Authority is the right to exercise power, which can be formalized by a state and exercised by way of judges, appointed executives of government, or the ecclesiastical or priestly appointed representatives of a God or other deities. Authority, in the sense of "authorization", can also mean the right to complete an action or execute an order.
In government, authority is often used interchangeably with power. However, their meanings differ: while power is the ability to order or accomplish a goal or to influence others, authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, while a mob may have the power to punish a criminal by beating or lynching, the rule of law indicates that only a court of law has the authority to determine and refer a criminal for punishment. In this sense, authority is a matter of not only the ability or power to make decisions, but the right to make these decisions and execute them with commensurate power. Appropriate authority is the basis of good government in the republican conception of government, which finds much of its theoretical origins in ancient Rome.
Ancient understandings of authority trace back to Rome and draw later from Catholic (Thomistic) thought and other traditional understandings. In more modern terms, forms of authority include transitional authority exhibited in for example Cambodia, public authority in the form of popular power, and, in more administrative terms, bureaucratic or managerial techniques. In terms of bureaucratic governance, one limitation of the governmental agents of the executive branch, as outlined by George A. Krause, is that they are not as close to the popular will as elected representatives are. The claims of authority can extend to national or individual sovereignty, which is broadly or provisionally understood as a claim to political authority that is legitimated.
Historical applications of authority in political terms include the formation of the city-state of Geneva, and experimental treatises involving the topic of authority in relation to education include Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As David Laitin defines, authority is a key concept to be defined in determining the range and role of political theory, science and inquiry. The relevance of a grounded understanding of authority includes the basic foundation and formation of political, civil and/or ecclesiastical institutions or representatives. In recent years, however, authority in political contexts has been challenged or questioned.
There have been several contributions to the debate of political authority. Among others, Hannah Arendt, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Thomas Hobbes, Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt have provided some of the most remarkable texts.
In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority, and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present. Most democratic societies are engaged in an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of the exercise of governmental authority. In the United States, for instance, there is a prevailing belief that the political system as instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly, known as limited government.
In the discussion regarding the legitimacy of political authority, there are two beliefs at the respective ends of the spectrum.
Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has become a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities), and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).
The definition of authority in contemporary social science remains a matter of debate.
The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms
The political authority in the British context can be traced to James VI and I of Scotland who wrote two political treatise called Basilikon Doron and The Trve Lawe of free Monarchies: Or, The Reciprock and Mvtvall Dvtie Betwixt a free King, and his naturall Subiectes which advocated his right to rule on the basis of the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, a theological concept that has basis in multiple religions, but in this case, Christianity, tracing this right to the Apostolic succession. The King in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth states are considered the foundations of judicial, legislative and executive authority.
The United States
The understanding of political authority and the exercise of political powers in the American context traces back to the writings of the Founding Fathers, including the arguments put forward in The Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the First Chief Justice of the United States John Jay, and later speeches by the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. "Our government rests in public opinion," President Abraham Lincoln said in 1856. In his 1854 Speech at Peoria, Illinois, Lincoln espoused "the proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own," a principle existing "at the foundation of the sense of justice." This sense of personal ownership and stewardship was integral to the practice of self-government as Abraham Lincoln saw it by a Republican nation and its people. This was because, as Abraham Lincoln also declared, "No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent."