Small Wars Journal

Introduction to the Locus of Legitimacy and State Stability

Sun, 08/28/2011 - 9:10am

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This paper offers a conceptual framework to assist the practitioner in determining what types of government are more likely to be stable for a given population. It introduces the idea of the Locus of Legitimacy as an additional macro-level consideration in judging political stability. Locus of Legitimacy is where a population, or segment of a population, believes that legitimacy originates from. It differs from the popular concept of legitimacy in that the legitimacy is normally view as attached to a particular political regime; Karzai’s government is (or is not) viewed as legitimate by the population. Locus of legitimacy is attached to whether the population believes that a type of government, democracy, monarchy, theocracy, is viewed as the legitimate form of government by the people. Where the people do not view the locus of legitimacy, or form of government, to be appropriate there is more likely to be unstable.

Locus of legitimacy stems from people’s values. In particular, it stems from whether people value individualism or collectivism. People who value individualism will feel that the state gains its right to rule by the consent of the individual members of the society. Their locus of legitimacy will be the individual. Where people value the collective identity (the clan, the ethnic group, the religious or national identity) as the source of authority they will see the collective as the locus of legitimacy. To make this idea clearer this paper will start with the concept of locus of legitimacy using historical and modern examples. It will then present additional evidence for the distinctions. It will show how they originate in national-level cultural values and look at what other factors may contribute to locus of legitimacy such as the population’s income level. Finally I will look at situations where incongruence between the locus of legitimacy and the government system will cause instability and why attempting to implement individualist style rights and standards can lead to the collapse of governments where the population believes in a communal locus of legitimacy. 

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About the Author(s)

Major Stan Wiechnik enlisted in the Army in 1982 and received his commission in 1993. He has served in the Military Police Corp, Air Defense Artillery, and the Engineers. He deployed to Afghanistan as a company commander and Iraq as a battalion executive officer. He is a graduate of CGSC, Indiana University, and Vermont Law School. Currently, he serves in the ROTC Department at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.



Wed, 08/31/2011 - 7:20pm

I would like to make two observations. First, I agree with you that the right people in a position of power, even in a non-democratic system, can bring about positive change. The Soviet Union increased the standard of living of its population until the point where its population’s values changed bringing about a different political structure (…). Had there been someone other than Gorbachev in power things might have been different, ala Syria. Perhaps the value change had so permeated the system that there was no holding back the tide of change. What is important is that the right king or dictator, one who sees protecting the people as part of their duty, can be a better choice than trying to install a democratic system that the population is not prepared to embrace.

The second has to do with civil-military relations. Arguably, in the US, the military has a communal value system while the politicians who control it (and more importantly the population who vote for the politicians) have an individualistic value system. In societies where there is a long term separation in value systems between those in control and those who serve them a caste system results. The general population, the people who still cling to a communal value system, are seen by those people at the top of the caste system as different from them. Some in the elite, individualist portion of society might say that the communal general population is somehow lesser than them. In any case, they are seen as different. I am curious if this type of thought process ever enters into the calculus of whether to use the military.

Adam Neira

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 5:10am

The "locus of legitimacy" phrase is a good one. There is an idea in Judaism that says when a tzaddik, i.e. sage, righteous person is present in a place good energy is attracted to the area. This may sound very metaphysical but there is something to it. A wise, self actualized person when in an area will feel the need to uplift and empower those around him/her. Thus the group dynamics change. Call it a butterfly or ripple effect. For good governance to reign in a state it is imperative that the best people are selected from the local population or transported in. Of course even the most angelic of characters need physical protection as well. Every developing nation suffering from poverty, war or conflict and even the developed ones which can slip into materialism, hedonism, narcissism and ultimately nihilism needs "centres of unfolding potential". Examples of such centres are : UN Offices; Army Bases; Police Stations; Synagogues/Churches/Mosques and just plain Homes. First you must plant yourself somewhere and then as long as there is some physical security the good work can proceed. The people killed in Abuja, Nigeria at the UN office were obviously motivated by altruism and public service.

The collectivist/individualist makeup of the society does determine what form of government is most suitable, but all governments are made up of people. The better the people involved in public service the better the community. A benevolent monarchy with provincial princes may be far preferable to a dysfunctional democracy overlaid on an ancient culture. Empowerment via voting is useless if the votes are not guided by wisdom. Yet the physical act of voting can empower a resident population and get them more interested in civil matters. There is a glaring fault with the dominant government system in the West. Democracy ensures everyone is equal, so no one can give orders or criticise. A decent command structure breaks down.

So the question of which form of government suits a population is an interesting one. Just as individuals self actualise at a different rate and move from dependence to independence to interdependence so to do nations move through various stages. A management modality or therapeutic intervention that is suitable at one stage may not be suitable at another stage.

I have more comments on this subject but not enough space here.