Legitimacy is the principle upon which authority rests in a political system. Legitimacy has three dimensions: Procedural norms should be used in acquiring power. In the Western democracies such procedures most commonly are competitive elections in which all adult persons may vote Legitimacy is a relative term. What is legitimate in one political system may not be regarded as legitimate in another. In some societies rule by a council of elders (gerontological) has been considered appropriate. Age, experience, and wisdom are considered interdependent traits, and age is the criteria for membership on the council.
For many centuries blood descent (as in a king or emperor) was regarded as the procedure for qualifying tor office and power. Political systems with a monarch as the head of state actually exercising power (as opposed to a constitutional monarchy seen today, in which the king or queen is a figurehead) were based not on election or age but on the fortuitous circumstances ot birth. Age or blood descent obviously are not regarded as legitimate in democratic political systems. but they were legitimate in many other political systems.
2. Procedural norms (generally accepted procedures) generally should be followed in exercising power. In constitutional systems, where a constitution and laws restrain government officials, even those at the highest level of power and discretion must follow the legal procedures expected of the office. This is contrary to some political systems where there are relatively few limitations on a ruler who has acquired office For most of recorded history, it was regarded as an act of treason to remove even the most rapacious and incompetent ruler. Few people made an effort to justify rebellion. One famous political philosopher who did mention procedural standards in exercising power was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Saint Thomas distinguished between a person who usurps power a tyrant and a ruler, who is the legitimate sovereign but who abuses his power.
3. Legitimacy also involves the notion that government and the political system should function in such a way that government generally performs the tasks citizens expect of it. Popular expectations of the functions, it not of government have changed measurably during the last 200 years. During the nineteenth century the most common political system was the “night watchman state. ” Governments were expected to maintain domestic security: protect the borders; and construct, maintain, and protect communication and transportation networks.
For example, immediately after the American colonies won their independence. two of the most important cabinet departments were the State Department and the Post Office Department. Expectations about government responsibilities have evolved worldwide in the last 100 years.
People now turn to government to solve inflation, unemployment, land reform, energy shortages, retirement benefits, protection of the environment, zoning, water and sewers, tree public education, and so on. The obligations of government. or expected government outputs. vary among political systems; thus, political systems in the developing world, where governments have fewer monetary and technical resources, are not expected to provide extensive retirement or unemployment benefits.
Legitimacy in all of its aspects is relative rather than absolute and varies among countries. It is a long and evolving process and is an objective for all political systems. In our discussion of the developing world, Chapter Twelve, we shall see that it is a difficult goal to reach in the short run.