The quote “it is not wisdom but authority that makes a law” implies that laws are created based on those in positions of power rather than through reasoned consideration. This article will explore the meaning and implications of this quote.

What Does the Quote Mean?

The critical parts of this quote are “wisdom” versus “authority.” Wisdom refers to sound judgment and experience combined with deep understanding. On the other hand, authority refers to being in a position of power over others. The quote argues that laws are created by those in authority rather than by any understanding or reasoned judgment. Laws may be enacted because those in power say they should be, not because they stand up to logical scrutiny.

How Laws Come About

In reality, the process of creating laws involves both authority and wisdom. Elected representatives hold the authority to propose and pass legislation. However, the legislative process also involves public debate, expert testimony, and committee review designed to apply wisdom and ensure laws achieve their desired outcomes without unintended consequences. Ultimately, a balance of authority and wisdom is needed. Total authority without wisdom risks arbitrary, ineffective, or even harmful laws, while total wisdom without authority means no laws could ever be enacted.

Examples of Laws Lacking Wisdom

There are some examples throughout history where the quote seems quite applicable. Some prohibit laws enacted during times of crisis or public panic later proved to lack real wisdom or forethought. For instance, many of the strictest anti-drug or anti-terrorism laws passed post-9/11 in the U.S. and elsewhere have since been revised due to overreach or lack of proportionality. Harsher criminal sentencing in the 1980s and ’90s is also now seen by many experts as an “authority-driven” approach that filled prisons without meaningfully reducing crime. These examples suggest the potential dangers of overwhelming authority wisdom in the lawmaking process.

The Role of Challenging Wisdom Authority

On the other hand, Total wisdom also requires checks on authority. History shows that unjust, unwise, or ineffective laws persist due to political inertia or entrenched authority rather than merits. As such, questioning and challenging authority plays an important role. Brave dissidents, activists, lawyers, and judges who apply moral courage and wisdom to question established laws have helped drive reforms on issues like civil rights, criminal justice, and more. While authority enacts laws, an open process and balance of viewpoints help ensure that rules are revised or repealed over time if they truly lack wisdom or justice.

The Authority of Elected Officials

As representatives in legislatures, elected officials hold the ultimate authority to craft and pass new laws. While public input is considered, these officials can leverage their positions of power to determine which proposals move forward. There is an inherent risk that some laws may be driven more by a representative’s ideology or interests rather than collective wisdom. However, regular elections also allow for the removal of authorities who are perceived as abusing their positions.

Lobbying and Special Interests

Powerful lobbying groups also significantly influence the lawmaking process in many jurisdictions. Well-funded lobbies representing niche special interests have authority in the form of resources that help advance industry-friendly policies and regulations. This lobbying “authority” has arguably resulted in some laws better serving narrow interests rather than public welfare. Tighter lobbying and campaign finance rules aim to maintain a wiser balance of competing stakeholder voices.

Cultural and Social Norms

The authority of entrenched cultural norms or dominant social ideologies should not be ignored in policymaking. Some laws that aligned with dominant views in their eras are now seen as lacking wisdom or justice, such as past policies around racial segregation, LGBTQ rights, or the treatment of minorities. Over time, evolving social values have helped challenge the authority of once-accepted positions, improving laws. However, too much deference to current norms risks not applying necessary long-term thinking.

Judicial Review and Oversight

Courts wield significant authority through powers of judicial review to check laws for compliance and constitutionality. Judges apply a careful, wise assessment grounded in respect for civil liberties and precedents rather than personal views. However, the quote’s message also applies here – judicial authority ultimately shapes law and policy. Accepting this reality, diversity on the bench helps prevent any one perspective from dominating legal wisdom.

Bureaucratic Implementation

Government agencies directly oversee vast realms of regulation through rulemaking procedures and compliance oversight. While governed by laws, agencies hold executionary powers that shape practical outcomes and interpretation. The priorities, capacities, and competence of agency officials directly impact the real-world wisdom or flaws of policies. Ensuring skilled, impartial management and legislative guidance aims to counter the potential overreach of bureaucratic authority.

International Agreements

At a global level, high-level political dealmaking determines trade, security, and resource governance rules. While international cooperation serves essential ends, the quote’s lesson applies to accountability. Robust participation, oversight, and challenge mechanisms can help safeguard intergovernmental accords that adhere to broadly endorsed principles of justice and public benefit, not just realpolitik authority between states.


In reality, authority and wisdom have essential roles in any legal system. Total authority risks arbitrary laws, while total wisdom risks paralysis. An open process balancing diverse viewpoints and challenges to the potential excesses of authority helps drive continuous improvement. While some laws may originate more from authority than wisdom, an evolving balance over time can help move laws closer to justice. The whole meaning of the quote warns against wholly replacing wisdom with power in governance.

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