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.