This is a trick question: What makes a government legitimate? Most of us will immediately reach out to the democratic answer that the legitimacy of a government is granted by the consent of the people in some form of majority rule.
But, if a mechanical voting procedure is the answer, then most governments are illegitimate. According to the 2016 Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit, only 19 countries, out of the 167 studied, can be considered as fully democratic. It is also important to remember that Adolf Hitler and other despots have received vote majorities.
Moreover, if the consent of the people is the determinant of a government’s legitimacy, this begs policy questions such as: Should we be doing business, or having diplomatic relations with illegitimate governments? Or more philosophically fundamental: Is democracy required for a government to be legitimate?
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Here I will tackle only the core normative question: What makes a government legitimate? To be clear, the question is not about a government’s authority. Despotic governments exercise authority without being legitimate.
The modern “consent of the governed” theory for the legitimacy of government begins with British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who argued in his Second Treatise that no government is legitimate unless it is carried out with the consent of the governed, and that consent can only be rendered through majority rule. Therefore, if a government violates fundamental rights, Locke was particularly concerned with the rights to property, the people are entitled to replace the government. Less than a century later, Locke’s views were reiterated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
A much older source of government legitimacy is the divine right of kings; a mandate where heaven grants a ruler the right to rule, as in dynasties or monarchies. The monarchy of the House of Saud, which has ruled Saudi Arabia since the 18th century, is a contemporary example.
The utilitarian concept of “beneficial consequences” is another philosophy used to legitimize a government; in this case, on the basis of utility. In the “beneficial consequences” view, the legitimacy of a government hinges on whether it foments the happiness of the citizenry.
The undemocratic rule of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet is often offered as an example of the “beneficial consequences” argument. Pinochet assumed power in a coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s military government implemented economic liberalization policies that produced what has been described as the “Miracle of Chile” where the country was, for most of the 1990s, the best-performing economy in Latin America.
Under this theory, a good outcome, however defined, forms the basis of legitimacy, and democracy is not required for political legitimacy.
Another proposed source of a government’s legitimacy is rule by virtue or charisma. In Confucianism’s system of moral hierarchy, the emperor is supposed to be the most virtuous man on earth. In Plato’s account, reason and knowledge constitute the basis for claims to political legitimacy, and only philosophers should govern due to their capacity for reasoned understanding.
Communist states, unable to legitimize their rule on “consent of the governed,” have creatively insisted that their governments’ legitimacy flows from the logic of Marxist ideology. Doctrine is the communist source of legitimacy, making consent of the governed unnecessary. It is a mode of circular thinking where the government legitimizes the government.
Legitimacy is vital to justify a government’s use of coercive powers, and to create our agreement to obey. Without legitimacy, government exercises power unjustifiably and there is no duty to obey. Only legitimate authority creates an obligation to obey. Legitimacy should be independent of political doctrine, divine right, charisma, virtue, or consequences.
The question of regime legitimacy turns, not necessarily on any of the above, but on whether the regime protects our natural rights. A government’s role is to create and maintain a rights-respecting society. A government that does not protect our rights is illegitimate. The only legitimate government is one that protects our individual rights; including our right to give consent to be governed.