Beetham’s 3-layer Model of Legitimacy

David Beetham, in pages 15-18 of his book The Legitimation of Power, proposed the following three-level model for measuring political legitimacy:

“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 Beetham’s model 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.

Level 2 in his model, “beliefs shared”, refers to “reciprocal benefit, or societal need” – where both government and governed agree on the scope and nature of government involvement:

A one-party State might base its legitimacy on a shared belief in communism, Confucianism, religion, or fascism, as already described (

The legitimacy of a democracy depends upon a belief in the fairness of the way people choose the politicians to represent them.  That implies accepting the election results, even if they voted for a different party.  Seymour Martin Lipset’s paper, Some Social Requisites of Democracy, notes that democracies become unstable if a lot of people reject the legitimacy of being governed according to the wishes of a majority of their fellow citizens:

“if a political system is not characterized by a value system allowing the peaceful “play” of power – the adherence by the “outs” to decisions made by “ins” and the recognition by “ins” of the rights of the “outs” – there can be no stable democracy.”

Level 3 in Beetham’s model relates to the evidence of consent.  He refers to voting as an action “expressive of consent” – thereby increasing the moral pressure on everyone to accept the outcome – but voting alone is insufficient, as described below (

A shared acceptance of a political system does not imply that people agree with each other on other matters.  In this book it is explicitly assumed that all societies include people with differing ethnicities and political viewpoints (2.2), and the political system should play a role in helping them to live together harmoniously.

This book also assumes that change is inevitable.  It is therefore argued that negotiation is required to continuously refine the system of government – to make it tolerable for everyone and to maximise acceptability for as many people as possible.  People’s ability to influence their politicians is examined later in this chapter (6.8.3).



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6353a.htm