What Legitimises Governments?

After I remarked on Saturday that I didn’t think elections legitimised governments, a friend asked what did legitmise them, according to me. It’s a good question, and I’m not sure I can give a full answer, but I can throw out some thoughts.

The requirements for legitimisation depend on what acts are to be legitimised. Some acts, like sleeping, don’t typically require any legitimisation, because we automatically have a right to do them. To talk about legitimising government, then, requires asking what the government supposedly has a right to do, that a mere random bunch of hacks doesn’t.

Second result on google image for 'legitimise'. Don't ask me why.

Governments do a lot of things, but let’s take what is arguably the biggest issue of the recent UK election, public finances. All three major parties promise to reduce the budget deficiet, though they differ on timescale and specifics. This is a big deal – millions of people’s lives are affected. Do they have, and how do they get, the legitimacy to do this?

These actions seem to be, ultimately, a matter of who they give money to. In the rest of UK society, we have a fairly simple test for whether you have the right to give someone money – is it your money? So perhaps electing a government is just a matter of choosing who should be given a certain piece of property: the government is whoever owns the government’s finances, the biggest of big businesses.

Is there really no big difference between the treasury and Tescos? Obviously the government claims to act in the ‘public interest’ – but that itself needs no legitimacy. I can act in the public interest right now, by using my time or money on socially beneficial things.

One answer, probably, is that the government gets its money from taxation – surely they need legitimacy to tax us? But I’m not so sure that this is a sharp difference. My landlord can ‘tax’ my residence in my apartment, my electricity company can ‘tax’ my use of electricity. You might say: I can choose not to use electricity, or choose not to inhabit this apartment, but I pay taxes whatever I do. But is that true? I can leave the country or break my ties with it to stop paying tax; isn’t this just a bigger version of leaving my apartment? Other countries might not accept me – but then, other landlords might not let me rent.

Insofar as the government isn’t all that different from an enormous business empire, doesn’t that mean they need no more legitimisation than Richard Branston or Bill Gates? That would be odd. But perhaps that just means that Richard Branston and Bill Gates need more legitimisation than we tend to think. Let’s set that aside.

The big difference between a business and a government, of course, is that government controls the police and the justice system, not to mention the army. This seems more relevant to legitimacy: we would tend to think that we everyday folks don’t have the right to assault, restrain, or imprison each other, so if the government does, it must go through some process of ‘legitimisation’ to get that right.

But we should be precise about what rights we’re talking about. We everyday folks *do* have the right to use force on each other under certain circumstances. We can perform citizen’s arrests, we can defend ourselves, we can defend others from immediate harm. Citizen’s arrests, of course, are complex, since they rely on the idea of crimes, and hence of law, and the law is made by the government. But self-defense, defense of others, and defense of goods are all generally recognised rights of individuals.

We don’t do these things very often because we’re not usually organised, trained, encouraged, informed, etc. in the ways that the police are, and so attempting to act as police would be difficult and often ineffective. But we don’t need legitimization, surely, to organise, train, seek and pool information, etc. – those are within the rights of any individual or group of individuals.

So what special right do the police, and the government that directs them, need? It seems to me that this right comes down, ultimately, to this: the right to use force, against those who are not themselves using or threatening force. The right, that is, to ‘aggression’.

This right isn’t limited to the government. In much of the world, for instance, people have the right to aggress against certain of their family members; teachers for a long time had the right to aggress against schoolchildren. In practice, most everyone has some right to aggress against animals. But all of these were justified, if at all, by the claim that the victims were sub-rational, lacking in the sort of dignity that would entitle them to non-aggression.

Is there a similar justification with the government? Or is there some novel other sort of legitimacy they can get? I don’t know. I’ve seen some attempts to justify such a right, but to me they’ve all seemed not just unconvincing, but deeply flawed in some obvious way.

So at the moment, my answer to the question ‘what legitimises governments?’ is ‘nothing’. They are, by definition, illegitimate. But maybe I’ve missed something.

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2 Responses to What Legitimises Governments?

  1. David says:

    I’m not sure I follow the last step here. I think your roughly right about what’s special about government, the right to use force but you don’t discuss why fair elections don’t give governments a kind of legitimate right to use force on non-agressors who break other rules (refuse to pay their taxes for example).
    Though I’m inclined to think you may be right that if your looking for something that legitimises government, in some kind of ‘what gives them the right’ sense, there may well be nothing. I would justify governments on consequentialist grounds I guess…

  2. lukeroelofs says:

    “you don’t discuss why fair elections don’t give governments a kind of legitimate right to use force on non-agressors”
    You’re right; but there are a wide variety of supposed reasons why they do, and I was reluctant to go through all of them point by point.

    I do think, though, that in practice people’s reasoning is often ‘well something must make governments legitimate, and elections seem like the best candidate’, and that assumption often rests on conflating what’s specific about government, it’s coercive power, with other of its functions, like co-ordination. So my hope was to at least undermine that way of thinking.

    “I would justify governments on consequentialist grounds I guess…”
    So presumably, then, if a highly competent or ideologically correct government could get into power by well-concealed electoral fraud, there would be no grounds for objection? In principle, a heroic supervillain like Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, or Vladimir Lenin would be perfectly justified in taking power, if their actions afterwards were sufficiently better than what the opposition would have done?

    It’s a consistent position, but personally I’d want at least some strong ‘secondary principles’ around consent and political justice.

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