6.3.1 Authoritarian Systems of Government

Authoritarian systems of government prevent people from choosing who rules them, but there can be a Utilitarian justification

An authoritarian system, for the purposes of this book, is defined as one in which governance is carried out by public servants appointed by, and working for, a central authority.  Max Weber’s classification of “pure types of authority”, in paragraphs 7-10 in his lecture Politics as a Vocation, uses the terms “legal”, “traditional”, and “charismatic” to classify possible foundations for authoritarian legitimacy.  These result in different styles of government, as described further in the following sub-sections:

●  Partially authoritarian systems are underpinned by the semblance of the “legal authority” that is conferred by the results of an election ( Russia is an example of a vestigial democracy, where there has been no credible opposition in recent elections.  Opponents have been eliminated and the government controls the press and legal system.

●  Some totalitarian one-party States have created a form of “legal authority” based on a tightly-controlled bureaucracy (  Communism, Confucianism, theocracy, and fascism are ideologies that have been used to justify setting up such systems.

●  Dictators acquire power by force with what Weber called “charismatic authority” (, on the basis of offering better government. In practice they often do so to exploit a country’s resources, as has repeatedly been the case in Africa.  There is no established mechanism for the peaceful handover of power to a successor.

●  Direct government by a hereditary monarch has “traditional authority” ( It is now rare, but Saudi Arabia might be regarded as a recent example.  They need to govern well to stay in power.  (A constitutional monarchy doesn’t govern, and it fulfils a different role.)

Authoritarian governments have a mixed record:

●  China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty.

●  The notorious Emperor Bokassa lived in luxury whilst exercising brutal repression and leaving the population grindingly poor.

Authoritarian political legitimacy is determined by the following factors:

●  An authoritarian government offers law and order (, guaranteeing peace and security (whilst keeping a firm grip on power). A peaceful handover of power to a successor might be a problem.

●  Its ability to maintain control involves suppressing political dissent ( – which in some cases has been done with unnecessary brutality. The Utilitarian justification for authoritarianism, though, is that political agitations by the few should not be allowed to endanger the peace and security of the many.

●  Authoritarian governments can achieve legitimacy by being acceptable to the population, and this also enables them to maintain stability and retain power without the need for heavy-handed use of force (

●  By definition, the people will not be directly involved in choosing a leader but there is scope for negotiation on some topics ( The Chinese government has experimented with consultations, for example.



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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/edition04/631c.htm.