The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘authority’

A Question Of Legitimacy

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 19, 2009 @ 08:00

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Please be warned, this post contains political “science” stuff that probably bores most people to tears. I’m sorry. It’s just something I want to get down in writing for future reference.

Parliaments wither. So do governments. As time goes by, they degrade and become less useful. Less vigorous. Less relevant.


In a liberal democratic system, it is because of this magic concept of legitimacy.

Legitimacy is the idea that a body of authority has the support and the capability to exert said authority. We all accept the government has a right to govern, to tell us how to live our lives (within reason, limited by a higher authority such as a constitution or appeal to human nature, even religion), even if we don’t agree with it, because we know it is legitimate. We accept that the police officer has a right to stop us if we’re speeding, because his/her authority is derived from law, laws which have been approved as a result of a democratic process we’re all signed up to.

So legitimacy derives directly from election. We tell dictators that they are not legitimate because they haven’t been elected. Dictators aren’t bothered: they have power – the ability to co-erce – which, ultimately, achieves the same end as legitimacy.

On the other hand, some dictators deliver the goods to their people. They may abuse others in the process. But to those who are being looked after (example, the Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) the dictator has a very special kind of performance legitimacy. The people are content because they are getting what they want and to disrupt such a regime may produce undesirable affects. So they accept the current power situation, may even fight to defend it, and in turn legitimise it.

Legitimacy is one of the most fascinating concepts in political science. What construes a “legitimate” arrangement varies wildly from country to country depending on the political culture of the nation. For instance, the sudden introduction of a majoritarian winner-take-all system to a consensus-orientated country like the Netherlands would be seen as grossly illegitimate. Or in Belgium – if the leading party declared it was to rule the country how it saw fit, because it had achieved the most number of seats in the election, there would be uproar because of unfairness.

Meanwhile, in this country, we think nothing of the idea that someone could be elected on 33% of those who voted, and even less when the actual size of the electorate is accounted for. They become our representative, and, though we’re not happy about it if we didn’t vote for them, we accept that they sit as the MP for our constituency, and take part in the parliament or government on that basis.

Some of us are not so keen to accept that mandate, particularly anyone who subscribes to ideas of proportional representation. We argue that a more proportional parliament would be more legitimate. But we don’t go so far as to say that our current parliament, our current representatives, are not legitimate. If we did that, we would a) be guilty of hypocrisy by participating in such a sham; and b) we would be undermining the broader system which we claim to support.

These arguments all have a conclusion: that legitimacy comes in degrees – we could even put an arbitrary percentage to it – and is not directly comparable between political cultures.

Therefore, any revisions we make to our system must broadly conform with our political culture, unless we all (in reality, a sufficient majority) agree on some new terms, some new redefinitions before we begin. The goal of such reforms must always be to increase legitimacy. Politicians understand that, hence why any reform is always couched in such terms. Hopefully, the electorate understands it too.

But there is no glorious peak, no golden age, that will bring us the ultimate definition of 100% legitimacy. But – following our logic – the only things that could ever hope to achieve such a figure would have to be directly, openly, and freely elected. This is also why we don’t like quangos, agencies and other such bodies instituted by government: they have no direct democratic mandate.

That means the only bodies in this country that have a chance of achieving 100% legitimacy are the parliaments, assemblies and councils that exist throughout the nation.

And, as we implied at the start of our post, that legitimacy is time-limited.

In other words, 100% legitimacy could only occur from day one after an election.

That’s where we’ll leave it. Next time (next Saturday), more pseudo-science, and even an Excel chart!


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