Legitimacy is commonly defined in political science and sociology as the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern. It is a judgment by an individual about the rightfulness of a hierarchy between rule or ruler and its subject and about the subordinate’s obligations toward the rule or ruler. When shared by many individuals, legitimacy produces distinctive collective effects in society, including making collective social order more efficient, more consensual, and perhaps more just. Tom Tyler says that if authorities “are not viewed as legitimate, social regulation is more difficult and costly” (Tyler 2001, 416). This accounts for the interest rulers show in legitimating their rule.
Legitimation is the process by which actors strive to create legitimacy for a rule or ruler. Where legitimacy as a belief is a subjective and an individualistic quality, legitimation is a process that is inherently social and political. Actors and institutions constantly work to legitimize their power, and challengers work to delegitimate it. Legitimation is often done by justifying the existence of rulers or their rules in terms of important normative principles of the society. However, legitimation may also be attempted through payoffs and inducements to subordinates. Material incentives and normative appeals are different strategies for legitimation and their success depends on how the audience responds to them. It is not possible to make a general statement about the efficacy of one or the other as a generic legitimating strategy, nor is it possible to say that legitimacy can only arise by following one or the other.
By contrast, legitimacy itself is a fundamentally subjective and normative concept: it exists only in the beliefs of an individual about the rightfulness of rule. It is distinct from legality, in that not all legal acts are necessarily legitimate and not all legitimate acts are necessarily legal. One would hope for a close coincidence between the two, but it is conceptually necessary to keep the two separate. The possibility always exists that rulers might impose laws which the followers find illegitimate, and this possibility ensures that the two concepts cannot be reduced to one. Moreover, to define what is legal as the same as what is legitimate means that the government would have the power to control the categories of legitimate and illegitimate. This would make legitimacy inherently conservative since it could only buttress existing power relations. In practice, we see many instances in which citizens come be believe that their governments are illegitimate and this creates a serious crisis in governance.
The subjective approach to legitimacy is grounded in the work of Max Weber, who emphasizes the macro-social consequences of citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of their rulers. Weber famously identified three bases for legitimate rule in society (rational-legal, charismatic, and traditional) and argued that the presence of legitimate authority structures the society in such a way that even those who do not share the belief in its legitimacy face incentives to behave as if they did. This he called the ‘validity’ of the social system.
A competing approach to the study of legitimacy begins from the premise that legitimacy depends on a correspondence between a rule and an external moral standard. It strives for an ‘objective’ model of legitimacy, based on the strength of the standard itself. Allen Buchanan represents this view when he suggests that “the legitimacy of states, and ultimately of the international legal system itself, must be defined in terms of some threshold approximation to full or perfect justice…. [and] basic human rights should serve as that threshold” (Buchanan 2003, 432). Buchanan suggests that states should be accepted as legitimate (and therefore welcomed into international society) to the extent that they live up to the substantive goal of respecting individual human rights. This view can be compelling as long as one begins with certainty about the theory of justice that is being applied. It presumes a substantive theory of justice and then proposes that institutions which satisfy it can be called ‘legitimate.’ The objective approach is inspired by normative political theory and seeks to identify normatively acceptable structures of rule; it is not concerned with what people actually think of the rule. It therefore has less to say about why people behave the way they do toward sources of authority and more about which sources of authority we should respect.
The differences between the objective and subjective approaches is evident in their different answers to the question of whether the Nazi government was legitimate or not. To answer that, the subjective approach would need to know whether the citizens in question believed that the government was legitimate: did they believe that it had the right to rule? If so, then the social consequences of legitimacy (i.e. voluntary compliance, lower enforcement costs, etc.) would presumably be present. The objective approach would answer the question by referring to the failure of that government to satisfy the minimum moral requirements it establishes for a government, and so would decide that it was not legitimate regardless of how some people felt about it.
There are assorted theories for how people might come to believe in the legitimacy of a rule or a rules-system. One model suggests that people see as legitimate those institutions or rules that benefit them. This self-serving account of legitimation is consistent with the theoretical model of instrumental rationality and is popular in rational-choice models of social life. It also underpins Habermas’ account of late-modern capitalism, where the inability of the modern state to provide the protections and benefits promised by the welfare state are a source of delegitimation and a potential crisis. It follows from the common-sense notion that actors are more likely to believe as normatively right arrangements that seem to serve their interests.
A second model suggests that legitimacy follows the act of consenting to a rule or ruler. This is the approach put forward by John Locke and is a common element in democratic theory. In liberal theory, consent is the process of voluntarily accepting to be bound by a structure of authority and it is the crucial step in reconciling freedom and obligation. This view treats legitimacy as a contract that transfers authority between the individual and the institution. Consent, says Flathman, “allows [people] to transfer some or all of their authority to others, to authorize others to act on their behalf” (Flathman 1993, 528). Consent is central to international law, as it is to domestic contract law, and leads to the common claim that actors should feel a legitimate obligation (not just a legal obligation) to those commitments to which they have consented.
Both the self-interest and the consent theories of legitimation side-step some interesting questions about legitimacy in practice. For instance, why is legitimacy useful for rulers if the institutions are already serving people’s interests or if they already consent to the rules? Similarly, why is it that people can sometimes be socialized to accept as legitimate institutions which seem to outsiders to directly endanger their interests? John Gaventa’s classic study of power relations was motivated by the observation that highly unequal and unfair social structures can be made to seem legitimate to the powerless, and that this can be a stable, long-running governing arrangement. Much of what is interesting about the power of legitimated authority in practice is that it can shape what people think is in the their interests and that it can make what outsiders might find appalling seem to insiders to be normal and moral.
In response to these apparent puzzles, a third model of legitimation emphasizes the legitimating power of procedures. This view, described by Tom Tyler, suggests that “the roots of legitimacy lie in people’s assessments of the fairness of the decision-making procedures used by authorities and institutions” (Tyler 2001, 416). More than the substance of the decisions or the outcomes produced by the institutions, Tyler says that it is the procedures by which they are made that produce legitimacy. This approach to legitimation opens the possibility that people might still see as legitimate institutions that decide against their interests as long as the process is seen as basically fair (or legal, or correct). The procedural approach finds a good deal of support in public opinion data regarding people’s attitudes toward governing institutions (Tyler 1990). However, it begs the question of how people come to hold beliefs about what counts as ‘basically fair‘ (or legal, or correct), and so move the center of the discussion further into the realms of sociology and psychology.
It is easy to identify attempts to create legitimacy but difficult to assess whether these efforts are successful. The difficulties arise in part because there are no good behavioral indicators that distinguish decisively between legitimate rule and illegitimate rule, and in part because of the incentives that exist to represent one’s power as legitimate. The first issue is easily seen when we analyze compliance. Russell Hardin describes the problem: “The fundamental, modal relationship of citizens to their governments most of the time is acquiescence” but this does not tell us whether they are acquiescing out of legitimacy or some other motivation (Hardin 2007). As Weber noted, “the merely external fact of the order being obeyed is not sufficient to signify” that it is seen as legitimate (Weber 1978, 946). Compliance with rules is not evidence that the rules are seen as legitimate, and non compliance is not evidence against legitimacy. There are many reasons that actors might comply with sources of authority, legitimacy being only one of them. It is an internal condition of belief whose existence is not directly observable.
The second problem is that actors have an incentive to portray their rule as legitimate and challengers to that rule have an incentive to portray it as illegitimate. These incentives are inherent in the political value of legitimacy and they color every effort to empirically measure degrees of legitimacy. Claims of legitimacy circulate around all political power, and counter-claims of illegitimacy are central to efforts to undermine that power.
The strategies used to legitimize and delegitimize power vary greatly across circumstances. It is often the case that these strategies center on the attempt to use the existing norms and values of society to justify one’s position. For instance, one might argue that the US tax code is legitimate on the grounds that it is administered fairly, or that it is has been approved by Congress, or that its revenue is used for the social good. If the audience cares about fairness, legality, or good outcomes, these claims may be useful tools in a strategy of legitimation.
Legitimacy and Self-Determination
These strategies are evident in the practical politics of separatist insurgents against established nation-states. These movements often strive to legitimize their claims to self-determination and in this behavior we can see legitimation strategies in action. Separatists address the international community with assorted arguments to justify being granted external recognition of their sovereignty. The values used in these justifications reflect both the nature of the separatist movements and the norms of the international community. Both normative and strategic interests are involved. For example, it is common for groups to claim that their incorporation into the existing state occurred illegitimately and that therefore their claims to independence should be seen favorably. Others, such as some Bosnian Serbs, argue that their unity as a culture and nation legitimates their claim to self-determination. Somaliland has suggested that its history of political independence, however brief and voluntarily given up, should contribute to its recognition today. Many groups use procedural arguments, following Tyler’s logic above, often based on elections and referenda. Referenda are generally seen as highly legitimating and for that reason their terms are highly contentious: for instance, which populations in Western Sahara should be included, and what margin of victory should apply in Quebec? Nagorno-Karabakh uses the fact that its government was democratically elected to legitimize its statehood claims. Others signal their respect for international norms and law as legitimating their claims, such as when the Macedonian separatists in Yugoslavia suggested that the fact that they had not joined in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s reflected their commitment to international peace and thus helped their claims to statehood.
In each of these cases, separatists acted as if they were strengthening their cause by legitimizing it with reference to important international procedures, values, or rules. Whether the international community ultimately agrees with their claims is not under their control. Legitimacy, in the end, depends on the beliefs held by the audience. But the pervasiveness of legitimation claims is an indication that many groups recognize the political power of legitimacy claims and of legitimation.
Separatist movements often strive to legitimize their claims to self-determination and in this behavior we can see these legitimation strategies in action. Separatists address the international community with assorted arguments to justify being granted external recognition of their sovereignty. The values used in these justifications reflect both the nature of the separatist movements and the norms of the international community. Both normative and strategic interests are involved. For example, it is common for groups to claim that their incorporation into the existing state was fundamentally unjust and that therefore their claims to independence should be seen favorably. Others, such as some Bosnian Serbs and some French Canadians, argue that their unity as a culture and nation legitimates their claim to self-determination. Somaliland has suggested that its history of political independence, however brief and voluntarily given up, should contribute to its recognition today. Nagorno-Karabakh uses the fact that its government was democratically elected to legitimize its statehood claims. Others signal their respect for international norms and law as legitimating their claims, such as when the Macedonian separatists in Yugoslavia suggested that the fact that the Macedonians had not joined in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s reflected its commitment to international peace.
In each of these cases, separatists acted as if they strengthened their cause by legitimizing it with reference to important international procedures, values, or rules. Whether the international community ultimately agrees with their claims is not directly a product of the success of these legitimation strategies, but the pervasiveness of legitimation claims is an indication that many groups believe that legitimation is worthwhile.
Many studies of legitimacy define the legitimacy of a rule in terms of its justice. Buchanan, for instance, says “the legitimacy of states, and ultimately of the international legal system itself, must be defined in terms of some threshold approximation to full or perfect justice…. [and] basic human rights should serve as that threshold.” This is possible if one begins, as Buchanan does, with an ‘objective’ definition of legitimacy as opposed to the ‘subjective’ definition presented above. Scholarship in the objective tradition generally posits an observer who makes a judgment about whether a rule, institution, or leader, meets an external standard of moral or just rule. The objective approach is inspired by normative political theory and seeks to identify normatively acceptable structures of rule.
The objective approach is best understood as being about strategies of legitimation rather than about legitimacy itself. It risks losing the unique content of the term ‘legitimacy’ by deriving it from a theory of justice. It does not leave space for a psychological process of belief formation to produce results different than the observer’s moral judgments. The subjective approach is useful for questions such as the effects of legitimacy on citizens’ behavior toward political institutions. A good example is Caldeira and Gibson’s work on EU citizens’ attitudes about the legitimacy of the Court of Justice of the EU. Their interest is in the effects, rather than the moral foundations, of the legitimacy of the institution.
Legitimacy should also be distinguished from legality. Legality may be used as an argument for legitimation, but the connection is not necessarily in this direction. Questions of legitimacy are distinct from questions of legality. “To many,” according to Ian Clark, “what is legitimate is what the law ordains.” He argues however that this ignores that individuals’ views about the legitimacy of rules may in practice either support or undermine the existing social order. Legitimacy, in this sense, is not an inherently conservative concept. For example, the bombing of Kosovo by NATO in defense of humanitarian goals has frequently been described as illegal (because it was not approved by the UN Security Council) but legitimate (because it pursued a worthwhile goal using proportionate means). Where social order is kept through mechanisms that conflict with people’s views about legitimate rule, appeals to legitimate norms will be revolutionary rather than conservative.
Legitimacy is a belief, held by individuals, about the rightfulness of a rule or ruler. It has collective effects when it is widely shared in a society. In domestic political life, these effects may include a stable social order that appears consensual. This is what we mean when we speak of a ‘legitimate regime’ and when we work to create legitimate authorities in post-conflict societies. In international political life, the effects of collectively held legitimated rules include social order but also implies the end of international anarchy. Since anarchy among states depends on the absence of legitimate rule, the presence of legitimated institutions in international society suggests that global governance may rest on the same collective legitimacy that underpins domestic regimes.
 Hurd 2007.
Legitimacy is a belief, held by individuals, about the rightfulness of a rule or ruler. It has collective effects when it is widely shared in a society. In domestic political life, these effects may include a stable social order that appears consensual. This is what we mean when we speak of a ‘legitimate regime’ and ‘legitimate authority,’ and it is what we strive for in post-conflict societies. In international political life, the effects of collectively held legitimated rules include social order but also perhaps the end of international anarchy. Since the concept of ‘anarchy’ among states depends on the absence of legitimate rule, the degree to which international structures of authority are believed to be legitimate is also the degree to which the international system cannot be considered anarchic.
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