2.8.3 Limits on Power: Degrees of Authority

There are practical limits on power: it is never absolute, there are different degrees of authority, and it always depends on compliance

There are some interconnected terms which can cause confusion:

●  The term ‘authority‘ is taken here to mean the power to decide, to command and to enforce obedience.

●  ‘Autonomy‘ is taken as describing an authority’s degree of independence from a requirement to defer to others.

●  ‘Sovereignty‘ is taken here as describing a State’s autonomy, coupled with a measure of the breadth of control that it exerts in the different dimensions of power.

None of these is ever totally unconstrained, as illustrated by some examples of the practical limits on power:

●  Power might be constrained by higher levels of authority where that is relevant: as in a political hierarchy, for example.

●  There are always physical limits, imposed by geography and the forces of nature.

●  Some authorities may be constrained by prior agreements reached with their peers, as is the case with trading agreements and treaties for example.

●  Countries can cooperate in pooled sovereignty, as in the EU, yielding some autonomy in return for greater influence over others in the group and over the rest of the world.

●  Some types of power do not lend themselves to being managed by a single authority and they transcend political boundaries.  For example: international regulations are the only limits on power exercised by large corporations; the influence of religious leaders is worldwide; and the impact of social media also extends globally.

All authority is also, to some extent, limited by its ability to enforce compliance – which is directly related to whether people find it acceptable and/or see it as legitimate.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/283a.htm.