Legitimacy is a question

If legitimacy does not originate in the means by which power is gained, it must instead accrete from the ends toward which power is employed. Thus, while the monopoly on force is never legitimate in origin, since it is always based on an exercise of arbitrary force, it can become legitimate via governance: by transforming from a regime that disproportionately benefits the rulers at the expense of the ruled into one that trends toward equality. As a corollary, a government that has obtained legitimacy may lose it in time.

Of course, the point at which legitimacy is gained or lost is devilishly difficult to determine. If one gang protects your community from other gangs but demands half of your livelihood in exchange for not destroying you, is this gang’s rule legitimate? This entails a grave risk-reward analysis: is your community’s vulnerability to other gangs, and to this one, worth giving up half of everything? More relevantly, if the U.S. government can be considered to have achieved and maintained some modest degree of legitimacy, but Trump and the Republicans in power proceed to turn it into even more of a self-serving power brokerage at public expense than it already is, will the American government remain legitimate?

That depends not only how inequitable the rule becomes but also on its degree of entrenchment. If something sufficiently closer to equity can be restored within the system, i.e., through the constitutionally prescribed election process, the rule may still be considered legitimate. But if the rule succeeds in entrenching an extreme degree of disproportionate power, whether by blatant force or subtle manipulation, its legitimacy, and therefore its claim to a monopoly on force, may be questioned.


3 thoughts on “Legitimacy is a question

  1. Who is questioning the legitimacy and to what degree? At the start of this presidency, many of us are proclaiming that we will never ‘normalize’ Senor Trump’s base actions and words, yet one suspects that much of the American public is tired of all the angst and rancor and thus willing to give the incoming administration the proverbial benefit of the doubt. It’s what Americans do, right? Those of us who deny that the rascals have a ‘mandate’ for radical change and thus expect to be questioning the use to which the power is employed face the grim prospect of constantly raising points of (moral and ethical) order; one hopes that enough voices are engaged and that fatigue and defeat do not result.


    1. I wish I knew. I am hoping at least to know when the question should be raised. I fear that, when that time comes, we will be unprepared even to ask it, let alone answer.

      But the who is critically important, isn’t it? I do not think we can count on Establishment politicians to ask it, either because of complicity or cowardice. And organic popular movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock, seem too easily mischaracterized and thwarted without a champion in power.

      The problem, I fear, is that life is just comfortable enough for just enough people that sufficient desperation for popular action will not obtain. As you point out, people tire of political contestation and just go along to get along.


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