To Obey or Disobey: The Role of Power in Obedience
People’s decision to obey or disobey the law is based on how much power (in its various
forms) they perceive the law to have behind it. The power of coercion is one maintained by every
government in human history: the power to punish. The power of legitimacy is a much more
subtle power: the power to appear as an authority and let others presume that you know best.
While enforcing law, authorities will exercise both these powers. Both powers underscore
government and society’s ability to control us and to get us to obey.
Why do we obey? Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, a series of experiments in
which subjects were told to administer what they believed to be high-voltage electric shocks to
people who they thought were experimental subjects, shows us the disturbing extent of people’s
obedience in the face of power. Whereas it was hypothesized that few of the subjects would
actually shock their supposed experimental subjects, the actual experiments showed a
“disturbingly high level of compliance with authority figures despite the apparent pain evinced
by the false experimental subjects.” (Cover 223) Even when the false experimental subjects
(actually just a tape recording of responses) screamed with supposed agony, the vast majority of
the subjects, although showing some hesitation and concern for their “victims”, still nevertheless
shocked them again and again at the behest of the authority, even after the “victims” had gone
silent. (Cover 223) The almost blind obedience of these subjects was due to the power of
legitimacy and expertise they perceived the authority figures behind the experiment to have. The
authorities were able to impose their will on the subjects with little resistance because the
subjects thought that the authorities must know what they were doing since they appeared to be
Yale professors and the subjects were absolved from all responsibility. Although there was no
actual law that the subjects had to comply with the authorities, the authorities were perceived to
have enough power for the most of the subjects to follow their instructions completely and
without question. Because of the results in his study, Milgram hypothesizes that we have a
“human predisposition” to obey our authorities in the face of power. (Cover 223)
So why does it seem that we naturally tend to obey? It may not be purely human nature.
Peter Kropotkin argues in “Law and Authority” that it is the government’s power to impress
upon us the importance and necessity of obedience that molds most of us all into law-abiding,
obedient members of society. According to Kropotkin, the government uses education as its
main weapon, brainwashing us from an early age into thinking that the law reigns supreme above
everything else in our lives: “Cleverly assorted scraps of spurious science are inculcated upon the
children to prove necessity of law; obedience to the law is made a...