What Makes a State Legitimate & Stable?

What Makes a State Legitimate & Stable?
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  • 0:01 Legitimate vs. Stable
  • 0:49 Building a State
  • 1:45 Powers of the State
  • 2:23 Expressing Legitimacy
  • 3:29 Lost Legitimacy
  • 4:07 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.

In order to survive, a state must be both stable and legitimate. How can it achieve those while still remaining democratic? In this lesson, we look at how it is possible for many states, while other groups have failed.

Legitimate vs. Stable

When the Founding Fathers of the United States tried to come up with a governing document for the new country, they were faced with the same difficulties faced by other founding leaders of countries throughout history. They needed to balance many different priorities, but two of the most important of those were legitimacy and stability.

Legitimacy refers to the moral authority that a group has to rule - in other words, why anyone should listen to anything that they had to say. Meanwhile, stability refers to the ability of a government to get a message out without different groups wanting to break apart.

In their desire to create a more democratic society, the Founding Fathers had to walk a fine line in making sure that the government was respected enough to get work done but at the same time stable enough to make sure no one left because they weren't getting their way.

Building a State

In the past, when a new country was established, legitimacy and stability were relatively easy to achieve. A king would show up, declare himself legitimate because he had an army, and enforce his rule through said army. In short, it was a pretty effective system but placed the legitimacy solely on might, not by right.

Later, through the Middle Ages in Europe, although even earlier in China, a new concept came into play - the right to rule because one had the moral authority to do so. At first, such authority came from an interpretation of religious rulings or implicit permissions from the heavens.

More recently, states have tried to ensure stability by providing basic services, such as rule of law and protection from foreign invasion, to all citizens. In return, the state requested that people not revolt against the rule of law and that they help defend the state against any of those nasty foreign invaders.

Powers of the State

Early on, these basic powers of state, namely defense and rule of law, were about all that a state could really hope to enforce. However, as states grew in power, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, they grew in their ability to provide other services, in turn reinforcing legitimacy.

Public education taught that the state was the legitimate government, which in turn increased stability. Meanwhile, services like social security and health care provided increased stability in the population, which in turn made them that much less likely to challenge the legitimacy of the state.

Expressing Legitimacy

States today go to great lengths to underscore their legitimacy as a way of garnering more stability, despite however much the circumstances may have changed. For less democratic states, especially fascist and communist states, this is done by referring to some distant struggle in which the people emerged victorious against some other force. These other forces could be anything from the wealthy to other countries to even religious minorities.

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