The Decline of Legitimacy

The relationship between power, authority, and legitimacy

News services reported that a young lady officer of the government was shot dead allegedly by someone who had transgressed the law by storing illegal drugs and was about to be proceeded against by the officer, in accordance with the law of the land.

You may be excused for asking: What’s new? This is the new norm.

A section of anthropologists and social scientists, after extensive studies, has concluded that violence is built into our DNA. Over millions of years of evolution, our (human) systems have evolved in a way as to protect ourselves at one level and to attack at another level.

Sure, there is a contrarian view as well. This column is not about violence is part of our DNA. It is about the question of legitimacy – of us as a species, as individuals, groups, societies, institutions, and nation-states.

The concept of legitimacy is complex. Legitimacy is a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions. Legitimacy is a generalized rather than a event-specific evaluation and is “possessed objectively, yet created subjectively.” (Suchman, 1995, pp574).

Max Weber was the first social theorist to emphasize the importance of legitimacy. In his formulation of types of social action, he gave attention to those actions guided by a belief in the existence of a legitimate order: “a set of determinable maxims,” a model regarded by the actor as “in some way obligatory or exemplary for him (Weber, 1924/1968).

One model of legitimacy looks at the three pillars of institutions – regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive. The basis of legitimacy for the regulatory pillar is that it is backed up by legal sanction. For the normative pillar, it is morally governed. For the cultural-cognitive pillar, it is recognizable, comprehensible, and culturally supported.

Other scholars have tried to simplify these abstract constructs in ways that ordinary people can understand.

Malcolm Gladwell quotes one such explanation in his book David and Goliath.

“…legitimacy is based on three things. First, the people who are asked to obey authority must feel like they have a voice–that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law must be predictable. There must be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow is going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority must be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.” (I have slightly re-written this part).

Let us consider the three pillars as simplified in the paragraph above.

Why do we lack self-discipline?

As ordinary people, do we have a voice? The answer is a resounding no. Who listens to us? Are empty slogans and ear-catching promises driven by peoples’ voices or driven from the top to get into the seats of power?

Let me give you an example. On a busy street in the city of Bangalore, a high median separates the lanes. What was considered not to be a part of Bangalore at the turn of the century is the hub of commercial activity today. Two-wheelers are parked in the space meant for pedestrians. And yet, at any time of the day, you can see people driving two-wheelers on the remaining pedestrian space and in the direction opposite to the flow of traffic. The experience makes you wonder whether we have even an iota of self-discipline as a society. Wait, you haven’t heard the worst part. At the corner, half a dozen policemen are busy stopping vehicles for all kinds of reasons. When they can impose hefty fines on the spot on those driving without a helmet or without documents, what prevents them from seizing the vehicles of those driving on the space meant for pedestrians? I have witnessed elderly people pointing out to the insanity of what they see to the authorities. Does anyone listen? Do you still maintain we have a voice?

If laws are not predictable, how can we survive?

Is the law predictable? Again, the answer is no. The tax laws in the USA were slightly modified last year – after more than 25 years. The IRS does not conduct raids and make it into the front pages of The New York Times. In fact, to raid someone’s place, the IRS must obtain a court order. All their communications are sent by ordinary post. If you have a grievance, there is someone to listen to you and help you. The Reserve Bank of India, in its wisdom, makes an order on February 12 relating to “stressed assets.” The highest court in the land, in its wisdom, promptly strikes the order down. Those of you who were around in 1975 know that the internal emergency was declared at midnight. Major policy decisions, that have far-reaching consequences, are announced without any application of mind. Just read the analysis in a periodical published just this morning. One scheme announced by a major political party will swallow more money than the total revenue of the government in a few years. Since economics is all about trade-offs, would someone care to explain which other scheme will be chopped to make way for the grand announcement? Where is predictability in law-making when you can impose taxes retro-actively?

Source: IMF and OECD

The most worrisome is the third pillar. On the one hand, non-performing-assets of banks are at an all-time high. Major public sector enterprises are bleeding. As indeed are many high-profile private sector companies. Billionaires who have allegedly misused and abused the system roam in swanky suits in the capitals of the world. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people languish in jails for a decade or more without a trial. Their incarceration is several times the punishment they might have received if a trial had been completed. How can you say the system is fair? If you have the resources, you can get a hearing in an hour. If not, you can rot for years.

Thus, in democracies across the world, you can witness a visible decline and, in some cases, the death of legitimacy.


Where do we go from here?

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