The question of how society functions in relation to authority is not a new one, of course. Wilkinson’s conclusion is that coercion does not really explain why society holds together most of the time. And I think he’s actually right, but for a different reason than he thinks.
Étienne de La Boétie, a 16th-century jurist and writer, considered the question of how authority can be so effective when it’s so weak. In “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Against-One,” he asks how it comes to be that tyrants, who are only men, not much stronger than any other man, can hold sway over entire populations, even populations that don’t especially like being ruled by a tyrant.
“FOR THE PRESENT I should to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.”
Now, Wilkinson has a ready answer for this, I think. Clearly, the oppressed multitudes have a lot of “buy-in” to tyrannical rule. They recognize the tremendous benefits that authority provides in coordinating complex social activities. Of course, being thrown into a dungeon is inconvenient, but they should look at the big picture and not get fixated on such coercion as the explanation.
And indeed, Boetie would agree on that point. Most tyrants of the 16th century were not riding around in futuristic power armor. They didn’t have magical swords that granted them protection from rebellion. They didn’t have the ability to command dragons. They were simply human beings like anyone else. And even if you took into account the various people that carried out their orders, coercion itself would not explain the situation. The whole of government was always outnumbered by orders of magnitude, and yet, people voluntarily complied with even terrible regimes.
I think that this agreement from Boetie actually shows how little Wilkinson can explain, though. Because he’s right that our current society doesn’t function because the government sends thugs to your house to intimidate you into complying. (People pay their taxes without a lot of grumbling, and many would feel guilty if they seriously considered cheating on them. Only a few truly do it out of fear of the consequences.) It functions because people voluntarily comply with it and believe at some level that it makes sense to do so. But if that’s the same explanation for the rule of brutally coercive regimes as well, and I think Boetie’s clearly right on that, then Wilkinson doesn’t really have much argument against brutal regimes. If people have ‘buy-in,’ then clearly coercion is not a key explanation for the success of brutal regimes, and it would be silly to sit there and criticize their coercion as if it had much of anything to do with how society actually functions.
If, instead, he can recognize that coercion requires more than the buy-in of those receiving it to be justified, then he could also understand why fairly liberal countries like the United States and France and Japan are as unjustified in the use of coercion as North Korea is.