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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

What is the Basis for Legitimate Authority?

We hear much these days about mistrust of the government. Many don’t trust the Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, the CDC, the FDA, and any number of other governmental agencies. Surely the mishandling of the Afghanistan withdrawal doesn’t help. But this mistrust begs a question of whether the government has legitimate authority and what constitutes it.


It has been commonplace in political theory, especially in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others that legitimate authority is based on consent of the governed. A public that enters into a social contract with a sovereign to protect its rights is affording it legitimate authority. Of course, the concept of a social contract may be nothing more than a straw man, as it isn’t clear that such contracts ever existed that people entered into. Perhaps the constitutional convention of 1787 comes close. Rather social contract theory is a way of rationalizing either a particular set of governing arrangements or legitimizing their overthrow in favor of others.

Consent of the governed as a basis for legitimate authority has often found expression in the concept of popular sovereignty. Of course, this is the idea that democracy rules. Arguably if the public trusts that governments change hands through peaceful transfers of power following elections that all are permitted to participate in, then the government has legitimate authority. That is, through elections the public gives tacit approval of the social contract.


Although governing institutions derive legitimacy through the electoral box, does that mean they are free to do as they please until the next election? Are all decisions and policy choices assumed to be legitimate? Arguably the ballot box holds out the hope that public officials who make bad decisions will be thrown out. If we are truly displeased, the legislative branch can hold hearings into the executive branch as a means of holding it accountable to the public.


But when such hearings are nothing more than partisan exercises with the party in power finding nothing wrong with the executive and the minority party always finding something wrong, it is questionable as to whether this exercise at all reaffirms the public’s acceptance of the government’s legitimate authority. Far from affirming legitimate authority, it sows mistrust in government. And when that happens many governmental actions and/or policies become illegitimate in the minds of many.


Perhaps it should be taken as a given that unless there is bipartisan support for a governmental action, there will be distrust. Or if the only justification that one can offer for taking an action is that it undoes what the previous administration did, then likewise there will be distrust. At a minimum every action and/or policy of a government must be justified. Being told by the Speaker of the House that you must first pass a bill to find out what is in a bill, is not an act of public justification


A liberal government in theory derives its legitimacy when it can publically justify its actions. To justify means it cannot act arbitrarily. It would imply that enough of the public, maybe a consensus, has been sufficiently persuaded that the action being taken is in the public interest. Public justification would also entail owning the decision if it goes awry and results in unintended consequences that might even be disastrous.


A democratic government is under no obligation to maintain troops in a foreign country for eternity. Its allegiance is to its own people. Such a government is certainly obligated to protect its citizens both at home and abroad. To justify a decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan with the claim that it was well known that there would be chaos or “I believe it is the right decision” is hardly an act of public justification. A government that fails to protect its citizens is one that ceases to have legitimacy. One can therefore ask whether the government should even exist.


Whether we should maintain forces in Afghanistan is a legitimate topic for debate and the American public has every right to demand the withdrawal of its forces. But how they are withdrawn will affect the extent to which the public can trust the government. If troops are to be withdrawn, they should only be done so after American citizens have been evacuated and American equipment has been removed. To leave American citizens at the mercy of a group that will either hold them hostage or murder them only sends a message to the world, which is not only does the U.S. government not care about its own, but that it really cannot be trusted.


The issue of trust here goes deeper. To leave Afghan translators who assisted American troops at the mercy of a vengeful Taliban only reinforces the idea that the U.S. is not to be trusted around the world. If it can’t be trusted, then why would other countries enter into agreements with the U.S.? Moreover, if trust in the American government has evaporated because of this issue, it has less trust among the people in domestic matters as well.


If the public cannot trust the government to protect its citizens abroad, then why would it trust that it is spending its money responsibly on a whole myriad of programs? If the response is that the government is serving the public interest, are we then supposed to believe it really cares about the public interest? If protecting your citizens isn’t a matter of the public interest, then what is?


Remember the early social contract theorists posited that we enter into social contracts with sovereigns in order to attain protection for ourselves, our property, and our rights. Locke even went so far as to say that a government which failed in that would no longer be legitimate and that the public would be well within its rights to overthrow the government in favor of one that would. Hence the justification for the American Declaration of Independence.


As the nation is undergoing a new COVID wave due to the Delta variant, especially in locations with low vaccination rates, there is certainly an argument to be made for mandatory vaccination. Contrary to right-wing pundits’ claims that it is a civil rights issue, it is a public health issue. Failure to get vaccinated endangers everybody else, including the vaccinated, because the longer it takes for everybody to get vaccinated, the more opportunity is afforded for mutations to develop that will only evade the vaccine.


Now that there is little trust in the government, despite one of the vaccines receiving full FDA approval, why would anybody trust the government on this? Does the government really care about our health or only about the interests of big business that may be concerned that failure to vaccinate will ultimately take its toll on the bottom line? Of course, there will always be those who believe that vaccinations are about control.


Perhaps the point is that nobody should underestimate the damage done to the public’s trust in government, and even its legitimacy, by the way troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The implications for how the world views us are profound. Equally profound are the implications for how it affects the government’s ability to respond to domestic policy crises. Worse than that, the polarization that has plagued the nation for the last two decades will only be exacerbated.

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