avoiding arbitrary command

Philip Pettit and some others have been reviving the classical theory of republicanism as a theory that treats “domination” as the basic evil to be avoided. Domination often takes the form of arbitrary commands (“Do it because I say so”). Republican institutions, such as elections, legislatures, and judicial review, look attractive because they minimize domination, which is not the same as maximizing individual liberty.

I see the appeal, but it seems to me that non-domination is a virtue in a whole range of settings, some of which are not, and cannot really be, republics. Families and workplaces are two important examples. The remarkable American management theorist Mary Parker Follett (1868 – 1933) offers insights about how workplaces can reduce “arbitrary command” without becoming–or pretending to be–republics. For instance, in The Illusion of Final Authority (1926?), she writes that “Arbitrary command, the exaction of blind obedience, breaks initiative, discourages self-reliance, [and even the] lover’s self-respect.”

I think the solution is …  to depersonalise the matter, to unite those concerned in a study of the situation, to see what the situation demands, to discover the law of the situation and obey that. That is, it should not be a case of one person giving commands to another person. Whenever it is obvious that the order arises from the situation, the question of someone commanding and someone obeying does not come up. Both accept what the situation demands. Our chief problem then is not how to get people to obey orders, but how to devise methods by which we can best discover what the order shall be. When that is found the employee could issue direction to the employer as well as employer to employee. This often happens quite easy and naturally: my stenographer or my cook points out the law of the situation to me, and I, if I recognise it as such, accept it even although it may reverse some previous direction I have given.

An order then should always be given not as a personal matter, not because the man giving it wants the thing done, but because it is the demand of the situation. … But while people should not be asked to follow directions blindly, at the same time a subordinate should not have the attitude of carping, of finding fault, of thinking things from above wrong. The attitude most desirable for receiving orders is intelligent scrutiny, willingness to suggest changes, courtesy in the manner of suggesting, and at the same time no prejudice in regard to what is prescribed, but the assumption that the way prescribed is probably the best unless one can show some convincing reason to the contrary.

For what it’s worth, that would also be my philosophy of parenting. Parents should strive to create a climate and set of situations in which neither the giving of orders nor carping and whining are common; instead, the family will generally do what the situation demands. Note that this has little to do with democracy (equal political power), nor does it always require explicit reason-giving and deliberation; but it is non-domination.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.