Power and legitimacy in government

November 3, 2012 By pipka

Below are some thoughts I had scribbled out as part of a discussion at university a few years ago. I was reminded of it through a discussion with a friend yesterday. I think it is a topic worth considering on an ongoing basis.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently around what constitutes legitimacy in government or the powers that be throughout time. It has been quite fascinating to consider what people expect, what they get, and what holds it all together.

Basically, I content that legitimacy isn’t binary but rather a spectrum. Legitimacy isn’t static, but rather something that has to be continually established, something that needs to be earnt. Gone are the days where the sword or gun ruled, because people’s fear of force has (at least in some countries) been outweighed by a sense of self-empowerment and people expecting to have a say. In democracies around the world, this say, this legitimacy, has for many years been established at the ballot box. But the Internet has changed things and legitimacy now requires so much more.

Governments today face enormous challenges to how they’ve always done things due to the democratisation (mass distribution) of communications, publishing, monitoring and indeed enforcement. We are seeing a) individuals can hold governments to account much easier and louder than in times past, b) governments finding it hard to transition to the conversational and collaborative approach expected online, and c) the role of the media, particularly in mainstream publishing has become more and more politicised making it harder for people to hear an apolitical mainstream voice from which to make up their own mind.

Legitimacy is a tricky thing in a time when anyone can say anything, when the media often reports all perspectives as if they were of equal relevance/truth, and the voice of government is just another voice in the cacophony of the Internet. In announcing a policy, a vacuum of information is created. If that vacuum isn’t filled with updates, the policy status, what it means and active engagement with “the people”, then the policy might succeed on paper, but completely fail from a public perspective if the vacuum is filled with an alternative narrative.

Legitimacy used to be enforced, now it has to be earned, every day. Nowadays, particularly in democratic countries, Β without legitimacy it is very hard to maintain power.

It’s also worth considering that we (in Australia) expect a *lot* more from our government now than anyone would have dreamed 300 years ago. Health, public transport, free education for our kids, etc. We also have much higher obligations but can (often) rationalise that with the benefits.

So where does legitimacy break down, and is it possible to predict when a social system will break down and transform?

I’ve come up with two simple tensions that perhaps play a part in the ongoing legitimacy of an entity in power that hopefully reflect how societies relate to and judge legitimacy. I think this formula works both for the times of Hobbes and for now. Regardless of the fact that expectations of many modern societies has changed fundamentally from those times as we are more globally aware, connected and empowered than ever before.

Both of these tensions can be analysed at an individual, community and nation/society level, and fundamentally, whilst ever the vast majority of people in the society are not getting a negative result from these criteria, the power and structures will not be seriously challenged or threatened.

The first tension is the benefits versus the obligations *and* inconveniences. Benefits include things such as health care, security, or education. Obligations are things such as taxes or abiding by the law. Inconveniences are things like being threatened if you don’t vote a particular way, or being sent to gaol. If the benefits you receive outweigh the obligations+inconveniences, there is a positive result, if they are roughly comparative, a neutral result, or if obligations+inconveniences outweigh benefits, a negative result.

Secondly is relationship between the the perceived reality of the ruling power and the expectations of the ruling power. For instance, some people may not see it as the role of the government to enforce a moral standard, so if the government does something they perceive as conflicting with this expectation, then that can be a problem. If perceived reality is not in line with the expectations its a negative result, is roughly equal then neutral. This depends heavily on the success criteria communicated by the ruling power and the related perceived success of that ruling power. For instance, if the ruling power sets a low bar (or a reasonable bar) and is seen to overachieve, that is a positive result, seeing to have achieved what was laid down is a neutral result, and underachieving, even if the bar was set too ambitiously high, is a negative result.

Put more simply:

Test 1: benefits minus obligations+inconveniences
Test 2: public expectations (success criteria) minus perceived reality (success)

Both tests demonstrate the importance of good clear communications and engagement with the public.

Interestingly, in my opinion there has been a growing discontent on both tests in Australia. Although we have high benefits and high obligations, the inconveniences haven’t really been seen as that onerous for most people. But we are seeing an interesting scope creep with policies relating to the Internet and intelligence agencies starting to create more inconvenience to the population. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the coming years, as it appears more and more of the population are starting to feel a rise in our obligations and inconveniences.

Interesting times. In the Chinese sense πŸ™‚ Would love to hear your thoughts.