6.3.5.2 Criteria for Assessing Political Legitimacy

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6352.htm)

Much has been written about defining political legitimacy, including the identification of criteria for determining whether a particular system or government is legitimate.  Fabienne Peter produced a concise analysis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, Political Legitimacy, which is summarised below; it identifies several schemes, proposed by different authors, for establishing, describing and evaluating legitimacy.

She cited Max Weber’s “three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination”, in paragraphs 7-10 in his lecture Politics as a Vocation, as providing a descriptive classification of reasons why a political system might be accepted: the “traditional” power of a monarch, the “charismatic” appeal of a revolutionary leader, or the “legality” of a system of rules.  There are authoritarian examples of all three of these types (6.3.1).  Democratic legitimacy (6.3.2) depends on its “legality”: its institutions and frameworks of rules.

She also identified three groups of writers who have sought to establish ‘normative’ criteria, to provide a reasoned justification of a standardised set of principles:

  • Locke and Rousseau, among others, took people’s consent to be the key criterion for legitimacy.  In this book, though, consent is only one component of the wider concept of ‘acceptability’ (3).  The latter is a measure on a sliding scale rather than an absolute criterion, and it incorporates other requirements.
  • Jeremy Bentham proposed a Utilitarian criterion, whereby the legitimacy of governance is determined by its beneficial consequences: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.  At first sight this appears to be consistent with this book’s objective of maximising acceptability but, as many writers have pointed out,[1] Utilitarianism might threaten the rights of certain individuals in some circumstances – so it doesn’t comply with this book’s requirement for inclusivity (5).
  • Rawls, following Kant, tried to establish a standard of justice based on public reasoning as a basis for identifying normative criteria for legitimacy. A philosophical definition of ‘justice’, though, is not a sufficient basis for establishing acceptability in a real society (3.1).

These principles are used to justify political ideologies and approaches (6.2.1), rather than political systems.

She identified Jürgen Habermas and David Beetham as writers who sought to combine descriptive and normative elements:

“They criticize the usefulness of the descriptive concept as defined by Weber for neglecting people’s second order beliefs about legitimacy—their beliefs, not just about the actual legitimacy of a particular political institution, but about the justifiability of this institution, i.e. about what is necessary for legitimacy.”

This book includes a search to identify “actual processes”, as well as an attempt to establish a “normative concept” of negotiated acceptability, so Beetham’s model is used – as described below (6.3.5.3).

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[1] Michael Sandel, for example, highlighted the possible threats which Utilitarianism poses to individual liberty in chapter 2 of his book Justice.