The Legitimacy Fallacy

I’ve never thought much of the concept of political legitimacy, and a recent rereading of Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man has reminded me why. In theoretical discourse on political stability and change, legitimacy is the Ouroboros, the mythical serpent locked in a circle as it eats its own tail. We appeal to legitimacy when we need to explain the persistence of political arrangements that defy our materialist predictions, and when those arrangements do finally collapse, we say that their failure has revealed a preceding loss of legitimacy. In statistical terms, legitimacy is the label we attach to the residual, the portion of the variance our mental models cannot explain. It is a tautology masquerading as a causal force.

In the chapter of his 1960 classic that got me thinking about this topic again, Lipset writes (emphasis mine) that

The stability of any given democracy depends not only on economic development but also upon the effectiveness and the legitimacy of its political system. Effectiveness means actual performance, the extent to which the system satisfies the basic functions of government as most of the population and such powerful groups within it as big business or the armed forces see them. Legitimacy involves the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society.

Lipset goes on to argue that this concept has predictive power; if we know how legitimate a system is, we can anticipate whether or not it will survive challenging times, or what social scientists sometimes refer to as “exogenous shocks.” To illustrate this point, he contrasts the fate of various democracies in Europe in the face of the Great Depression. “When the effectiveness of various governments broke down in the 1930s, those societies which were high on the scale of legitimacy remained democratic, while such countries as Germany, Austria, and Spain lost their freedom, and France narrowly escaped a similar fate.”

Voilà, right? I mean, going into the 1930s, I’m sure every astute social observer could have told you that those four countries were the ones where “belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society” was weakest; that citizens in neighboring countries did not harbor similar doubts; and that those variations in beliefs would largely determine the trajectories European countries would follow through the coming storm. Otherwise, this remarkably accurate after-the-fact prediction would be nothing more than common hindsight bias.

More damning, though, are Lipset’s brief comments on Thailand. After discussing mid-century Europe, he writes that

From a short-range point of view, a highly effective but illegitimate system, such as a well-governed colony, is more unstable than regimes which are relatively low in effectiveness and high in legitimacy. The social stability of a nation like Thailand, despite its periodic coups d’etat, stands out in sharp contrast to the situation in neighboring former colonial nations.

Looking back from 2012, that view of Thai politics seems almost laughably wrong-headed. In the past few decades, the regime that Lipset identified as an exemplar of social stability founded on high legitimacy has been wracked by periodic waves of mass unrest and separatist insurgency. The latest and still-ongoing wave of mass upheaval has now lasted nearly a decade and concerns precisely the question at the core of Lipset’s definition of legitimacy: are the existing institutions the most appropriate ones for Thai society? Based on their voting patterns and participation in mass protests, it now seems clear that many Thais think not, but an oligarchical alliance of monarchists, militarists, and well-to-do urbanites still has enough power to resist attempts to fully dislodge the old regime.

To be fair to Lipset, I suspect few observers of Thai politics in the early 1960s would have foreseen the ruptures that seem inevitable with hindsight (and if this article from a May 1996 issue of Time is exemplary of the information available at the time, it’s easy to see why). But then, that’s really the problem, isn’t it? If we can’t reliably observe legitimacy or know that it’s crumbling until people behave in ways that show it has, what value is it adding to our theories of political change?

In a terrific working paper that disassembles the problem far more thoroughly than this blog post, political scientist Xavier Marquez accepts that legitimacy may have some value as a summary concept in casual discussions of politics, but he shows that it just doesn’t work as an element of explanatory or even normative political theory. As Xavier puts it, explanations of political stability that appeal to legitimacy “are strictly speaking tautological: they do not so much explain stability as restate the problem of stability in different terms.” If you’re interested in comparative politics, you really should read the whole thing, but the following passage (emphasis mine) nicely summarizes his reasoning:

To the extent that the concept of legitimacy appears to have some explanatory value, this is only because explanations of social and political order that appeal to legitimacy in fact conceal widely different (and often inconsistent) accounts of the mechanisms involved in the production of obedience to authority and submission to norms. Very often legitimacy works as a residual concept, a sort of virtus dormitiva that is used to explain the persistence of social and political order wherever obvious coercion or material incentives appear unable to account for its stability. But like most such residual concepts, it tends to hide the wide variety of mechanisms that actually sustain social order, including epistemic deficits, collective action problems, signalling conventions, emotional attachments, and cognitive biases. I thus suggest that explanatory social science would be better off abandoning the concept of legitimacy for more precise accounts of the operation of these mechanisms in particular contexts.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on the concept. Analogizing to physics, maybe legitimacy is more like the dark matter of political development, a substance we cannot observe but whose existence we can infer from the otherwise strange behavior of human particles in visible political systems.

The problem with that analogy is that the theoretical models we have of social systems are nowhere near as well-developed and specific as the ones physicists have used to infer the existence of dark matter. No one has seen dark matter, but physicists can and have used careful observation of many related phenomena to develop a fairly sharp idea of what it is (and isn’t). For now—and maybe forever—social scientists have nothing that even comes close. Until we can find a way to reliably observe preferences and beliefs across a wide variety of cultural contexts, appeals to legitimacy are going to keep us stuck in a pre-scientific world, where things can be true because they just make sense.

Leave a comment


  1. I agree that legitimacy is applied in a problematic fashion as an explanation for stability but I wouldn’t go so far as to declare the concept vacuous. I see it as label for “the extent to which an authority can induce action from individuals despite their self interest and external moral prescription.” Rob Blair at Yale is doing interesting work on statebuilding in Liberia from this perspective. This definition takes the concept to be inherently endogenous and also residual with respect to material and norms-based incentives. But it characterizes the kind of trust necessary for an authority to lead change or adaptation. That makes it worth studying I’d say.

    • Thanks for commenting, Cyrus. I’d have to see the work to say, but from your description, it sounds like this study is being much clearer about the kinds of mechanisms Xavier discusses, and I agree that that’s worth doing.

  2. Grant

     /  August 17, 2012

    Legitimacy might be the dark matter of political science but we should try to find other ways to detect it (or declare it actually a cover for something else) first. The hard sciences have a much stronger advantage than the soft sciences when they say that something exists.

    If legitimacy does exist, we might be able to crudely measure it by something like the amount of time the state exists (presumably in general states that exist for quite some time have more legitimacy than most that only exist for a decade) and the perceived historical ties between the population and that state or related previous states. For example the state of Sudan seems able to hold the loyalty of some of its citizens, but those that it has little connection to like the groups in Darfur and South Sudan either broke away or are trying to break away*.
    Of course this doesn’t create perfect results. Communist Poland existed for decades more than the current Polish state but the population by the 1980s seemed to consider Solidarity and the pope more legitimate**. Also there’s the possibility that fairly strong democracies such as the U.S. and the U.K. are simply more resistant to revolutionary movements than Spain or Germany were in the 1930s and that what we’re calling legitimacy is more holding a stake in the system.

    *And now that I’ve written this I’m sure that a week from now the protests which have to date been fairly weak in Sudan will suddenly overthrow the government.
    **Perhaps the Communist lack of legitimacy was made up for (temporarily) by an overwhelming military advantage the same as Burma. What I’d give to have a chance to get an honest survey from the Poles prior to the 1980s.

  3. Surely, for those populations where we can undertake sophisticated survey analysis, we can develop some ways of measuring “legitimacy” if it is understood as attitudes to the appropriateness of political institutions? (I’m also struck that legitimacy, in the guise of “professionalism,” remains an implicit or explicit cornerstone of much of the literature on civil-military relations–and certainly of a great deal of SSR policy.)

    • I’m skeptical of the ability to overcome this problem with survey research for two reasons.

      First, for theories of regime stability and change, many of the most important cases are authoritarian regimes, and I simply don’t believe we can get honest answers about sensitive political topics from many survey respondents in these situations.

      Second and subtler, even if we can get honest responses, it’s not clear to me that those responses would measure what we think they measure. For example, if someone says they believe that democracy is the most appropriate form of government for their society at that time, is that because they prefer democracy to other forms, or is that because they are thinking strategically about the costs and difficulties of trying to bring about regime change and concluding that it’s not worth it (right now)?

      That may seem like hair-splitting, but I think it goes to the heart of the problem here, which is that we really have no way to reliably measure the marginal beliefs on these questions, or to separate those beliefs from the social and institutional context in which they arise.

  4. acilius

     /  August 23, 2012

    The other day, I stumbled on this formulation: “Legitimacy derives, ultimately, from the pragmatic costs and consequences of respecting or challenging authority.” (I found it here: That intrigued me, because it suggested that it might be possible to draw on models of cost/ benefit analysis developed by economists to give the concept of “legitimacy” more definite structure. Furthermore, since the set of potential costs and benefits of a particular relationship with whoever is in charge of a political system change continually, a concept of legitimacy based on cost/ benefit analysis would lead to a prediction that many countries will over time see their political cultures change from stable to unstable, or from unstable to stable. By contrast, other concepts of legitimacy are based on factors that rarely change: historical events that have already happened (e.g., the fact that Thailand was independent prior to the 1960s,) or on ethnic homogeneity (e.g., the percentage of ethnic Thais in Thailand,), or on widely shared ideological commitments in the culture (e.g., esteem for the Thai monarchy.) Those concepts therefore face a desperate crisis every time such a change takes place.

    • If I’m reading it right, that definition basically reduces legitimacy to a rationalist/materialist’s formulation of a collective action problem. You could substitute the word “stability” for “legitimacy” in that definition, and it would read fine. I think that’s a useful approach, but it’s definitely not what the whole Weberian line of theorizing is banging on about. As I understand them, they see legitimacy as a separate layer, based in culture and beliefs, that sits on top of, or is intertwined with, these materialist concerns about the costs and consequences of contentious collective action.

  5. acilius

     /  August 24, 2012

    If you take Millman’s phrase and leave it at that, sure, all you’ve done is substitute the one question for the other. But I’m not convinced you have to leave it at that. I think your choice of words is very apt when you describe legitimacy as something “intertwined with” the analysis people make of the options available to them in choosing how to interact with a political system and the possible costs and benefits of each of those options. That image of “intertwining” well complements your analogy in the post to dark matter. When we see people abruptly changing the way they calculate those costs and benefits, then we can start looking for the additional factor that has revised their thinking.

  6. BTW, I literally have an ouroboros tattooed on me…

  1. Things I’ve been saying « Panther Red
  2. Legitimacy Revisited…and Still Found Wanting | Dart-Throwing Chimp
  3. From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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