Legitimacy is a crucial aspect of all power relations. Without legitimacy, power is exerted through coercion; with legitimacy, power can be exerted through voluntary or quasi-voluntary compliance. This holds for both power exerted by a state (Levi, 1997; Beetham, 1991; Hurd ,1999; Tyler, 2006; Kelman & Hamilton, 1989) and by armed non-state groups (Maher, 2012). Thus legitimacy can be understood as an acceptance of authority by both elite and non-elite groups, although not all citizens are equal in their capacity to confer legitimacy.
Legitimacy lies at the core of state-citizen relationships and thus of the whole state-building agenda. The logic used in the state-building agenda is that an authority which lacks legitimacy will be challenged, resulting in increased instability. The evidence for this assertion is, however, mixed. If an authority which experiences weak legitimacy can exert power through coercion, its power may not be widely challenged (for example, Algeria and North Korea). Some legitimacy theorists argue that these situations are not sustainable and that states which lack legitimacy devote more resources to maintaining their rule and less to effective governance, which reduces support and makes them vulnerable to overthrow or collapse (Gilley, 2006). The evidence is not clear. However, there is some evidence to support the corollary, i.e. that if states are legitimate, they use fewer resources to coerce, have more resources to devote to improving governance and can rely on citizens’ consent even when certain groups disagree about policies. Levi and Sacks explored the relationship between citizens’ perceptions that government is relatively effective, competent, and procedurally just, and their stated willingness to engage in quasi-voluntary compliance. Based on their research in African countries, they argued that, where such a relationship exists, there is the potential for the development of a virtuous circle (Levi & Sacks, 2009).
- Quasi-voluntary compliance is compliance motivated by a willingness to comply but backed up by coercion, particularly coercion that ensures that others will be obeying the law (Levi & Sacks, 2009).
- Beetham, D. (1991). The legitimation of power. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
- Gilley, B. (2006). The determinants of state legitimacy: review for 72 countries. International Political Science Review, 27(1). See document online
- Hurd, I. (1999). Legitimacy and authority in international politics. International Organization, 53, 379–408.
- Kelman, H. C., & Hamilton, V. L. (1989). Crimes of obedience: Toward a social psychology of authority and responsibility. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Levi, M., & Sacks, A. (2009). Legitimating beliefs: Sources and indicators. Regulation & Governance, 3(4), 311–33. See document online
- Levi, M. (1997). Consent, dissent and patriotism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Maher, D. (2012). [Review of the book The FARC: the longest insurgency, by Garry Leech]. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5(1), 149-152. See document online
- Tyler, T. R. (2006) Psychological perspectives on legitimacy and legitimation. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 375–400. See document online