Vaccines Showcase American Extremism Vs. Legitimate Authority | Opinion

The cure to extremism in America is for institutions to reassert their authority. Crazy ideas wither when people in charge stand up and reject them.

The University of Chicago has been largely spared "cancel culture" because it made clear it would sanction any students or others who tried to block conflicting viewpoints. Extremists similarly pause when they must bear the consequences of their anti-social acts.

Employers who mandate unpaid leave for the unvaccinated, such as United Airlines, have found that most employees prefer to keep their paychecks. President Joe Biden's vaccination mandate for employers with over 100 workers is controversial, but the mandates in other countries have been effective.

But any assertion of institutional authority is thought to be the enemy of freedom—an almost automatic violation of individual rights. Authority in America has been broadly replaced by a procedural framework. People with responsibility—including university presidents, principals, public officials and business managers—believe they can't enforce any values unless explicitly set forth in a rule, or can be proved by objective evidence. Who are they to judge?

Extremism can flourish with bad authority, but also in a culture without authority. "Fundamentalists rush in," philosopher Michael Sandel once observed, "where liberals fear to tread." Stop the steal. COVID-19 vaccines cause impotence or worse. Like a flash fire, these wild ideas are amplified by social media. What psychologists call "confirmation bias" creates a kind of mass idiocy: If millions of people agree, then it must be true.

The vacuum of authority is filled by left-wing extremists as well. Gray has become, in the hands of woke activists, black and white. Zealots in universities and newsrooms wield the sword of moral outrage at historical privileges. People in charge cower, their authority disabled by attacks on their privileges, whatever their race or gender. There's a kind of panic to prove institutional purity.

Not confronting extremists only stokes the extremist fires on the other side. The Republican Party doesn't need to be tethered to reality, one former Republican governor told me, as long as liberal extremists continue to plow into society with their woke agenda. Cancel culture is like a brilliant right-wing fundraising scheme: The more liberals challenge their freedom of speech, and try to rewrite history books to emphasize the evil in America, the more conservatives expand their base.

None of these extreme positions rings true to most Americans. The election wasn't stolen. Vaccines are necessary. A campaign to end all evil will not solve most social challenges in America. Defunding the police is not a coherent reform. Eradicating racism is an unimpeachable goal, but will not transform the prospects of the young men depicted in The Wire. Equal outcomes are not the state of nature: Individual performance matters, and is the source of individual pride.

The cure is to restore the legitimacy of authority. Society needs a keel to keep from careening back and forth, and to move forward. Authority is not the enemy of freedom but its essential component. The authority of law enforcement officials and regulators protects you against crime, pollution and suppression of free speech. The teacher's authority to maintain order in the classroom protects your freedom to learn. The principal's authority to inspire and oversee teaching excellence is what makes a good school, instilling pride by all stakeholders.

U.S. flags are shown
U.S. flags are shown. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Our society still retains the forms of authority, but has disempowered officials and others from making the judgments needed to take responsibility. The idea, coming out of the 1960s rights revolution, was to safeguard against abuse by requiring objective corroboration. Authority was transferred, in effect, to rigid rulebooks and to legal processes initiated by self-appointed victims.

Our goal was to organize society like a machine—so that "a body of information [can] be fed into a computer," as former Czech President Václav Havel said, in the hope that "it will spit out a universal solution." But it doesn't work. As Havel put it in a speech before Congress, "the only genuine core of all our actions—if they are to be moral—is responsibility."

No society, no institution, no group activity works successfully without a framework of authority that upholds core values and standards. Restoring this authority requires empowering responsible people to act on their beliefs and perceptions. These judgments can be readily reviewed by others up a hierarchy of authority, but can rarely be demonstrated by objective standards. How does a school principal or public manager prove who doesn't work hard, or is uncooperative, or bores students? Not making those judgments dooms the culture of a public department or school.

Delegitimizing what are called "subjective values" and "subjective perceptions" is how the woke extremists have gotten so far. If you can't "prove" that Shakespeare is brilliant, and can't "prove" that Christine Lagarde is a legitimate speaker and can't "prove" that Huck Finn doesn't make people feel unsafe ... then, sure, let the mob cancel them.

Authority and freedom are two sides of the same coin. Your freedom in any joint activity is dependent on the freedom of people in authority. If the university president lacks authority to expel or suspend students who "cancel" contrary beliefs, then other students won't feel free to express their honest views in daily interactions. If public health officials and employers won't assert the authority to require vaccinations, many people will be reluctant to engage in group activities, and some will die.

Giving officials and others the authority to act on their best judgment doesn't mean they can act arbitrarily. Public officials are hemmed in by law, and by the oversight of higher officials. University presidents and CEOs are constrained by many forces, including the boards they answer to. Politicians are accountable to voters. All these decisions, including the oversight, will be mainly matters of judgment, not objective proof.

America is suffering from a vacuum of authority. Until the people who run institutions stand up for what they believe is right, the vacuum will be filled by extremists imposing values that most people think are wrong.

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.