Authority, legitimacy and power are among the key elements of any political system. Therefore, they have been topics of much debate across the ages with various schools of thought contributing to political science thus shaping the discipline into the structure we know today.
The first of the three elements, authority, can be defined as the right to issue a command (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:39). However, the command that is issued must be issued with some sense of justice in order to ensure its legitimacy. The sense of justice however, can be open to conflicting understandings and we thus need to address justice as a concept. According to Plato, when one asks the question, what is justice? One is synonymously asking, what is the best form of a state? (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:2). Plato believed that the best form of the state is one in which each individual strives to be the best version of themselves and aspires to the state of goodness. This goodness would thus fulfil the properties of how we ought to live and behave. Once this moral regeneration has occurred, an individual in a position of authority, issuing a command, does so rightfully. (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:39)In contrast to Platos ideology that men can intrinsically aspire to goodness, Thomas Hobbes postulated that all men would not strive for the state (albeit idealistic) of goodness without being commanded to do so.
The guardian of this command should be an individual selected from the masses by the masses elevated to a position of complete authority (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:10). The justice in the commands issued by Hobbes patriarch lay in the prescription by the patriarch of the meaning of right and wrong, good and bad, mine and yours. (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:10)This state of affairs then leads one to believe that the commands issued by the patriarch rightfully issued rendering the citizens obligated to obey. (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:39). This then leads one to the issue of the legitimacy of the issued command. When is a command issued and power wielded legitimacy? Which conditions by their legitimacy sure obedience? (Simmons, 1979). One proposed answer is embodied in the postulation of John Locke.
Locke maintained that the consent of the citizens is the most important factor in legitimizing governments authority (Simmonds, 1974). Since consent has been given by the citizens and the ruler is actively ruling the state, it is safe to assume that a social contract exists. Breach of the contract would constitute a crisis of legitimacy. This crisis is summarised by Locke as follows; if the government takes powers that are not granted to them, they dissolve the contract between themselves and the people, and thus the people are released from their obligations to obey. (Lock, 1967).
Any individual in a state of authority issuing commands deemed to be legitimate holds some sense of power. This power can be defined as the ability to influence or control the actions of others, to get them to do what we want them to, and what they otherwise would not have done. (Beetham, 1991:43). This power can only be attained through the possession of superior capacities or resources. (Beetham, 1991:44). One can then assume that a position of authority places a ruler in a superior position rendering the ruler powerful. Maintaining this power however, according to Machiavelli would only be possible if the patriarch was to cheat the onset of political decay. (Stirk and Weigall 1995:226).
He further postulated that using brute force and might would be the effective method to protect the sovereign position and that the Prince will take action in peaceful times in order to resist adversity when fortune changes. This force is the central tenant in the maintenance of power. (Bonadeo, 1973)The intertwining of these principles should ensure the wholesomeness of any political fraternity. Justice however is the pivotal factor in maintaining the balance. Shorn of this association with right, we lose the ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate power, between authority and sheer might. (Stirk and Weigall, 1995:39).
1.Beetham, D. The legitimation of power. London : MacMillan Education Ltd, 1991.
2.Bonodeo, A. Corruption, Conflict and Power in the works and times of Niccolo, Machiavelli. Los Angeles : University of California Press, 1973.
3.Lock, J. Two Treatises of government. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1967.
4.Simmons, A.J., Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1979.
5.Stirk, P.M.R. and Weigall, D. An Introduction To Political Ideas. London : Pinter Publishers Limited, 1995.