From China, Another Strike Against Legitimacy

I’ve groused on this blog before (here and here) about the trouble with “legitimacy” as a causal mechanism in theories of political stability and change, and I’ve pointed to Xavier Marquez’s now-published paper as the most cogent expression of this contrarian view to date.

Well, here is a fresh piece of empirical evidence against the utility of this concept: according to a new Global Working Paper from Brookings, the citizens of China who have benefited the most from that country’s remarkable economic growth in recent decades are, on average, its least happy. As one of the paper’s authors describes in a blog post about their research,

We find that the standard determinants of well-being are the same for China as they are for most countries around the world. At the same time, China stands out in that unhappiness and reported mental health problems are highest among the cohorts who either have or are positioned to benefit from the transition and related growth—a clear progress paradox. These are urban residents, the more educated, those who work in the private sector, and those who report to have insufficient leisure time and rest.

These survey results contradict the “performance legitimacy” story that many observers use to explain how the Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid significant revolutionary threats since 1989 (see here, for example). In that story, Chinese citizens choose not to demand political liberalization because they are satisfied with the government’s economic performance. In effect, they accept material gains in lieu of political voice.

Now, though, we learn that the cohort in which contentious collective action is most likely to emerge—educated urbanites—are also, on average, the country’s least happy people. The authors also report (p. 14) that, in China, “the effect of income increases on life satisfaction are limited.” A legitimacy-based theory predicts that the CCP is surviving because it is making and keeping its citizens happy; instead, we see that it is surviving in spite of deepening unhappiness among key cohorts.

To me, this case further bares the specious logic behind most legitimacy-based explanations for political continuity. We believe that rebellion is an expression of popular dissatisfaction, a kind of referendum in the streets; we observe stability; so, we reason backwards from the absence of rebellion to the absence of dissatisfaction, sprinkle a little normative dust on it, and arrive at a positive concept called legitimacy. Formally, this is a fallacy of affirmative conclusion from a negative premise: happy citizens don’t rebel, no rebellion is occurring, therefore citizens must be happy. Informally, I think it’s a qualitative version of the “story time” process in which statistical modelers often indulge: get a surprising result, then make up a richer explanation for it that feels right.

I don’t mean to suggest that popular attitudes are irrelevant to political stasis and change, or that the durability of specific political regimes has nothing to do with the affinity between their institutional forms and the cultural contexts in which they’re operating. Like Xavier, though, I do believe that the conventional concept of legitimacy is too big and fuzzy to have any real explanatory power, and I think this new evidence from China reminds us of that point. If we want to understand how political regimes persist and when they break down, we need to identify mechanisms that are more specific than this one, and to embed them in theories that allow for more complexity.

Advertisements

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.

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.

  • 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 13,631 other followers

  • Archives

  • Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: