Why Do We Need Authority?

This lesson is taken from the Authority section of Foundations of Democracy: Authority, Privacy, Responsibility, and Justice.

Purpose of Lesson

In this lesson you will learn some uses of authority. You will examine a situation in which there is no effective authority and identify problems which the lack of authority creates. When you have completed this lesson you should be able to explain how authority can be used to deal with these problems.

Terms to Know

  • benefits
  • costs

What might happen if there were no authority?

Think of all the rules you follow every day. Then think about all the people in authority who sometimes tell you what to do. It might seem to you that there are too many rules. There may even seem to be too many people in authority.

But have you ever wondered what might happen if there were no rules and no people in authority? What would happen if some people started causing trouble? What if jobs didn't get done that had to be done? Who would settle arguments or protect people's rights? Who would run the government? Would there even be a government?

What do you think?

Imagine that you wake up one morning and find there is no longer any authority. All rules, laws, police, courts, teachers, principals, and governments have disappeared.

  1. What problems might arise?
  2. How would you protect your rights?
  3. Would you even have any rights?

Critical Thinking Exercise
Identifying Uses of Authority

The following is an excerpt from Mark Twain's Roughing It, a story about the Old West. Twain writes about a time when people often took the law into their own hands. As you read this excerpt, think about what problems arose because there was a lack of effective authority. 

Roughing It

The devil seems to have again broken loose in our town. Pistols and guns explode and knives gleam in our streets as in early times. When there has been a long season of quiet, people are slow to wet their hands in blood; but once blood is spilled, cutting and shooting come easy.

Night before last Jack Williams was assassinated, and yesterday forenoon we had more bloody work, growing out of the killing of Williams, and on the same street in which he met his death. It appears that Tom Reeder, a friend of Williams, and George Gumbert were talking, at the meat market of the latter, about the killing of Williams the previous night, when Reeder said it was a most cowardly act to shoot a man in such a way, giving him "no show." [After some more arguing,] Gumbert drew a knife and stabbed Reeder, cutting him in two places in the back.

Reeder [was] taken into the office of Dr. Owens, where his wounds were properly dressed. [Being] considerably under the influence of liquor, Reeder did not feel his wounds as he otherwise would, and he got up and went into the street.


How can the absence of authority endanger lives, liberty, and property?


How can the absence of authority endanger lives, liberty, and property?

He went to the meat market and renewed his quarrel with Gumbert, threatening his life. After these threats Gumbert went off and procured a double-barreled shot gun. [He came back, and shot Reeder twice. The doctors examined him and said it was almost impossible for him to recover.]

At the time that this occurred, there were a great many persons on the street in the vicinity, and a number of them called out to Gumbert when they saw him raise his gun, to "hold on," and "don't shoot!"

After the shooting, the street was instantly crowded with inhabitants of that part of the town, some appearing much excited and laughing; declaring that it looked like the "good old times of '60."...It was whispered around that it was not all over yet; five or six more were to be killed before night.

Examining the Situation

  1. What problems arose in the town because there was no effective authority?
  2. What do you think? How might authority be used to deal with these problems?

    1. Are there similar problems in our society owing to a lack of authority?
    2. What might be done to solve them?

How can we use authority?

You have just read about what can happen when there is no effective authority. Life in the Old West, as Twain described it, sometimes was violent and dangerous. Authority can be used to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property.

  • Authority can be used to provide order and security in people's lives. For example, air traffic controllers prevent accidents and provide safety for airplane passengers.

  • Authority can be used to manage conflict peacefully and fairly. For example, umpires are used to referee baseball games and solve conflicts that may occur. Courts manage conflicts among people over property and other matters.

  • Authority can be used to protect important rights and freedoms. For example: the First Amendment of the Constitution protects our freedom of expression and belief.

  • Authority can be used to ensure that benefits (advantages) and burdens (disadvantages) will be distributed fairly. For example: laws ensure that all children have an opportunity to receive a free public education; parents may require each of their children to help with household chores.

Critical Thinking Exercise
Identifying Problems Related to Authority

As you read this story, look for problems that call for the use of authority. Then answer the questions that follow.

A Problem at Pacific Central High

As Alicia Hampton sprinted across the finish line, the crowd went wild. She had just run the final leg of the girls' 400-meter relay race in record time. That race had given Pacific Central High School enough points to win the first state track championship in which both boys and girls competed.

On the way back to Pacific Central High, a few members of the team noticed their coach staring out the window of the school bus. "What are you thinking about, Mrs. Reed?" one of them asked. "Why aren't you celebrating like everyone else?"

"I was just thinking about how different things were the year I started teaching at Pacific Central High," she answered. "We won the state championship that year, too. But the only girls on the field then were cheerleaders."

"Wasn't there a girls' track team in those days, Mrs. Reed?" someone else asked.

"Oh, there was one," she answered. "But we didn't get to go with the boys to the state championship. We were lucky if we could get enough parents to drive us over to Porterville for a meet. Girls' teams took a back seat to boys' teams in those days. There was hardly any money left in the budget for the girls' athletic program."

"I was the girls' coach then. Unlike the boys' coach, I was only paid for teaching during school hours. I didn't get paid for coaching the teams after school. I was asked to volunteer for the job. Our team could only use the track after the boys had finished. Since we never knew exactly when that would be, we had to wait around a lot. We usually finished practicing after dark. That, combined with the hand-me-down equipment we had to use, led to many injuries."

By this time others were listening to the conversation. One of them asked, "Why did things change?"

"Congress passed a law. It requires schools that receive government money to give both boys and girls equal opportunities in all school programs. Most schools receive money from the federal government, so the law made things change. When people from the State Department of Education began checking the schools, the situation improved even more."

"Well, if what you say is true, why does the girls' basketball team only get to use the gym twice a week?" asked Alicia. "And why don't we have a gymnastic team? I know a lot of girls who would like to compete in that sport."

"I heard that girls' coaches don't get paid as much as boys' coaches," Bonnie added. "That doesn't seem fair."

"There's still room for improvement," Mrs. Reed said. "But at least we're catching up. Now let's celebrate. After all, we won the state championship!"

Examining the Situation

  1. What problems occurred at Pacific Central High School several years ago?

  2. How was authority used to deal with these problems?

  3. What problems at Pacific Central High School still have not been solved?

  4. What do you think?

    1. How might authority be used to deal with these problems?

    2. How can you work to promote changes in a situation like this one?

Using the Lesson

  1. Write a story in your journal about a time in your life when there was no authority to deal with a particular situation. Explain how authority might have been helpful to you at that time. For example, have you seen authority used to stop a fight at your school? You may also wish to illustrate your story with a cartoon.

  2. Read the newspaper for several days. Keep a list of problems you read about that happened because there was no effective authority. After you have finished your list, write a letter to the editor suggesting ways authority can be used to deal with one of these problems.

  3. As you watch your favorite television programs, notice how authority is used to deal with problems that arise. Report what you observe to your class.

©Center for Civic Education. All rights reserved.
Permission is granted to freely use this information for nonprofit educational purposes only. Copyright must be acknowledged on all copies. This text was originally prepared under Grant #8"1"-JS-CX-0009 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

ISBN 0-89818-1"1"0-X


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