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.

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 performance of the incumbent government is a key consideration in 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 Beetham’s model relates to the evidence of consent.  In his description of this, he refers to voting as an action “expressive of consent” – thereby increasing the moral pressure on each individual to accept the outcome – but voting alone is insufficient, as described below (



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6353.htm