Authority and the Individual by Bertrand Russell

Summary and takeaways from the book.

This book is a philosophical and practical discussion on how to "combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival".

It is also a "warning of the encroaching power of authority".

ISBN: 978-0415487337
Published: first published in 1949
Pages: 104
Available on: amazon

Bertrand Russell is well-known as a philosopher and public intellectual. He was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.

He is regarded as "one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century".

The book "Authority and the Individual" by Bertrand Russell is a philosophical and practical discussion on how to "combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival".

The author Bertrand Russell "has thus provided us with an insightful examination of the intellectual, political, and moral challenges confronting contemporary western society, a stringent warning of the encroaching power of authority in all its guises, and a stirring reaffirmation of human liberty both as an end in itself and as a means to further human progress".

The book is "the product of a full forty years of reflection about the relations of individuals and the state and about the evolving forms power and authority have taken in the twentieth century".

The book is based on Reith Lectures given by him in England at BBC after Second World War.

The Reith Lectures on BBC were timely as "advent of the Attlee Government in 1945 had set Britain on a dramatic new course – of nationalized industries and educational reform, of social insurance and the National Health Service – which cumulatively entailed a sweeping extension of state authority over nearly every aspect of British society".

It is just as timely today as Governments get bigger and more intrusive, dictating every aspect of our life, and even deciding which business sectors will fail or succeed.

The book is "a very slightly amended version of the lectures appeared in book form as Authority and the Individual in the late spring of 1949, it won both critical approval and wide sales, reaching 500 copies a week long into the summer".
"Ever since history began, the majority of mankind have lived under a load of poverty and suffering and cruelty, and have felt themselves impotent under the sway of hostile or coldly impersonal powers.

These evils... can be removed by the help of modern science and modern technique, provided these are used in a humane spirit and with an understanding of the springs of life and happiness.

Without such understanding, we may inadvertently create a new prison, just, perhaps, since none will be outside it, but dreary and joyless and spiritually dead

Big Government

"it would be unduly optimistic to expect that governments, even if democratic, will always do what is best in the public interest".

"it is important to recognise its existence and to search for ways of diminishing its magnitude"

Even in 1940's, author Bertrand Russell could see toxic and overly controlling influence of government on it's people.

"There has never in past history been any large State that controlled its citizens as completely as they are controlled in the Soviet Republic, or even in the countries of Western Europe".

On big government, the author says: "As a result of mere size, government becomes increasingly remote from the governed and tends, even in a democracy, to have an independent life of its own. I do not profess to know how to cure this evil completely, but I think it is important to recognise its existence and to search for ways of diminishing its magnitude".

Decisions by big governments are almost always sub-optimal. "The considerations which should weigh with the government are so general, and so apparently removed from the everyday life of the workers, that it is very difficult to make them appear cogent".

Decisions by big governments favor the few, and hurt most: "concentrated advantage is always more readily appreciated than a diffused disadvantage".

"it would be unduly optimistic to expect that governments, even if democratic, will always do what is best in the public interest. I have spoken before of some evils connected with bureaucracy;"

"Ministers down to the most junior employees in local offices, have their own private interests, which by no means coincide with those of the community. Of these, love of power and dislike of work are the chief. A civil servant who says ‘no’ to a project satisfies at once his pleasure in exercising authority and his disinclination for effort. And so he comes to seem, and to a certain extent to be, the enemy of those whom he is supposed to serve".

"There is, however, another danger, perhaps more likely to be realised. Modern techniques have made possible a new intensity of governmental control, and this possibility has been exploited very fully in totalitarian States.

It may be that under the stress of war, or the fear of war, or as a result of totalitarian conquest, the parts of the world where some degree of individual liberty survives may grow fewer, and even in them liberty may come to be more and more restricted.

There is not much reason to suppose that the resulting system would be unstable, but it would almost certainly be static and unprogressive. And it would bring with it a recrudescence of ancient evils: slavery, bigotry, intolerance, and abject misery for the majority of mankind
". This is what we see in our current times all over the world.

Signs of big government that chokes enterprise and is in ends times: "when government has had time to consolidate its power, when custom, tradition, and law have established rules sufficiently minute to choke enterprise, the society concerned enters upon a stagnant phase. Men praise the exploits of their ancestors, but can no longer equal them; art becomes conventional, and science is stifled by respect for authority.

This type of development followed by ossification is to be found in China and India, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and in the Graeco-Roman world. The end comes usually through foreign conquest

Where will this trend towards big government lead us? How and when will this madness stop?
"the present tendencies towards centralisation are too strong to be resisted until they have led to disaster, and that, as happened in the fifth century, the whole system must break down, with all the inevitable results of anarchy and poverty, before human beings can again acquire that degree of personal freedom without which life loses its savour".

Democratically government are not representative either and do not reflect views of the majority. "Democracy, as it exists in large modern States, does not give adequate scope for political initiative except to a tiny minority".

On large scale industrialization

Bertrand Russell talks of "evils of urban industrialism". He talks of examples where people can leverage benefits of advancing technology while enjoying "joy of craftsmanship and a way of life".

The evils of urban industrialism are:

Loss of "joy of craftsmanship and a way of life".

"diminution in the intrinsic excellence of the product, both aesthetic and utilitarian": Examples given are of the "Scottish tweed industry. Hand-woven tweeds, universally acknowledged to be of superlative excellence, have long been produced in the Highlands, the Hebrides and the Orkney and Shetland Islands".

"uncontrollable growth of cities": where "independent weavers become units in a vast, hideous and unhealthy human ant-hill. Their economic security is no longer dependent on their own skill and upon the forces of nature. It is lost in a few large organisations, in which if one fails all fail, and the causes of failure cannot be understood”.

"these evils are no longer necessary for the increase of production, or for the raising of the material standards of living of the worker. Electricity and motor-transport have made small units of industry not only economically permissible but even desirable, for they obviate immense expenditure on transportation and organisation. Where a rural industry still flourishes, it should be gradually mechanised, but be left in situ and in small units".

"The rivers of the Himalayas should provide all the hydro-electric power that is needed for the gradual mechanisation of the village industries of India and for immeasurable improvement of physical well-being, without either the obvious disaster of industrial slump or the more subtle loss and degradation which results when age-old traditions are too rudely broken".

Role of Government

"Many States, however, while safeguarding law-abiding citizens against other citizens, have not thought it necessary to protect them against the State".

"A healthy and progressive society requires both central control and individual and group initiative: without control there is anarchy, and without initiative there is stagnation".

Author distinguishes between static and dynamic qualities. "Static qualities don’t change and are suitable for governmental control. dynamic qualities should be promoted by the initiative of individuals or groups".

Author also recommends initiatives and innovation "need to be fostered by appropriate institutions, and the safeguarding of such institutions will have to be one of the functions of government".

"The primary aims of government, I suggest, should be three: security, justice, and conservation". We can elaborate it and say that government should run the army, justice system(courts, law, and police), and conservation of nature and natural resources. Government(via the army, courts, police) should ensure "protection of life and property".
"Many States, however, while safeguarding law-abiding citizens against other citizens, have not thought it necessary to protect them against the State".

Government has created a New Caste System where there are severe repursions for questioning or opposing those in authority.

This is the biggest problem of our time.

"Security... may be sought excessively and become a fetish. A secure life is not necessarily a happy life; it may be rendered dismal by boredom and monotony. Many people, especially while they are young, welcome a spice of dangerous adventure, and may even find relief in war as an escape from humdrum safety".

* * *

Author ends with positive note and hope.

"Hard work is still necessary, but only because we are unwise: given peace and co-operation, we could subsist on a very moderate amount of toil".

On easy solutions: "Whenever the causes of our troubles are too difficult to be understood, we tend to fall back upon this primitive kind of explanation. A newspaper which offers us a villain to hate is much more appealing than one which goes into all the intricacies of dollar shortages".

"there is nothing in human nature that makes these evils inevitable. I wish to repeat, with all possible emphasis, that I disagree completely with those who infer from our combative impulses that human nature demands war and other destructive forms of conflict. I firmly believe the very opposite of this. I maintain that combative impulses have an essential part to play, and in their harmful forms can be enormously lessened".

"Greed of possession will grow less where there is no fear of destitution".

Need for outlet: "Love of power can be satisfied in many ways that involve no injury to others: by the power over nature that results from discovery and invention, by the production of admired books or works of art, and by successful persuasion. Energy and the wish to be effective are beneficient if they can find the right outlet, and harmful if not – like steam, which can either drive the train or burst the boiler".

"Self-control has always been a watchword of the moralists, but in the past it has been a control without understanding".

"We shall not create a good world by trying to make men tame and timid, but by encouraging them to be bold and adventurous and fearless except in inflicting injuries upon their fellow-men. In the world in which we find ourselves, the possibilities of good are almost limitless, and the possibilities of evil no less so".

"Our present predicament is due more than anything else to the fact that we have learnt to understand and control to a terrifying extent the forces of nature outside us, but not those that are embodied in ourselves".

Bertrand Russell work is important and stays timeless and relevant.

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