Authoritarian Legitimacy Achieved by Being Acceptable

Authoritarian legitimacy can be achieved by being acceptable to the population, and this is also a means of retaining power

Authoritarian governments don’t always fail to benefit the population, and their long-term hold on power depends on their acceptability:

●  As reported in an LSE article that was quoted earlier, Making Autocracy Work, some authoritarian governments have performed well – better than many democracies – in terms of economic growth, health and education.  China, for example, is delivering economic growth by allowing some features of capitalism to emerge under its authoritarian umbrella; it publishes its economic growth targets, recognising their value in promoting acceptability, as shown for example in a Reuters article China’s 7.5 percent GDP growth target is flexible: finance minister.

●  Authoritarian governments can plan for the long term, rather than having to focus on the next election.

●  A Human Resources department takes account of exam results when recruiting officials, so they are more likely to be competent decision-makers than politicians who have been elected on the basis of their television appeal.

●  An authoritarian government can meet all of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) with the single exception of article 21.3 (elections).

●  Strong leadership is seen as desirable in some cultures.

●  Oppression can keep a population in subjection for a long time, but hated regimes are ultimately overthrown.  It benefits an authoritarian regime to be acceptable if it wishes to ensure its long-term survival.

●  As described by Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (p. 134), “the affection of their people is the bulwark of the throne” in a benevolent monarchy.

●  An authoritarian government can ensure stability by preventing the different ethnic fragments of a country from developing adversarial political factions based on ethnicity, whereas attempts to bring democracy might allow the emergence of identity politics – as reviewed later in this chapter (  Both Yugoslavia and Iraq demonstrated how easy it is for a multicultural society to slide into civil war in the absence of strong government.

In practice, authoritarian governments vary in how well they serve the population, how much freedom they permit and the extent to which they respond to the wishes of the population:

●  As described in Columbia University’s Introduction to Confucian Thought, Confucianism promoted the principle of governance for the good of the people – whilst requiring their obedience:

“reciprocity or mutual responsibility between subordinate and superior was fundamental to the Confucian concept of human relations…

The notion of the role of the state as guarantor of the people’s welfare developed very early”.

●  It is possible to provide some degree of separation of legal powers (5.2.8), by ensuring that the judiciary and the enforcement agencies have equal status and organisational independence from each other.

●  Having a strong central government doesn’t preclude negotiability, or the delegation of some powers to regional or local bodies, as described in the next subsection (

Authoritarianism can therefore deliver governance which might be acceptable on the basis that it is delivering what people want, and it might be the most stable option in practice.  And most people place a higher priority upon peace and security than upon having the right to vote.

An unavoidable criticism of authoritarian systems, though, is that unsatisfactory leaders might be able to stay in power for a considerable period, even when they are no longer providing acceptable government.  The population is powerless to bring about a change of government in an authoritarian system, except by initiating a potentially bloody revolution – which might not succeed; as reported by the BBC, in Syria: The story of the conflict, that rebellion had not succeeded by the end of 2018.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6317a.htm