Power Authority And Legitimacy Essay Help

Authority and Legitimacy are inseparable twins. There cannot be authority without legitimacy i.e. recognition on the part of the people upon whom the authority is exercised. The people recognise that the power being used, decisions or commands being enforced by the authority-holder is just and beneficial for them.

Legitimacy transforms power into authority. Legitimacy without authority only remains a wishful thinking. It only exists as the idea of rightfulness and justness or a moral or rational principle.

It is only when it gets combined with authority that it leads to decisions, commands and actions which are held to be rightful and just decisions capable of securing the welfare and development of those upon whom these are implemented and enforced.

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Authority without legitimacy is power. Power is a legal power or capacity. It may or may not enjoy a popular recognition and acceptance as a just and rightful power. Legitimacy alone can secure and guarantee the acceptance and obedience of power as authority.

Only legitimate exercise of power i.e. exercise of power as authority can lead to a real and productive use of the power of the government for securing desired and productive results.

The power of a dictator or an authoritarian ruler of state is devoid of legitimacy and is backed by force and coercion of the power-holder. As against it, the power of a democratically elected power-holder is a recognised and legitimate power i.e. authority. Legitimacy ensures a successful use of authority.

Weak legitimacy is a source of weakness for the authority. Absence of legitimacy reduces authority to power. Legitimacy ensures acceptance, obedience and respect of authority and makes it productive of desired results.

The people willingly obey the laws, policies, decisions and plans formulated and enforced by the power-holders of a democratic state because these enjoy a strong legitimacy.

As against it, in a dictator ruled state like Pakistan, the power of the rulers is legal does not enjoy legitimacy. Even the attempts made by a dictator to secure legitimacy by getting elected to the highest office of the state, is viewed with distrust by the people. His authority continues to lack legitimacy.

The people obey his laws and commands out of fear of force and coercion. The weak legitimacy of the ‘ruler’ also always adversely affects political obligation. The dictator exercises power and not really authority, as neither his title to authority is legitimate nor his decisions and actions enjoy legitimacy.

The February 2008 election results in Pakistan clearly demonstrated the weak legitimacy of President Parvez Musharraf. In contrast, a democratically elected power-holder uses legitimate power i.e. authority and successfully commands obedience in respect of his policies and decisions.

The authority of PM Dr. Manmohan Singh in our liberal democratic political system enjoys a high level of legitimacy. It got clearly reflected in the for 15″‘ Lok sabha Elections results (May 2009)

Since the authority of a duly elected and empowered authority-holder enjoys a high level of legitimacy, the people willingly accept and obey his decisions and hold these to be just, lawful, legitimate, useful, productive and essential.

Even when the leaders of opposition parties oppose his policies and decisions, they do not challenge their authority; they simple highlight the weaknesses and faults of his policies and decisions.

Hence, legitimacy and authority are intimately related and the former is successful only when it enjoys a high level of legitimacy, in a democratic political system, election is the process by which the power-holders get their legitimate power i.e. political authority to exercise the power to rule the state for next few years. Free, fair and transparent elections act as a source of legitimacy for the winners in these elections.

They become the power holders and thereafter, try to continuously maintain and strengthen the legitimacy of their authority by the making and implementing meaningful and nationally useful and essential laws, policies, and decisions.

They fully understand and respect the relation between legitimacy and authority and always try to strengthen the legitimacy of their rule. A failure to do so always Strong legitimacy ensures strong authority. Weak legitimacy leads to weak authority.

Absence of legitimacy means power and not authority. Hence legitimacy and authority always go hand in hand. These are the two sides of same coin.

Lack of legitimacy and credibility of elected political authority-holders always adversely affects their ability and capacity to win next election.

To conclude our discussion on Power, Authority and Legitimacy we can write:

1. Ability and capacity to command obedience by dependence upon force and coercion = Power

2. Recognised and accepted legitimate power = Authority

3. The quality of being recognised, accepted, just, rightful and legitimate power = Legitimacy

4. Power + Legitimacy = Authority

5. Authority—Legitimacy = Power

6. Authority + Legitimacy = Successful and Effective Authority


  • All politics is about power – achieving and maintaining it – Hobbes – basic human urge is to seek ‘power after power’. Programmed – Dawkins’ selfish gene. Conservative viewpoint.
  • The ability to get someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do – ‘power to’.
  • Distinguished with authority by power being the ability to do and authority right to do.
  • Distinction from influence – ability to affect outcome even if not having actual final power to decide – influence is a minor form of power by affecting their actions without inciting force/fear – e.g. manipulation.
  • Lukes sees power in three forms: decision-making, agenda setting and thought control.
  • Decision-making – associated with liberal and pluralist perceptions focussing on who actually makes the decisions. Boulding argues decision-making influenced in three ways: the stick (coercion), the deal (mutual benefit through negotiation), and the kiss (sense of loyalty and commitment to individual, thus he has power).
  • Dahl observed decision-making ‘Critique of the ruling elite model’ and found no single elite in charge, pluralist approach, everyone has a say. Different groups have a say on different aspects. Reality was an “example of a democratic system warts and all”.
  • Elitist critiques argue this fails to understand unequal influence of key elites – real decisions made by a fixed elite – real power belongs to banks and military C.Wright Mills.
  • Hobbes – physical or mechanical power whereby power  is used against an individual’s will – individual is subservient to it, otherwise life would be nasty, brutish and short. Advocates strong, monarchical government.
  • Agenda setting – Bachrach Baratz –idea of non-decision making. Schattschneider “some issues are organised into politics and others are organised out”.
  • Links to influential parties who collectively agree or just block discussion – slight elitist theory.
  • B and B and ‘mobilisation of bias’ yet individuals and pressure groups can change agendas, yet more likely to do so on issues represented by well informed and articulate. Elite tend to dominate flow of information and media and so use this to their advantage. Look at the way demonstrations are portrayed in the media.
  • Marxists would argue agenda setting is a facade for bourgeois dominance with parliamentary systems of government being “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie” (Marx).
  • Thought control – previous two assume that people and groups are rational and capable of knowing their own mind. The ability to manipulate human behaviour can be shaped – some argue this is where the real power lies.
  • Marxist ideas based on favouritism of state towards bourgeoisie and their power through economy and politics – Gramsci and bourgeois hegemony – bourgeoisie literally control popular culture and so control the way we think. Therefore we think life is only better with material goods so bourgeoisie benefit even more.
  • Vance Packard – consumer based society and only think we’re happy when we have material goods.
  • New Left ideas and Marcuse – link to totalitarianism but with media, TUs, adverts, culture replacing brutal coercion manipulating needs.
  • Difference between ‘real’ and ‘felt’ interests – Engels and false consciousness. Don’t know what is in our real interest – no longer rational.
  • Liberals reject this – individuals are rational.


  • Generally distinguished from power through the means by which compliance and obedience are achieved – Heywood “authority is power cloaked in legitimacy”. Authority a form of rightful power.
  • Authority based on a perceived ‘right to rule’ (Weber) with a moral aspect.
  • Weber linked authority to legitimacy – different approach from others stating that legitimacy gave power authority.
  • Weber – authority is important irrespective of how it’s achieved. As long as there is the perception that authority is legitimate it’s fine.
  • Authority seldom exercised in absence of power.
  • Weber – traditional (respect for elders), charismatic (value opinions and words through their responsibility), legal-rational (respect for right of state – parliament’s legal rights to pass new laws).
  • Traditional – sanctified by history and based upon ‘immemorial custom’. Hierarchy – Burke – ‘wisdom of the ancients’. Patriarchalism – links to hereditary systems. Less relevant today, although evident in one form in theocratic states – the resurgence of this type of authority can be seen as a response to the failure of other types in degenerative Western capitalism.
  • Charismatic – based entirely upon the power of an individual’s personality. Owes nothing to status, social position or office, yet can be used to promote the interests of society (Rousseau and Law Giver).
  • Charismatic has an almost messianic quality – treated with suspicion – Talmon and criticism of Rousseau.
  • Legal-rational – situation for most liberal democratic Western capitalist societies. Operates through a body of clearly defined rules – linked to formal powers of office not office holder. Less likely to be abused than other 2 as the limit of authority is defined.
  • Arises out of a respect for the rule of law and is evident in the constitutional framework of long-established states. Can be seen as de-personalising as there can be a relentless spread of bureaucracy e.g. civil service.
  • De jure authority – authority in law. Authority from an office. Operates according to a set of rules. Closely linked to traditional/legal-rational. Related to being IN authority.
  • De facto – authority in practice. Closely linked to charismatic. Authority by virtue of who they are – being AN authority.

Relationship between power and authority

  • Authority is the legitimate exercise of power but debate as to whether this requires morality or PERCEPTION or rightfulness.
  • Ruling by power alone eventually lead to unsustainable use of coercive resources – Mao – “all power stems from the barrel of a gun” and is the antithesis of authority.
  • Can authority exist without power? Weberian sense of traditional and charismatic forms all exert influence without the need to persuade. Legal-rational based on office and power invested in the office thus need power. Also being ‘an authority’ doesn’t  need recourse to power but can have influence.

Different views of authority

  • Liberals – authority instrumental, coming from below through the consent of the governed – social contract.
  • Do not want too much state involvement therefore authority is limited, rational and purposeful leading to preference for legal-rational.
  • Conservatives – comes from above from those with experience and wisdom. Benefits other but there are few limits leading to authoritarianism through charismatic.
  • Authority – justified? Essential for maintenance of order. Enemy of freedom – Libertarian/Anarchist view. Marxists – authority manufactured to mask rule by the bourgeoisie. Expectation to give unquestioning obedience is wrong as it threatens reason – Mill – intellectual diversity.


  • To be in a position to exercise authority. Links to power and authority by transforming the former into the latter – turns naked power into authority.
  • Moral right to rule – Locke and consent – social contrast theory – we consent to be governed. If there is a formal constitutional basis, we can see legitimacy.
  • Hobbes – social contract – dictatorship could have legitimacy as it is meant to protect the individual – the Leviathan state – legitimacy comes about by preventing people getting harmed – implied consent.
  • For Rousseau the state is legitimate if it upholds the general will.
  • Likes of Weber see a belief in legitimacy as important no matter how it is achieved.

How do governments gain and maintain legitimacy?

  • Social contract – tacit and formal agreement whereby state’s legitimacy is based on protection of citizens (Hobbes) and promotion of rights and freedoms (Locke) and the common good (Rousseau).
  • Locke challenged Hobbes as he believed a man could not give away more power over himself than he himself has. Tacit consent is given to the government by anyone who has “possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government”.
  • Popular compliance – populace have a belief in the right to rule which in a democracy is based around the exercise of legal-rational authority.
  • Constitutionalism – Beetham – legitimacy operating under existing established principles thus power exercised through the existing constitutional process if this adheres to the widely held beliefs and values of a society.
  • Went against Weber’s view as it ignores how legitimacy came about. Leaves the matter largely in the hands of the powerful, who may be able to manufacture rightfulness by public relation campaigns. Power is legitimate if it fulfils 3 criteria:
    • 1. Power exercised according to certain rules.
    • 2. Rules justified in terms of ruler and ruled – marrying the shared belief between government and people (communitarianism).
    • 3. People must give consent – how much consent must people give to give something legitimacy?
  • Active consent – seen through ballot box with a mandate given to exercise legitimacy – elections/referendums and strengthened by universal suffrage – Mill.
  • Legitimation crisis – neo-Marxist Habermas – legitimacy of a political system could collapsed because of the pressures created by democracy and capitalism. Democracy – voting becomes a means of consumerism. Capitalism – increased desire leads to recession – can’t continually provide what people want – e.g. extensive welfare provision. Legitimation crisis created after government intervention and conflict of free-market.
  • Social contract – Giddens – communitarianism – Etzioni – taking social contract and trying to improve civic engagement through modern political systems.
  • Ideological Hegemony – Conventional image of liberal democracies is that they enjoy legitimacy because they respect individual liberty and are responsive to public opinion. Critics – democracy is little more than a facade concealing the domination of a “power elite”.
  • Ralph Milliband – liberal democracy is “capitalist democracy” – there are biases which serve interests of private property and ensure the long term stability of capitalism.
  • Marxists state that bourgeois ideology denotes sets of ideas which conceal the contradictions upon which class societies are based – ideology propagates falsehood, delusion and mystification. Ideology operates in interests of the ruling class.
  • Modern Marxists – political competition does exist but this competition is unequal. Gramsci drew attention to the degree to which the class system was upheld not simply by unequal power but also what he called bourgeois hegemony. 

Legitimacy in a dictatorship

  • Weber argues that traditional and charismatic authority can be legitimate if accepted by populace. Marx argued that a dictatorship of the proletariat would be legitimate as it was acting in the best interests of the masses; likewise dictators claim to uphold common good without popular approval.  Traditional monarchs also claimed to be adhering to divine right as the best form of determining the common good.
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