Political Legitimacy & Authority

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  • 00:00 Political Legitimacy…
  • 00:48 Legitimate vs.…
  • 2:03 People With and…
  • 2:45 One without the Other
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

If you've ever gotten a speeding ticket or had a bad experience at the DMV, you probably wondered who gave them the authority to treat you like that. In a roundabout way, you did, as this lesson demonstrates.

Political Legitimacy vs. Authority

Have you ever gotten a speeding ticket? Hopefully, the answer is no, but for many of us, they are a reality. Muttering under your breath as the officer walked away, you may have wondered: 'Well, who gave him the right to do that?' In case you're still wondering, that right to do that is called authority.

Authority is the right of someone to do something on behalf of the government. But wait, how does the government have the right to do anything? That's because citizens give the government legitimacy. Legitimacy is the permission of the people for the government to do something on behalf of the people. Needless to say, your speeding ticket goes well beyond simply going ten miles faster than you should have been driving.

Legitimate vs. Illegitimate Government

You go online to pay your speeding fine, going to the .gov address and entering your credit card information. Poking around the website, it's clear that the government does a lot more than just make you pay speeding tickets. This is part of a government being legitimate. In return for the blessing of the people to act as the government, it has to provide them with something in return.

In the earliest governments, the trade-off was fairly simple. Citizens promised taxes and loyalty in return for having their lands defended by the government and the government imposing rule of law. Rule of law meant that there would be a set of laws that everyone, even the government, had to follow. This did a great deal to stabilize the society. For us, one of those rules is an imposition of speed limits.

But all of that happens in legitimate governments. What about illegitimate governments? Say that the police officer who gave you your speeding ticket gathered up some of his buddies and marched into City Hall, guns drawn, and declared that they were in charge now. They don't have the permission of the people to do this, so they are illegitimate. Now, they can gain legitimacy by convincing the people of the justness of their cause but in the meantime, they are illegitimate.

People With and Without Authority

Chances are that your city hall will not be run over by renegade traffic cops. Instead, you are often much more likely to find people acting without authority. Remember, authority is the right of someone to do something on behalf of the government. If you are speeding, that traffic cop has every bit of authority necessary to pull you over and write you a ticket. He does not normally, on the other hand, have the authority to take your car, search your car, put you in handcuffs, take your money, or anything else. Now, he can do all those things with the permission of a judge, known as a warrant, but judges have to have a pretty good reason to authorize such behavior.

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