The view that systems of government either are or ought to be justified, and not simply based on coercion.
There are two versions of the theory of legitimacy, one deriving from political philosophy, the other from history and political science.
The first seeks for principles which would oblige people to obey government, and then uses those principles to assess existing regimes as worthy or otherwise of being obeyed. The second treats a belief in the legitimacy of regimes as a common feature of government, however distasteful any particular regime may be to the observer. It then examines legitimacy as an historical phenomenon rather than engaging in moral appraisal.
The two approaches are often thought to be incompatible, but are in fact complementary.
Also see: political obligation
Rodney Barker, Political Legitimacy and the State (Oxford, 1990)
Legitimacy is “a value whereby something or someone is recognized and accepted as right and proper”. In political science, legitimacy usually is understood as the popular acceptance and recognition by the public of the authority of a governing régime, whereby authority has political power through consent and mutual understandings, not coercion. The three types of political legitimacy described by German sociologist Max Weber are traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal:
- Traditional legitimacy derives from societal custom and habit that emphasize the history of the authority of tradition. Traditionalists understand this form of rule as historically accepted, hence its continuity, because it is the way society has always been. Therefore, the institutions of traditional government usually are historically continuous, as in monarchy and tribalism.
- Charismatic legitimacy derives from the ideas and personal charisma of the leader, a person whose authoritative persona charms and psychologically dominates the people of the society to agreement with the government’s régime and rule. A charismatic government usually features weak political and administrative institutions, because they derive authority from the persona of the leader, and usually disappear without the leader in power. However, if the charismatic leader has a successor, a government derived from charismatic legitimacy might continue.
- Rational-legal legitimacy derives from a system of institutional procedure, wherein government institutions establish and enforce law and order in the public interest. Therefore, it is through public trust that the government will abide the law that confers rational-legal legitimacy.
In a theocracy, government legitimacy derives from the spiritual authority of a god or a goddess.
- In ancient Egypt (c. 3150 BC), the legitimacy of the dominion of a Pharaoh (god–king) was theologically established by doctrine that posited the pharaoh as the Egyptian patron god Horus, son of Osiris.
- In the Roman Catholic Church, the priesthood derives its legitimacy from a divine source; the Roman Magisterium dogmatically teaches that Jesus Christ designated St. Peter the supreme and infallible head of the entire Christian Church, and thus each bishop of Rome is sanctified, legitimate, and possesses these charisms as well.
The political legitimacy of a civil government derives from agreement among the autonomous constituent institutions—legislative, judicial, executive—combined for the national common good. One way civil society grants legitimacy to governments is through public elections. There are also those who refute the legitimacy offered by public elections, pointing out that the amount of legitimacy public elections can grant depends significantly on the electoral system conducting the elections. In the United States, this issue has surfaced around how voting is impacted by gerrymandering, the United States Electoral College’s ability to produce winners by minority rule and discouragement of voter turnout outside of Swing states, and the repeal of part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Another challenge to the political legitimacy offered by elections is whether or not marginalized groups such as women or those who are incarcerated are allowed to vote.
Civil legitimacy can be granted through different measures for accountability than voting, such as financial transparency and stake-holder accountability. In the international system another method for measuring civil legitimacy is through accountability to international human rights norms.
In an effort to determine what makes a government legitimate, the Center for Public Impact launched a project to hold a global conversation about legitimacy stating, inviting citizens, academics and governments to participate. The organization also publishes case studies that consider the theme of legitimacy as it applies to projects in a number of different countries including Bristol, Lebanon and Canada.
“Good” governance vs “bad” governance
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission (OHCHR) established standards of what is considered “good governance” that include the key attributes transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness (to the needs of the people).
Input, output and throughput legitimacy
Assessing the political legitimacy of a government can be done by looking at three different aspects of which a government can derive legitimacy. Fritz Scharpf introduced two normative criteria, which are output legitimacy, i.e. the effectiveness of policy outcomes for people and input legitimacy, the responsiveness to citizen concerns as a result of participation by the people. A third normative criterion was added by Vivien Schmidt, who analyzes legitimacy also in terms of what she calls throughput, i.e. the governance processes that happen in between input and output.
Negative and positive legitimacy
Abulof distinguishes between negative political legitimacy (NPL), which is about the object of legitimation (answering what is legitimate), and positive political legitimacy (PPL), which is about the source of legitimation (answering who is the ‘legitimator’). NPL is concerned with establishing where to draw the line between good and bad; PPL with who should be drawing it in the first place. From the NPL perspective, political legitimacy emanates from appropriate actions; from a PPL perspective, it emanates from appropriate actors. In the social contract tradition, Hobbes and Locke focused on NPL (stressing security and liberty, respectively), while Rousseau focused more on PPL (“the people” as the legitimator). Arguably, political stability depends on both forms of legitimacy.
Instrumental and substantive legitimacy
Weber’s understanding of legitimacy rests on shared values, such as tradition and rational-legality. But policies that aim at (re-)constructing legitimacy by improving the service delivery or ‘output’ of a state often only respond to shared needs. Therefore, substantive sources of legitimacy need to be distinguished from more instrumental ones. Instrumental legitimacy rests on “the rational assessment of the usefulness of an authority …, describing to what extent an authority responds to shared needs. Instrumental legitimacy is very much based on the perceived effectiveness of service delivery. Conversely, substantive legitimacy is a more abstract normative judgment, which is underpinned by shared values. If a person believes that an entity has the right to exercise social control, he or she may also accept personal disadvantages.