Why those who seek popularity lose their authority

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The market truly values advisers it can trust; subsequently the effort to impress may have the opposite results.

Everyone involved in the furore over Iraqi weapons and the death of David Kelly – the UK government adviser who apparently committed suicide last week – has found that their actions have backfired. The more politicians and journalists do to make themselves look good in the eyes of the public, the lower they fall in public esteem. This is the paradox of authority.

Anyone who has taught a class understands the dilemma. The easy way to spend the hour is to amuse, entertain and be on first-name terms with all the students. It is what everyone wants. Except they do not, really. Students, like teachers, know the relationship depends on authority. The teacher has expertise that students lack, and real learning rarely produces immediate gratification. Without discipline and superior knowledge, education has no purpose.

Every role that demands authority – priest, accountant or politician – illustrates the same issue. We all think we want a religion that will accommodate our sins, an auditor who will sign his name to anything we put before him, a politician who is a mouthpiece for our own opinions. But while these people may win our praise in the short run, they subsequently lose our respect and our adherence, our business and our votes.

Churches liberalise their doctrines and simplify their services to attract more adherents, but religious observance falls: a church that makes no demands does not meet our needs. Auditors seek clients by relaxing their standards: but what is the point of an auditor who cannot say no to his client? Journalists, broadcasters and publishers compete ever more fiercely to give us what we want, and yet their public standing has never been so low.

And this is truest of all of politicians. Fareed Zakaria, whose recent book documents many instances of lost authority*, quotes Winston Churchill’s reaction when advised to keep his ear close to the ground: “the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that position.” When politicians employ spin doctors or act as front people for the pleadings of lobbyists or the findings of focus groups, the popularity they earn is purely transient.

Personal authority is partly based on the qualities of the individual concerned. But it is also derived from the institution of which he is part. A church bestows authority on its priests, an accounting qualification confers status, the reputation of a journalist gains lustre – or loses it – from the reputation of the newspaper. Politicians acquire prestige and legitimacy from office. There is always tension between the interests of the individual and the interests of the professional community. The teacher who courts popularity with the class damages not only his authority, but also the authority of all teachers.

Professional ethics were the traditional answer to this problem. These norms imposed social pressures to maintain authority: teachers were expected to keep their distance, auditors to maintain their standards, politicians to have regard to the dignity of their office. Journalists felt bound to maintain the traditions of their newspapers, broadcasters asserted commitment to public service.

It has become fashionable to disparage these claims. Indeed those who have done so have even claimed the moral high ground. Bankers, lawyers and accountants have declared their new responsiveness to the needs of their clients. Politicians who have sought to lead public opinion rather than follow it, and publishers who attempted to elevate the tastes of their readers, have been denounced as elitist. The verdict of the market, the ratings or the polls is supreme.

And now the market has been delivering its verdict. It has pronounced Andersen dead. Savings have fallen because those who manage them are no longer trusted. Turnout in elections is declining. The sales of newspapers fall, and confidence in them has fallen further. The market values advisers it can trust, auditors with standards, politicians who lead, broadcasters it can respect. It is only possible to create value in such a market by maintaining the values of a profession.

* The Future of Freedom, Norton, 2003

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