Fostering a Sense of Legitimacy - For Students, Educators, and Trainers

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Eamon Aloyo



What this Portal is About

This portal discusses the three interrelated topics of legitimacy, accountability, and transparency. It's important to note that these concepts typically range along a continuum and are not dichotomous. For instance, rather than asking is an institution legitimate, it's more fruitful to ask to what degree and according to whom is an institution legitimate.


Legitimacy has a number of different definitions. One central way that legitimacy is differentiated is between empirical and normative conceptions. Normative legitimacy refers to a set of standards by which an institution or regime is judged. Empirical legitimacy refers to whether people believe a regime or an institution is normatively legitimate.

For instance, normative legitimacy might require an institution to be democratic and protect a specific list of rights. In a 2006 article in Ethics and International Affairs, two eminent political scientists, Allen Buchanan and Robert Keohane, define normative legitimacy (for global governance institutions) as "the right to rule, understood to mean both that institutional agents are morally justified in making rules and attempting to secure compliance with them and that people subject to those rules have moral, content-independent reasons to follow them and/or to not interfere with others' compliances with them." Stated simply, an institution has the right to make rules and to expect people to follow them. In another domain, a doctor could be normatlively legitimate because of her expertise, even if she is not elected.

Empirical legitimacy, on the other hand, is not based on expertise or morality, but rather on perception. If 90% of a country's population believes that its government institutions are legitimate, then it has a high degree of empirical legitimacy.

Other ways to categorize legitimacy are by procedure or outcome. For instance, one may agree that the process of a trial by jury of one's peers is a legitimate procedure to determine criminal guilt or innocence. But one may, given the evidence, disagree or think illegitimate any particular outcome of a procedurally fair jury trial.

  • For further detail on political legitimacy see Fabienne Peter's entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • For more on legitimacy overall, see the Beyond Intractability article on Legitimacy.

Transparency International defines transparency as "as a principle that allows those affected by administrative decisions, business transactions or charitable work to know not only the basic facts and figures but also the mechanisms and processes."

Transparency is not only important in itself, but it is often an important component of legitimacy and, at least to a certain degree, necessary for accountability.

Accountability requires at least two actors, both of whom know and understand the standards according to which the one who will be held to account will be judged. The enforcer (the entity to which or whom another is accountable) must have the authority to sanction the other, and there must be sufficient information for the enforcer to judge whether the other actor should be sanctioned or not (Grant and Keohane 2005: 29Gordon 2006: 80Wenar 2006: 5-7).

As with legitimacy, there are a number of types of accountability. Democratic accountability is one of the most common. But there are many nondemocratic types as well, such as an employee being accountable to her boss, a CEO being accountable to the company's shareholders, or a business being accountable to a regulatory agency such as the EPA.

Where and Why These Issues Matter

Everything from a military occupation, to an obscure bureaucratic decision-making procedure, to a whole institution such as the American government or the United Nations can be assessed for legitimacy. How to create legitimate, accountable, and transparent governance systems is a central challenge to practitioners and researchers alike. Part of the problem is that individuals have different judgments about whether a particular institution is legitimate, and how accountability and transparency should be measured or employed. Even when substantial agreement is reached, a major impediment to implementing any reforms is powerful existing actors' incentives to maintain the status quo (which typically benefits them).

All three of these topics (legitimacy, accountability, and transparency) closely relate to effective governance and public policy making. Generally, if any one of these topics suffers, governance will suffer too. If a system of governance is not legitimate, individuals may be less likely to follow its system of rules and norms, may be more likely to violently rebel, and people may be worse off or even lose their lives because of it.

The concepts are also interrelated. Transparency, for instance, besides being important in itself, is necessary for legitimacy and accountability. Some degree of transparency is necessary to hold actors to account because the accountability holder needs information to determine whether or not the entity they are monitoring is acting as it should. Similarly, without transparency, one cannot judge whether an institution is legitimate. One example of why these concepts matter is that nondemocratic governments, a proxy for a lack of accountability, treat their citizens worse than democracies do across a number of indicators from human security rights, as Christian Davenport finds, to food security, as Amartya Sen finds.


Lack of Legitimacy

A lack of legitimacy may be a problem for a number of reasons. Individuals may be more prone to disobey a law, and may be more likely to revolt, if they consider the law or the entire governmental system to be illegitimate.

One example of the effects of illegitimacy are the overthrows (and challenges) to governments that have been taking place in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. The "Arab Spring" started in Tunisa, where a single individual, believing that his life had been rendered unlivable by the actions of an illegitimate government committed suicide. This unleashed a nonviolent revolution that quickly toppled the government. The Mubarak regime in Egypt, which was widely seen as illegitimate, collapsed soon after. Other uprisings such as those in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Sryia have so weakened governments that the only chance that they had to remain in power was brutal repression. The consent of the governed—such that it existed previously — collapsed. Other governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have taken measures to strengthen their legitimacy by programs to more aggressively share the oil wealth and/or institute reforms. Almost all Middle Eastern governments seem to have been "put on notice," however, that they need to try to keep their citizens reasonably content, or risk serious challenge. One question this raises is how (il)legitimacy interacts with other factors because many of these countries' citizens have believed their governments were illigitimate for some time, but were never able to overthrow them. This also points to important factor in how legitimacy should be measured. Besides just asking to what degree a government is legitimate, for example, it would be useful to ask how willing someone is do something about the perceived illegitimacy.

Besides asking to what degree is something legitimate, it's important to consider how much those who view an entity as illegitimate dislike it or are willing to do something about its illegitimacy. For instance, in a 2010 poll, 84% of Americans disapproved of Congress, but very few Americans want to replace Congress or overthrow the current institution. (Of course approval is not exactly the same thing as legitimacy). Thus when measuring illegitimacy, it is important to consider to what degree people are willing to do something about their views. A majority could view an institution as illegitimate, and this could be less of a threat to that institution than 10% of the population who is willing to take up arms against it.

Lack of Legitimate Authority

Authority is typically defined as the right to rule and coercively make people comply with rules, whereas power is simply the ability to coerce people to follow your rules. Someone can have authority for a number of different reasons, from widely accepted roles (such as a parent) , through consent (see below) such as an employer having a range of authority over an employee, or through, as Thomas Christiano puts it, "the authority of democracy."

Supreme Authority: Supreme authority is closely tied to state sovereignty in politics. Max Weber famously defined sovereignty as supreme authority to use a monopoly of violence on a given population over a defined territory. This includes the authority to violently quell insurgencies and paramilitary groups. As much of the absolute view of state sovereignty has come under critical scrutiny in recent years, many thinkers now consider secession to be sometimes morally permissible. This view undercuts the state's authority to always suppress secessionists. The leading political theorist, Allen Buchanan, further discusses theories of secession here.

Coercive Authority: Coercion involves the use or threat of force to get one or more people to act in a certain way or refrain from certain actions. Not all types of authority are coercive; in fact, most are not. A medical doctor may have authority, but, except in rare circumstances when a patient is a threat to herself or others, a doctor's orders are not backed back the threat of force. A doctor recommends a certain treatment, and it is up to the patient to follow through on that treatment, or decide againt it for their own reasons. When a policeman places a person under arrest, however, that action is backed by the threat of force. States are the primary actors in international relations that can legally use coercive authority, although there are other actors that can legitimately do so, such as the some UN peacekeeping missions, prisons for the International Criminal Court, ad hoc tribunals, and so forth.

Lack of Monopoly on Coercive Force: A number of states cannot exercise coercive force over all of their territory. Depending on how large a territory this is, and how strong outlaw groups are, a territory can be termed a "failed state," such as Somalia has been since 1991. When a state fails, it leaves its citizens without protection. The "law of the jungle" often rules, and only the toughest can expect to survive and prosper. So this ttends to select for the most tough, most ruthless tyrants who will re-establish authority over their particular small (or large) domain. However, this is not always the case. Somaliland shows that communities can sometimes organize effective democratic governance even in regions of failed states.

Consent of the Governed

Social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Rawls, et. al.) suggest that a state can only be legitimate if its citizens consent to be governed. The central idea of the social contact is that because every human is equal, and there is a presumption that everyone deserves to be free, coercion is only morally permissible when individuals consent to it. The tradition is very much alive today, even though people from Hume in the 18th century to A. John Simmons in the late 20th century have criticized it. One problem with consent theory is that few, if any, people actually consent to the government. Locke and others tried to get around that problem by appealing to "tacit consent," i.e. consenting by means other than what are typical. (Typically, consent must include (1) expressly showing support or rejection for some concrete question, (2) the actor must have sufficient information to know what she is consenting or dissenting to, and (3) the costs of dissention must not be too high. One problem with Locke's view of tacit consent is that it might violate each criterion. For instance, Locke argued that by traveling on public roads, citizens consent to that state's driving laws. But someone does not know that traveling on roads is expected to show approval of the laws (failing 1 and 2), and the costs of dissention are quite high indeed (failing 3). Hume criticized this sort of tacit consent by arguing that emigration is too high of a cost for something like traveling on public roads to meet the definition of consent.


Inclusiveness is closely related to democracy and accountability. Those interested in the "boundary question," as it is known in democratic theory, ask who should be empowered to participate in a democratic process, and why. Robert Goodin and Archon Fung discuss the "all affected interests principle," which roughly holds that everyone who is affected by a decision should have a say in the decision process. The 18th century revolutionary Americans who wanted "no taxation without representation" appealed to a similar principle. Including and excluding people from the process of accountability, transparency, or legitimacy is one of the most important aspects of any political process. Some of the major social movements of the last two centuries addressed exactly this problem. For example, the suffragist movements aimed to empower individuals (such as women) in the democratic and accountability processes from which they were previously excluded.


Democratic legitimacy, accountability, and to a lesser extent, transparency take various forms depending on one's definition of democracy. Even if all the components necessary for democracy exist, someone could still think a democracy is illegitimate because she is not a democrat.

Economic Accountability

Economic accountability can take many forms. We often hear of market accountability, i.e. businesses must be make products at a price people are willing to pay or else they will go out of business. Another form of accountability is more consciously trying to use economic forces, such as incentives, sanctions, and divestment, to persuade or coerce actors to do what someone else wants them to do.

Democracy and Accountability

Democratic accountability is the quintessential kind of accountability. If the citizens don't like their elected representatives, they can vote to throw them out of office. But there are a number of other democratic methods of accountability in representative democracy. For instance, a newspaper could criticize an elected representative's policy or make arguments against a proposed piece of legislation. Although far less severe than being expelled from office, these are legitimate means of sanctioning someone and affecting the decision-making process.


Corruption can be defined as the abuse of public or private office or power for unauthorized personal gain. Corruption and legitimacy are closely linked because corruption is one type of illegitimate use of power. In one study, Mitchell Seligson finds that corruption does have an independent (and obviously negative) affect on legitimacy.

Corruption and Transparency

This is a good example of how transparency and accountability are related. Generally, the more transparent a transaction is, the less chance for corruption. This common sense notion smuggles in a further assumption, that corrupt people will be caught and prosecuted, or sanctioned in some other way. In other words, it assumes accountability. Everyone knew the former dictator of Congo (then Zaire), Mobutu was stealing vast amounts of money during his rule, but because he was unaccountable, he did less than he could have to hide the corruption.

Corruption Index

Corruption typically undermines democracy. It can do so in different ways depending on the sort of corruption. Ballot box stuffing or other types of electoral fraud are some of the most serious corruption challenges to democracy. But everyday corruption of the police force and civil service can contribute to apathy and disenfranchisement.

Responses to These Issues: Understanding the Nature and Extent of the Problem

  • Transparency International is one of the world's leading anti-corruption INGOs which compiles a leading indicator of corruption as well as advocates against corruption.
  • The legitimacy of international law is explored in Legitimacy, Justice and Public International Law. (A short review of this book can be found here.)
  • Researchers continue to explore each of these topics, and we discuss this in more detail in the Research and Development section below.

What is Being Done to Mitigate or Otherwise Address the Problem?

A number of actors — from individuals to small civil society organizations, to large INGOs, to populations as a whole — are advocating for more transparency, legitimacy, and accountability at all levels of governance. Transparency International is one example of such an organization. One World Trust is another organization working to improve global accountability. Many actors advocate for democratic accountability and they are sometimes successful, as we saw in the spring of 2011 when some Arab populations overthrew their leaders.

Are There Any Studies that Evaluate the Success of These Efforts?

A great number of scholars are working on issues of accountability, transparency, and legitimacy. Democracy and what causes democratization is one measure of accountability that is the topic of a great deal of research. (See the page for researchers for more details.)

What Are the Major Areas of Debate Relating to This Topic?

There are major disagreements about both the empirical and the normative aspects of legitimacy. Less contentious but still central topics of debate are how transparency and accountability should be defined and what their appropriate limits are. Another area of debate is how legitimacy should apply to different areas of the globe. For instance, is female genital cutting illegitimate even in cultures that have practiced it for long periods of time? Must all governments be democratic to be legitimate? How can we assess legitimacy of supranational nondemocratic institutions? Explaining why individuals view an institution, a process, or an individual as more or less legitimate, transparent, or accountable is a an interesting area of empirical work. How legitimacy, accountability, and transparency can be improved is another central area of debate.

What Research is Being Done to Address These Debates?

All sorts of different and interesting work is being done on these topics. Practitioners are advocating for greater accountability, transparency, and legitimacy from actors as diverse as governments, NGOs, international organizations, and corporations. Scholars continue to work on how individuals assess different institutions in terms of these issues, and explore normatively how institutions could be reformed and improved in terms of legitimacy, accountability, and transparency.