Legitimacy: the difference between gang and government


What is the difference between a “gang” and a “government”?

Robert Higgs at The Independent Institute writes a thought provoking essay on “Legitimacy.” According to Higgs,

[legitimacy is the notion that] suggests that people view the government – its institutional composition, its personnel, and its conduct – as morally acceptable or proper, whereas they view the mafia – at least in its conduct – as morally unacceptable or improper.

Many governments claim that their legitimacy rests on the Lockean grounds of consent of the governed, but in practice this consent proves to be highly problematic because the governed population is rarely, if ever, presented with the choice of being ruled or not being ruled under the established governmental institutions. Regimes use public education, propaganda, judicial decisions (rendered by the government’s own judges), political elections, public hearings, and other artifices to imbue the people with the idea that their rulers are legitimate authorities taking legitimate actions.

In reality, the so-called consent of the governed consists for the most part of mere acquiescence – a widespread resignation that signifies only that most people would rather endure the government’s robbery and bullying than openly resist it at the risk of injury, imprisonment, and death. The people’s acquiescence, in many cases a sort of sullen, resentful, implicit surrender, hardly endows the rulers with any moral approbation.

If a government succeeds in remaining in power for a long time, however, many people may come to accept it simply by force of habit. In some eyes, it will be seen as beyond question merely because it has “always been there” and its actions amount to “how things are.”

In any event, the ostensible bright-line demarcation of legitimacy that separates the government from ordinary criminal gangs fades and blurs under close inspection. It does not disappear completely, however, because for some portion of the ruled population, the government’s efforts to sell its legitimacy do succeed. These beguiled individuals are the ones who volunteer for service in the government’s palace guards—its armed forces, police, and other agencies of physical violence and intimidation—and who willingly send their children to be sacrificed in the government’s foreign wars and other adventures.

From one country to another, the division of society between the hopelessly beguiled and the merely intimidated varies greatly. All governments seek to move the demarcation line so that a greater proportion of those it rules falls in the former class. Thus, all governments carry on ceaseless efforts to convince the people of their competence, good intentions, close representation of the people’s desires, and morally impeccable standards of conduct. Although these efforts provide little more than fodder for bitter laughter among individuals with open eyes and unsullied hearts, they succeed often enough to keep the rulers afloat as they continue their plunder and repression. Their prevailing legitimacy, however, is rarely anything more than ersatz or counterfeit as a sound foundation for a government whose composition, personnel, and conduct are generally desired and approved.

So, at what point are we between a government of which we “approve” and the “ersatz”, “counterfeit” version?

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About Mike
A resident of the “30 square miles surrounded by reality,” I spend most of my time teaching economics and statistics to undergraduate students. I enjoy, naturally, economics and business, but also science (I was once an astronomical observatory assistant), politics, photography, food, travel and sports. Madison has grown quite a bit since 1978 when Governor Lee Dreyfus made that remark. According to Wikipedia, Madison is 67.3 square miles of land and 16 square miles of water. Visit http://thisgotmyattention.wordpress.com/about/ for one of my favorite views of the isthmus. Or, why not come visit us! http://visitmadison.com

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