Legitimacy: Between the Prince and the Dragon

I’ve been reading the blog of John C. Wright with a combination of bemusement, horror, and disbelief.

But of the various peculiar claims he has made there, this one is perhaps the most problematic:

We can say in the abstract that any prince (or government officer of any form) who uses the power entrusted to him for the general welfare or public defense, to right wrongs, help the weak, and establish justice, operates legitimately, even if specific decisions are wrong. A court of law can be legitimate, for example, and be imperfect, if it sentences an innocent man.

This seems to assume much that our usage of the term doesn’t require, and leave out much that we commonly mean, when we talk about a ‘legitimate government’.

I propose another definition: a government is legitimate when it exercises the power lent to it as those who lent that power expected it to do so.

When it ceases to act according to the expectations of a person who loans it power, it ceases to be legitimate relative to them. The question never arises when dealing with people who do not lend the government power at all, because it’s not meaningful in that context.

When Andrew Jackson defied the ruling of the Supreme Court that the United States of America was not entitled to seize the land and property of the Cherokee Indians, and ordered that the Army drive them off those lands and take them on a deathmarch to the Indian Territories… the soldiers who obeyed the President rather than the Court made his actions legitimate. They legitimized them. What the Indians thought made no difference whatsoever. What other citizens thought made no difference. The soldiers were the ones who had to choose whether to follow through as they were commanded, or not. They decided how much ‘power’ Andrew Jackson actually had. And they chose.

(Which is one of the reasons why I support the destruction of the United States Government… but I digress.)

Was the government legitimate in the minds of those who set up the system? Of those who voted in Jackson? Of those on the Supreme Court? It’s a different question — with a different answer — for each one of those groups.

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7 Responses to “Legitimacy: Between the Prince and the Dragon”

  1. It’s true, there’s no practical way to gauge the legitimacy of a government if not by what people think of it. On the other hand, there’s a somewhat different metric: those who thought the government was legitimate because it did what they liked, may recant decades later when they see the destructive results. The government may become retroactively illegitimate in their minds. The important question I see based on your conclusions is, should a government care about the short or long term perceived legitimacy? The two can be mutually exclusive. And long term legitimacy is the closest thing we have to direct measurement of the utility a government adds to the quality of life, which, I think, is the rational measurement we should use.

  2. I think everyone is talking about something different when they say “legitimate”. It appears to be without consistent referent other than “something I agree with”.
    I try not to concern myself with “ought”s.

  3. The definition David Friedman uses is “legitimized coercion.” I’ve also heard some say “legitimized monopoly on coercion”. So if we accept this definition, all governments have enough people that think it is legitimate. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a government, it would just be another criminal gang.

  4. “The government may become retroactively illegitimate in their minds.”

    That doesn’t inform their past decisions. It can only inform their decisions of the present moment.

    “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a government, it would just be another criminal gang.”

    Even criminal gangs fall into the category you discuss, Isak.

    The question is not whether some people believe a government is legitimate. The question is whether we, in the individuals-making-decisions sense, do.

    My point is that ‘legitimacy’ is not an objective property that a government can have, except by pointing to subjective reference frames.

  5. Even criminal gangs fall into the category you discuss, Isak.

    If you include the opinions of the gang itself, then I suppose that is true. But I think Friedman means legitimized by others.

    The question is not whether some people believe a government is legitimate. The question is whether we, in the individuals-making-decisions sense, do.

    I would say both are important questions. I agree that legitimacy is subjective, but I think the mere existence of government tells us something about what people think of it.

  6. I remember when Crispin Sartwell tried to make some point about anarchy and everybody (by which I mean myself) said “Who cares about legitimacy”?

    a government is legitimate when it exercises the power lent to it as those who lent that power expected it to do so.
    People may be stupid and forget what they expected. As long as they treat it now as they did when they lent it power, it remains “legitimate” to them.

  7. Precisely.

    That’s a large part of why I think the concept isn’t a very important one: it’s useless.

    When applied to a government, it’s nothing more than a social signal saying “you should obey it”.

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