Legitimacy Revisited…and Still Found Wanting

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that “legitimacy” is a solution to a theoretical puzzle that isn’t really so puzzling.

One of the central concerns of contemporary political science is political development—that is, understanding how and why different systems of government emerge, survive, and change.  Many of the theories we’ve crafted to address this topic start by assuming that those dynamics depend, in no small part, on the consent of the governed. Yes, all states sometimes coerce subjects into obedience, but coercion alone can’t explain why people don’t more often ignore or overthrow governments that fail to make them as happy as they could be. Taxes are costly, there are always some laws we don’t like, and subjects usually outnumber state security forces by a large margin.

Legitimacy is the idea we’ve concocted to fill that space between the amount of cooperation we think we can explain with coercion and the amount of cooperation we actually see. In its contemporary form, legitimacy has two layers. The first and supposedly deeper layer is a moral judgment about the justice of the current form of government; the second, surface layer is an instrumental judgment about the utility that government is providing. If we imagine the relationship between a state and its subjects as a marriage of sorts, we might think of the two layers of legitimacy as answers to two different questions: “Do you deserve my love?” and “What have you done for me lately?”

This two-layered notion of legitimacy is made clearest in contemporary thinking about the origins and survival of democratic regimes. According to Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset in Politics in Developing Countries (p. 9, emphasis mine),

All governments rest on some mixture of coercion and consent, but democracies are unique in the degree to which their stability depends on the consent of a majority of those governed…Democratic stability requires a widespread belief among elites and masses in the legitimacy of the democratic system: that it is the best form of government (or the “least evil”), “that in spite of shortcomings and failures, the existing political institutions are better than any others that might be established,” and hence that the democratic regime is morally entitled to demand obedience—to tax and draft, to make laws and enforce them, even “if necessary, by the use of force.”

Democratic legitimacy derives, when it is most stable and secure, from an intrinsic value commitment rooted in the political culture at all levels of society, but it is also shaped (particularly in the early years of democracy) by the performance of the democratic regime, both economically and politically (through the “maintenance of civil order, personal security, adjudication and arbitration of conflicts, and a minimum of predictability in the making and implementing of decisions”). Historically, the more successful a regime has been in providing what people want, the greater and more deeply rooted tends to be its legitimacy. A long record of successful performance tends to build a large reservoir of legitimacy, enabling the system better to endure crises and challenges.

So, to recap, legitimacy is a common answer to a question about the roots of consent, and this question about consent, in turn, emerges from a particular understanding of the relationship between governments and subjects. We think that forms of government only survive so long as subjects choose to keep cooperating, and we expect that subjects will only choose to keep cooperating as long as their moral beliefs and evaluations of regime performance tell them it is in their interest to do so. The math is a bit fuzzy, but the two layers of legitimacy are basically additive. As long as the sum of the moral and instrumental judgments is above some threshold, people will cooperate.

But what if this underlying model isn’t true? What if people actually don’t scan the world that way and actively choose between cooperation and rebellion on a regular basis? What if most of us are just busy getting on with our lives, operating on something more like autopilot, unconcerned with this world of high politics as long as it doesn’t disrupt our local routines and compel us to attend to it?

The more I read about how we as humans actually think—and the more I reflect on my own lived experience—the more convinced I become that the “active optimizer” assumption on which the puzzle of consent depends is bunk. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 394-395),

Our emotional state is largely determined by what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment. When happily in love, we may feel joy even when caught in traffic, and if grieving, we may remain depressed when watching a funny movie. In normal circumstances, however, we draw pleasure and pain from what is happening at the moment, if we attend to it.

One big reason “we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment” is that we are creatures of habit and routine with limited cognitive resources. Most of the time, most of us don’t have the energy or the impetus to attend to big, hard, abstract questions about the morality of the current form of government, the available alternatives, and ways to get from one to the other. As Kahneman surmises (p. 354),

We normally experience life in the between-subjects mode, in which contrasting alternatives that might change your mind are absent, and of course [what you see is all there is]. As a consequence, the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.

Put all of this together, and it looks like the active assessments of moral and instrumental value on which “legitimacy” supposedly depends are rarely made, and when they are made, they’re highly contingent. We mostly take things as they come and add the stories and meaning when prompted to do so. A lot of what looks like consent is just people going about their local business in a highly path-dependent world. If you ask us questions about various forms of government, we’ll offer answers, but those answers aren’t very reliable indicators of what’s actually guiding our behavior before or after you asked.

Put another way, I’m saying that the survival of political regimes depends not only on coercion and consent, but also, in large part, on inattention and indifference.

I think we find this hard to accept because (when we bother to think about it) we’ve bought the Hobbesian idea that, without a sovereign state, there would be no order. Hobbes’ State of Nature is philosophically useful, but empirically it’s absurd. As James Scott observes (p. 3) in The Art of Not Being Governed,

Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.

Clearly, nation-states aren’t the “natural” condition of the human animal, and they certainly aren’t a prerequisite for cooperation. Instead, they are a specific social technology that has emerged very recently and has so far proven highly effective at organizing coercive power and, in some cases, at helping to solve certain dilemmas of coordination and cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that we need to refer to national political regimes to explain all coordination and cooperation that happens within their territorial boundaries.

The irrelevance of legitimacy is the other side of that coin. We don’t need to refer to states to explain most of the cooperation that occurs among their putative subjects. Likewise, we don’t need a whole lot of consent to explain why those subjects don’t spend more time trying to change the forms of the nation-states they inhabit. We’ve concocted legitimacy to explain why people seemingly choose to go along with governments that don’t meet their expectations, when really most of the time people are just stumbling from immediate task to task, largely indifferent to the state-level politics on which we focus in our theories of regime survival and change. “Legitimacy” is a hypothesis in response to a question predicated on the false belief that we’re routinely more attentive to, and active in, this arena than we really are.

Leave a comment


  1. Fran Villamil

     /  March 25, 2013

    It’s true that the standard condition of humankind is a stateless form of self-governing… but it’s true as well that the demographic size of human “groups” or “communities” has been more or less small until quite recently.

    The problems arising from the dilemma between cooperating and free-riding increase heavily with the size of the group, just because it is so difficult to control people, or to impose some kind of punishment on the free-riders. So I think the very success of the state is the capacity to control effectively over a large amount of people.

    I agree with you that indifference (and laziness!) plays a more important role than legitimacy in the survival of political regimes, but I’m quite skeptical about the capacity for cooperation of human beings, at least in the context of modern and developed societies.

    Anyway, I’ve just took out the James C. Scoot’s book from the library today. Maybe I change my mind after after reading it!

  2. Grant

     /  March 25, 2013

    There was considerably far less certainty about the future and the individual’s security* until very recently.

    Maybe the real legitimacy of the state** is some balance between the ability to guarantee a normality where those securities are definite and the understanding that the state will not negatively impact those desired securities.

    *Economic, physical, food etc and possibly moving into the security to have social freedoms when the prior securities are guaranteed.
    **Which in my opinion has actually existed for a very long time, and it’s simply the ‘nation-state’ type which is the relative newcomer.

  3. Very nice piece Jay! I would also underline the historically constructed character of the moral (and to a point instrumental) part of legitimacy.
    Reactions will thus depend upon the actual effects of government, regime and state in people everyday’s life. In times when we have legitimacy, then consent is implicit. However when the foundations of legitimacy start being shaken, then isn’t it because people’s everyday lives start being upset? The implicit consent would thus be disturbed and not be given anymore. If legitimacy were irrelevant, then it would only be in the mind of the rulers who had enjoyed it, been lulled by the so far implicit consent and forgotten it had to be respected and won permanently?

    • Thanks, Helene. I actually think “tacit consent” is too strong. That’s where I would say “indifference” instead. And I would be very careful to distinguish between the absence of overt conflict and active support, too. You can get the former without the latter because of indifference or even hostility that is subordinated to other daily tasks or left nascent because of repression and collective action problems.

      • I fully agree with you 🙂 but I still think the concept of legitimacy is useful and important, it “only needs” to be further worked upon, refined and unpacked as you did in your post.

  4. Oral Hazard

     /  March 26, 2013

    What a nice post. It really is time to revisit Hobbes and publicly execute homo economicus with a more advanced behavioral understanding of ourselves. Really gets my juices flowing about snippets of understanding that ARE part of the constant mundane awareness of most people. A lot of leadership projection is humbug. Elites individually and collectively take credit and blame for events completely beyond their control (natural disasters, exogenous economic events, etc.), and our limited cognitive resources suspend disbelief/buy into fallacious causative attribution because… we can’t be bothered to scrutinize more closely? Probably.

    Politicians lie and/or their representations do not stand up to fact-checking. And yet, rabid partisanship abounds in election discourse, at least here in the US. Government entities intentionally misinform or selectively disclose facts. We go to war and consume huge amounts of human and material resources on pretexts. Moralists are mystified as to why this doesn’t presage immediate rebellion, as if there is a cognitive “critical mass” at which chain-reaction rebellion will ensue — if only we get enough pamphlets or posters or emails or TV ads out to the poor ignorant oppressed. You can find and watch dramatic confrontations or inconsistent statements on YouTube 24/7. It’s so easy to indict, over and over and over. And yet, in spite of deceit being, one would think, hugely corrosive of democracy, the population here in the US does not take up torches and pitchforks.

    Do human societies ever truly “turn on a dime”? Or is common wisdom correct: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Same shit, different day. Inertia and indifference: maybe it’s an adaptive thing.

    My simple hope, as a non-academic interloper at this party, is that folks consider that Jay’s insight here perhaps moves academic understanding closer to the deep, if inarticulate, biological and social understanding of everyday masses people.

  5. Oral Hazard

     /  March 26, 2013

    To add/further illustrate: “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.”

  6. Jonas

     /  March 26, 2013

    In addition in inattention or lack of cognitive power to think through things, a lot of people just like a hierarchy. It might have served evolutionary purposes, but it now manifests itself also as an emotional preference.

    Analytical people strongly under-estimate this factor. Plenty of people like having someone on top of a foodchain, like not having to think for themselves, like royalty and gossiping about them, like putting others down for disloyalty. But there’s an art to this power, and it’s not completely arbitrary. It’s like a dance.

    When the power in power do this dance right though, it confers legitimacy in and of itself, beyond utility and beyond indifference.

  7. Richard Lum

     /  March 26, 2013

    I agree, thinking that humans are far less active, rational political (or economic) actors than many theories have held. Cognitive constraints, bounded rationality, and the absolute tyranny of the urgent over the important strongly suggest that most individuals are mostly concerned with the daily, tactical slog, and only occasionally roused to passion about some larger issue. And the overarching “legitimacy” of a government (to say nothing of the political scientist’s abstraction of ‘the state’) is, I think, truly a distant concern for most people on most days. We take a lot as we receive it, treating much of it as simply the way things are.

    It also reminds me of a passage in Finer’s long history of human government, that for most of history and in most places, the king’s reach (that is, the pre-Westphalia “state”) only existed where the king’s soldiers or the tax collector rode. For most of the time, locals governed themselves and took care of their own issues.

    • Oral Hazard

       /  March 26, 2013

      Like Tip O’Neill said, All politics is local. Glad you political scientists are finally catching up.

  8. Richard Bridger

     /  March 27, 2013

    Nice post Jay.

    Working in public opinion research I could add a wealth of anecdotes (and some data!) to support your idea that most people aren’t paying attention to most things most of the time. That does mean they are incredibly disengaged from ideas of consent, legitimacy etc on an everyday level.

    One interesting thing, though, is that this lack of attention often makes people very strategically insightful. They don’t bother with the everyday ebb and flow of politics, but they hold firm, consistent and often accurate (if simplified) views about it. That’s why things like Romney’s 47% comment don’t make much difference – because people absorb and accommodate them into their pre-existing worldviews rather than seeing them as a basis to change those views or their behaviour.

    But to my mind that means that, though there isn’t some active ongoing, 24/7 weighing up about whether political is legitimate, there is some threshold above which states need to operate in order to rule through more than force. It may be incredibly low – often just not actively destroying or upending people’s everyday live – but I suspect it’s there.

    In that respect I would tend to think of legitimacy / acceptance of political rule as being like a coil. It can be stretched a huge amount and won’t break simply because people are so wedded to the existing system through indifference, but in extremis the coil will lose it’s shape and then it’s gone. It’s very rare, but I think it’s there.

    • Thanks, Richard, and very interesting. I think your coil analogy is a good one. I guess I just see the tension in that coil resulting from something other (and more complex) than popular attitudes toward a) democracy as a system and b) the apparent performance of the current government. That traditional view of legitimacy (which isn’t what you’re proposing, I know) implies that it’s like a thermostat, but we see many cases where democracy survives in spite of popular disgust and where autocracy survives in spite of popular enthusiasm for something else. Those population-level summaries may be accurate as far as they go but still be only very loosely connected to the lower-level, more localized processes that actually produce collective action and change.

  9. I’d do the math differently. People go along with the current form of government when it has more credibility than the alternatives. Something untried or requiring a violent revolt is heavily discounted in credibility.

    It’s much easier to win a credibility contest than to obtain unequivocal consent. Considerable effort and even wars are spent on credibility, to promote private insurance or discredit communism for instance. When occasionally the incumbent government falls to very low credibility people vote for Chavez, or Tspiras in Greece, or bring Castro to power.

    In daily life people do make assesments of what structure will best provide for them tomorrow. Currently western capitalism has high credibility. People speak openly about its flaws but it’s seen as the only real option as anything socialist or further left is viewed with suspicion. So people vote, albeit narrowly, for neoliberal pro-austerity governments and so on. To break this the left needs not so much to bash capitalism as to provide credible alernatives like a modern form of social business that actually inspires people.

    • I agree with the first line of your last paragraph, but I think most people most of the time are “scanning” only very locally. In other words, that evaluation very rarely reaches all the way to forms of national government, and most of the times that it does, the quick judgment is that there’s nothing to be done to affect change at that level. And the results are a disconnect between popular preferences and institutional change and, more generally, a strong tendency toward inertia.

  10. Jürgen Habermas in his Legitimation Crisis showed why any attempt to use legitimacy as a theoretical and analytical construct is doomed to failure. And the reason is that he undertook the most synthetic approach and failed. Legitimacy is a macro-micro phenomenon that is nearly impossible to figure out and the use of survey data doesn’t do it!!!!

  1. Friday’s Reading List | Smoke & Stir
  2. Cities and Legitimacy | Science of Politics
  3. From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy | Dart-Throwing Chimp

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,609 other subscribers
  • Archives

%d bloggers like this: