis mailbox holder. Or the friend who thinks my choice of pocket squares is atrocious. They can bug off.

Of course, I realize that in certain contexts, authority is appropriate. Illinois State would probably not like it if I canceled classes to watch the gopher races on TV. (Have you ever watched those? Hilarious.)* That seems fair to me, but if they were to dictate the way I arrange my office shelves, we’d have a problem, starting with “Bug off.”

Then there’s the city, which until recently wanted me to light a fire out back only if I were grilling something. Or the state, which forbids me to drive my car without a license plate. Or the federal government, which won’t let me buy pot, if for some unimaginable reason I ever wanted any. Telling any of them to bug off is quite a different animal.

Unsolicited advice is easy to deal with, at least for those of us who weight others’ opinions appropriately. Employer authority has a higher price, but is still not ironclad, as when I instructed a Business School Dean never to address me condescendingly again. He didn’t. Were I to drive around without plates or buy a couple of ounces from that weirdo downtown, though, life would get complicated quickly. Government can make it exceedingly difficult to resist by taking my money or my freedom away.

Even so, authority occurs in a context. There is always an option, however unattractive it may be. Chester Barnard, an early management thinker, said that authority is not a top-down phenomenon, but a bottom-up phenomenon. People in an organization agree to do things their bosses say in virtue of their employment, but that has limits. To demonstrate this in class, I have my students do a number of meaningless drawings, calculations and small tasks. They comply, right up to the point when I tell them to take off their clothes and run around the Quad. The social norm of wearing clothes in public nullifies my authority in that setting.

The problem is not the basic framework of authority as outlined above. It is the fact that we often do not appreciate our own power to say no. The Stoics teach that no one can have power over us unless they control something we want. Want nothing, and complete freedom is ours.

Likely none of us will ever reach that ideal of freedom. I would happily walk away from a job where my boss consistently refused to speak to me decently, but I pay the state every year so I can drive my vehicle on public roads. Jail time over that is not in my future.

All in all, it’s not a bad state of affairs. Or at least it hasn’t been. Recently, though, the collectivist state has been reaching into the lives of each of us in unprecedented ways. Regulations from backyard grilling to bank transactions have become more common and more onerous. Surveillance and searches are less constrained. We can’t smoke in a private restaurant or buy food with trans fats. We can’t tape cops beating a suspect and we can’t design our own buildings. We are more slave than sovereign.

No government will ever restrain itself. It must be restrained by each of us reasserting sovereignty over our own lives. We each need to ask ourselves where that line is. Will you pay 50% taxes? 90%? Will you turn in your gold if required to? Will you comply when it is illegal to criticize someone’s religion? Their customs? Will you assent to a cavity search in order to fly?

I cannot dictate to you the boundaries of your willingness to comply to legitimate authority in specific contexts. Each must define his/her own, and I am not advocating running stop signs or taping cops just because. I can tell you this, though. A country in which its citizens fail to set those bounds is headed for a fall. Think about how much you are willing to submit and what consequences you are willing to accept to preserve your dignity. Start acting like a Sovereign, not a peasant.


*Gotcha. There are no gopher races on TV.**

**They are on the radio.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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