Respect for legal authority and law (and also moral values and standards of behaviour) is what distinguishes a civilised order from the primitive and the anarchist. It implies that substantive rules and procedures are observed and that change will be effected in accordance with such rules and procedures. Respect for the rules and procedures arises from their creation by a higher legal source, a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary or an elected Parliament. The growth of and magnitude of modern government is such that it is difficult for anyone to respect all laws. Respect for law is possible only where the law is limited and accessible.
There are active pressure groups and interests who, with media connivance, are able to flout the law and avoid the consequences. Trade unions, conservationists, peace protesters, feminists and others are able to flout the law and get away with it — and in the process achieve their ends. This has had the unfortunate consequence that individuals (eg farmers and small business) who have hitherto respected law and legal procedures are now threatening to flout the law — as the only way of achieving their ends. They have seen trade unions flout the law with impunity and profit therefrom. There is thus a gradual diminution of respect for law in the community as a whole.
Not all authority is based on law. Private institutions (religious bodies, the family and schools) exercise a degree of authority, but subject to the law.
In western civilisation, a hallmark of authority, legal and non-legal, has been that it was subject to legal checks and balances as well as to non-legal restraints (eg moral values, media and other criticism). The exercise of authority has been far from perfect. But when compared with other cultures and governmental systems, authority in the western democratic order has a record of fairness and justice second to none. Authority in the western democratic order is not unduly hierarchical and institutionalised, nor is it supported by secret police and a range of arbitrary powers in the hands of government.
The system itself provides mechanisms for change. These, no doubt, work slowly, but history demonstrates that productive change is that which is carefully or slowly developed or which develops spontaneously and gradually.
The acceptance, by individuals and groups, of law and parliament as the means of effecting change is an essential aspect of the western democratic order. When these avenues are not accepted and civil disobedience, violence, terrorism, and other unlawful means are resorted to as the means of effecting change, the inevitable consequence must be a gradual undermining of and loss of faith in, the entire system. If the problems increase and governments restrict individual liberties or lose control of law and order, the consequences become cyclic and will escalate. Toleration and pluralism within a set of broad-based values are vital to the operation of the system.
The word "authoritarianism" is correctly used to mean unfair and oppressive exercise of authority, but it has now come to be used for almost any exercise of authority by traditional sources of authority. While there is an attack on traditional sources of authority, the attackers are not averse to creating new sources of authority. Powers are vested in bureaucrats and tribunals such as the Human Rights Commission which are not subject to the procedural and other limitations of the common law and which, therefore, provide far greater scope for abuse of power. These are not referred to as "authoritarian" by those who establish the structures or their supporters.