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The word legitimacy is often interpreted in a normative or a positive way. In a normative sense, legitimacy gets greater attention as a part of moral philosophy. A status conferred by the people on the government's officials, acts, and institution through their belief that the government's actions are an appropriate use of power by a legally constituted governmental authority following correct decisions on making policies

According to the German political philosopher Dolf Sternberger, "Legitimacy is the foundation of such governmental power as is exercised both with a consciousness on the government's part that it has a right to govern and with some recognition by the governed of that right." The American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argues, it also "involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society."

Something becomes legitimate when one approves of it. In a positive sense, legitimacy gets greater attention in political science. For example, an institution is perceived as legitimate, if approval for that institution is general among those people subject to its authority. According to John Locke, the British social contractualist, issues of legitimacy are linked to those of consent, both explicit and tacit. "The argument of the [Second] Treatise is that the government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed."

Legitimacy in political science, is the popular acceptance of a governing regime or law as an authority. Whereas authority refers to a specific position in an established government, the term legitimacy is used when describing a system of government itself—where government may be generalized to mean the wider "sphere of influence." It is considered a basic condition for rule: without at least a minimal amount of which, a government will lead to frequent deadlocks or collapse in the long run.

The American political theorist Robert A. Dahl, has explained the concept of legitimacy by using the metaphor of a reservoir. For example, as long as the reservoir stays at a certain level stability can be maintained, if it falls below the required level it is endangered. Regimes in most states require the assent of a large proportion of the population in order to retain power. In several countries this is not the case: many unpopular regimes have survived because they are supported and considered as legitimate by a small but influential elite.

In the case of laws, legitimacy should be distinguished from legality. Action can be legal without being legitimate (as in the case of an immoral law). Action can also be legitimate without being legal. When sources of legitimacy clash with one another, constitutional crisis erupts. Legitimacy as a concept is often applied to other, non-political, kinds of authority, and also to issues concerning the legitimacy of entire political-economic systems (such as capitalism) as discussed in the Marxist tradition.

Types of legitimacy

Numinous legitimacy

The dominion of a godking of which ancient Egypt offers the best example, is the theological doctrine according to which every Pharaoh is himself (among other things) the god Horus, son of Osiris. The doctrine seems to go back to the very origin of the empire.

The Roman Catholic priesthood derived its legitimacy and still does from a source very similar to that of the kingship; according to official doctrine the Papal office is based on Christ's designation of St. Peter, which continues to sanctify and legitimize the rule of every successive pope.

Civil legitimacy

Civil legitimacy exists when a system of government is based on agreement between equally autonomous constituents who have combined to cooperate towards some common good. Every modern constitutional system or every system of representational government is founded either on a basic agreement to follow certain rules or at least on a justifiable assumption that a basic agreement to follow certain rules exists . Modern constitutional government makes one characteristic of civil legitimacy particularly clear: Governmental offices are ordered by trust rather than exercised by dominion. This is expressed in the institution of public elections.

Sources of legitimacy

Weber's three sources

The Germanmarker economist and sociologist Max Weber, argued that there are three forms of legitimacy, and that all human societies, across history, have been based on them.
  • Charismatic authority. Legitimacy based on the charisma of the leader, often partly based on the perception that this leader has certain extra or supernatural attributes. Example: a tribal chieftain or a religious leader.
  • Traditional authority. Legitimacy based on tradition; e.g., people accept the government for the simple fact that it has been around for so long and is based on popular customs and usages. Example: a monarchy.
  • Rational/legal authority. Legitimacy based on the perception that a government's powers are derived from set procedures, principles, and laws which are often complex and are written down as part of the constitution. Example: representative democracy or bureaucrats.

Weber, like the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, had an extremely negative and pessimistic view of human nature, and believed that societies often went through cycles. Weber did not see democracy as being necessary for legitimacy, as a government could be legitimized through laws and principles not established by a vote. Weber also claimed that it is perfectly possible for a modern society to revert back and become a follower of a brutal form of charismatic leadership, a phenomenon which later occurred in his home country of Germany under Adolf Hitler and which was also witnessed in other parts of the world, such as Benito Mussolini's Italy.

The French political scientist Mattei Dogan, offers a more contemporary conception of this typology of legitimacy. While Weber’s typology (traditional/charismatic/legal-rational) was seminal throughout the previous centuries, Dogan argues that it is insufficient to cover the complex relationships between legitimacy and political systems. In fact, in Prof. Dogan's view, the first two types (traditional and charismatic) are today obsolete. A fairly recent example of charismatic legitimacy was the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Dogan believes that traditional authority has disappeared completely, with the exception of two or three regimes in the Middle East (such as Saudi Arabiamarker). The third type called rational-legal is, in Dogan's view, an amalgamation of many varieties, to such a degree that they no longer constitute a "type."

Different forms of government and legitimacy

Legitimacy is an essentially contested concept. Constitutionalism is a modern concept that desires a political order governed by laws and regulations. It stands for the supremacy of law and not of the individuals; it imbibes the principles of nationalism, democracy and limited government. Political legitimacy involves constitutionalism or the belief that an action is legitimate because it follows regular procedures which are part of the law of the land. This form of legitimacy is related to democracy as the justification of these constitutional procedures is agreed to by popular consent. According to Friedrich, constitutionalism by dividing power provides a system of effective restraints upon governmental action. It is a body of rules ensuring fair play and rendering the government responsible.

In monarchies, the Ruler gained legitimacy through the popular perception that he was the rightful ruler of the province. This perception was often enhanced by propagating the belief that he was divinely ordained to hold his post and this was advocated through the Divine origin theory, and/or the divine right of kings. This form of legitimacy remains today in the form of absolute monarchy where the monarch still has effective power, for example in Saudi Arabia. Constitutional monarchy where traditional sources of legitimacy have been combined with democratic and constitutional sources of legitimacy is prevalent in many European countries.

Democracy is often perceived as the most popular form of government. The most common source of legitimacy today is the perception that a government is operating under democratic principles and is subject to the will of the people. This is because democracy is based on the will of the people. Governments often claim a popular mandate to exercise power; however, how this mandate is derived can vary sharply from regime to regime. Liberal democratic states claim democratic legitimacy on the grounds that they have regular free and fair contested elections in which political parties participate without any fear or pressure.It has been claimed that liberal democratic states can be remarkably stable because the legitimacy of the state is not tied to an individual ruler or ruling party. According to this argument, in a dictatorial state, deposing the ruler can lead to total collapse in the system of government. However, in most well-functioning liberal democracies the ruling party is regularly replaced peacefully without any constitutional change or major upheavals. A liberal democratic state gains legitimacy also on the following grounds that a rigid written constitution or well-respected constitutional conventions which are upheld by the judiciary within the state is in existence. Popular participation of people in large numbers takes place in democracy. A strong and independent media which is unbiased and free from the control of the government exists in democracy. A system of "checks and balances" and control of one organ of the state by another (as in the United States, for example) is also common in democracy. There is economic stability with continuity in policies for a specific period as governments are elected for a fixed tenure.

Communist states often claim democratic legitimacy on the grounds that they have won a popular revolution and are acting on behalf of the people in accordance with the scientific rules of Marxism. In 1930s Germany and Italy, Nazism and Fascism both claimed to represent the will of the people more directly and authentically than liberal democracy. The German jurist, Carl Schmitt, discussed the problem of democratic legitimacy in the late years of the Weimar Republicmarker in his 1932 polemic treatise Legalitaet und Legitimitaet. 51% of parliamentary votes make for law and legality, Prof. Schmitt stated somewhat sarcastically, without ever asking why the remaining 49% accept the majority 51% decision.

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