The Beetham Model of Legitimacy

The David Beetham model of legitimacy, which is in 3 levels, is a useful tool for clarifying whether a political system is acceptable

His model is summarised in pages 15-18 of his book The Legitimation of Power:

“Power can be said to be legitimate to the extent that:

i) it conforms to established rules

ii) the rules can be justified by reference to beliefs shared by both dominant and subordinate, and

iii) there is evidence of consent by the subordinate to the particular power relation.

The first level is that of rules; the second that of justifications grounded on beliefs; the third that of actions.  The three levels are not alternatives, since all contribute to legitimacy; all provide the subordinate with moral grounds for compliance or cooperation with the powerful.  Each, however, is different, and has its own characteristic form of non-legitimacy.”

Beetham’s criteria are taken here to be applicable to the structure of the political system – the politicians’ terms of reference – which ought to reflect people’s requirements for governance (6.1.2).

Level 1 in the Beetham model of legitimacy corresponds to the rules which establish and limit the powers of politicians, and which are defined by law in most countries.  They are described as ‘secondary rules’ in this book, following Hart’s definition (5.2.3).  It would be illegitimate, for example, for politicians to seize power by force or not to comply with the law.

Beetham refers to “beliefs shared” as essential at level 2 in his model, and refers to “reciprocal benefit, or societal need”, where both government and governed agree on the scope and nature of government involvement.   The way this is achieved depends partly upon the political system:

●  A one-party State might base its legitimacy on “beliefs shared”, as already described (

●  People in a democracy have several criteria by which they choose the politicians to represent them (

●  In any political system, the trustworthiness of the incumbent government affects whether it is seen as legitimate by the population (6.3.3).

This initial assessment, though, overlooks the complexities resulting from people’s inherent diversity (2.2).  In this book it is explicitly assumed that all societies include people with differing ethnicities and political viewpoints – so “beliefs shared” cannot be taken for granted, although human rights can act as a unifying standard, as described later (6.3.7).

This book also assumes that change is inevitable.  It is therefore argued that negotiation is required to continuously refine the system of government to achieve inclusivity and to optimise acceptability.  Governance should be tolerable for everyone and acceptability should be maximised for as many people as possible.  Specific mechanisms to achieve this are examined in the rest of this chapter.

Level 3 in the Beetham model of legitimacy relates to the evidence of people’s consent to the political system under which they are governed.  This differs according to the type of system:

●  Consent to an authoritarian political system (6.3.1) cannot be expressed by voting.  That is the definition of such a system.  The absence of dissent might be assumed be a tacit indication of acceptability, but that is an unsatisfactory measure because protest is often ruthlessly suppressed (

●  Beetham referred to voting in a democracy as an action “expressive of consent”.  He implied that an individual is consenting to democracy as a system of government simply by voting.  Everyone should accept the result because that is fundamental to the system.  Donald Trump’s false claims, to have won an election that he had lost, seriously undermined the legitimacy of America’s democracy.

In practice there are serious weaknesses in how effectively a vote can reflect people’s wishes (6.3.2).  The political legitimacy that comes from voting in a democracy depends on several conditions being met – as described below (



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/edition04/6353.htm.