On Power, Authority, and Legitimacy

One of the supreme guiding principles of Tradition and neoreaction is that of the restoration of right order within society.  We live in an age in which far too many ideologies and political movements are seeking to “immanentise their eschatons.”  Unfortunately, since you can only have one utopia at a time, this struggle of theories leads to a great deal of social disorder.  This is especially the case when many of these ideologies refuse to bring themselves into accord with fundamental realities about the way societies, and even human beings, really work.  Those of us on the reactionary Right desire to obviate the obvious results of all of this confusion by seeking a return back to hierarchy and order.

As a result, we reject the innovations which have arisen out of the Enlightenment and its revolutionary bastard children.  The social disorder introduced by the false god of “Liberty” leads to revolution, passes through democracy, and results in the entropic heat death of a society addicted to equalitarianism and radicalised individualism.  It is toward this end that all of the children of Whiggery – whether modern liberalism or modern conservatism/libertarianism – inevitably regress.

Yet, what will really restore order?  A partial answer to this question, at least, will be provided by gaining a right understanding of the relationship between power, authority, and legitimacy within a society.  These three concepts are often conflated in modern writing.  Yet, they are not the same.  However, they are related in that they form a three step ladder ascending toward good governance and right social order.

First, some definitions are needed.

Power – This word denotes the ability of an individual, group, or organisation to enforce his or their will upon others.  Moldbug gives what I believe to be a similar, though more circumscribed, definition when he defined power as, “…the ability to change the rules, or to clarify them when no rules exist.”   This is in accord with my definition above – obeying “rules” (i.e. modes of prescribed behaviour) involves the subsumption of one’s will to that of another.  Making rules that others have to follow is to have power over them.

Authority – This concept involves an individual, group, or organisation having the institutionalised right or privilege to be able to exercise power.

Legitimacy – This term describes the fundamental propriety of the exercise of power and authority by an individual, group, or organisation, this being determined by accord with genuine natural law and long-standing traditional social and religious usages.

From these definitions, we see a progression upwards: something is –> something is legal –> something is right.

Let’s illustrate these concepts.

Look at power first.  Let’s say you were walking along a city street minding your own business and a man steps out of an alley with a gun, points it at you, demands your wallet, and you have no means to either disarm or evade him.  This man has you in his power.  He has the credible ability to injure or kill you should you not comply with his command.  He can enforce his will upon your own.  In Moldbugian terms, he has changed the rules such that you now play his game (give him your wallet or else) rather than your own (keeping your wallet and minding your own business).  Obviously, the robber has no authority to rob you – certainly no law has been passed or decree issued which declares that robbers may rob victims of their wallets.  Equally as obvious, he has no legitimacy for his action.  Indeed, the whole of human civilisation shows that robbery and theft are to be considered bad things, ones which have no moral or ethical support in religious codes, philosophical schools, or royal policies.  This robber is exercising power, but nothing else.

Now on to authority.  Imagine that you are driving across the country, and therefore are carrying a large amount of cash on your person for incidental spending and so forth.  You get pulled over and are searched by the police officer on some “technically” legal probable cause reasoning.  He finds your cash and confiscates it on the (obviously spurious) grounds that you might be a drug dealer and should not be allowed to enjoy your ill-gotten gains.  You may be able to get it back after going through a lengthy court battle which will cost you five times as much as the cash was worth.  Most people, simply relying on common sense and ingrained fundamental principles of justice nearly as old as humanity itself, would observe that this is a grossly unjust, and therefore illegitimate, action on the part of the police officer.  Yet, if you’re in any one of but a handful of states, the officer’s actions are not only legal, but are likely encouraged by his department and the state’s laws.  So, while the confiscation of your property would lack legitimacy, it carries the authority of institutionally-applied law, as well as the simple raw power that if you resist, the officer can kill you or put you in a cage for “obstruction of justice.”

Next, let’s discuss legitimacy.  Imagine a king against whom a group of rebels revolted with the intent of overthrowing the royal government.  They fail and are arrested, and the king decrees their execution, which takes place the next morning.  In this situation, all three concepts are in play.  The king, of course, has the physical power to execute them – he tells the headchopper to do his thing and he does it.  The king also has the institutional authority to execute those who commit such offences of lese majeste – in fact, there has never been a governmental system in the world which has tolerated genuine treason against itself.  Here, however, we find that the king also has legitimacy for his action.  He is not merely relying on raw power or statutory legality.  He also has the further backing of longstanding human tradition.  Kings rule by sovereign authority, and this has been the case for much of humanity and for most of human history.  Even non-monarchical systems have still implicitly recognised this fact in their adoption of elements of executive power accompanied by lese majeste into their own constitutions.  This legitimacy transcends mere law – a society does not need to pass a law each time a king is to rule, the king rules because doing so is natural and morally (rather than merely legally) prescriptive.  In the Christian realm, this legitimacy is enhanced even further – a right understanding of Genesis 9:6, Jeremiah 30:21, Jonah 3:7, Romans 13:1-7, and I Peter 2:17 combine to provide a pretty substantial case for the legitimate authority of kings and aristocrats.

So back now to the question of good social order.  To have this, each of these elements much be present in a social institution for it to be well-ordered.  If one wishes to look at it from a fractal perspective, this good order much be present at the top (government) and should be faithfully reproduced downward through smaller and smaller (though not necessarily less important) units of society – subsidiary governments, the churches, the männerbunden, the families, and so forth.  The power, authority, and legitimacy that a king exercises at the top should be faithfully mirrored in the power, authority, and legitimacy enjoyed by a father and husband in his family.   When these elements are all present, a society will reflect the sort of social harmony that we desire.  Once the obstacles of disorder are removed, relationships even between individuals will be set on a right footing – Confucius’ five relationships will be ordered properly: the ruler and the subject, the father and the son, the husband and the wife, the older brother and the younger, and the elder friend with the junior.  Indeed, even the individual life that yields to these will itself be rightly ordered in comparison to the sort of disorder, shame, and cravenness so common in modern Western lives today.

The fact that so much of the modern life lacks one or more of these elements explains so much of what we see in today’s entropic societies.  Such situations arise, most often, when the higher element exists, but is not built on the foundation of the lower.

For instance, the breakdown of the modern Western family rests on the fact that while fathers and husbands still possess the moral legitimacy to rule their own families (something which cannot be taken away by a government or other agency), modern society has assiduously worked to undermine and remove his legal right to do so (authority), and even his power to do so.  This would be an inverted system.

In some cases, disorder arises because none of these factors exist.  For instance, most Western churches find themselves in the unenviable position of effectively possessing none of these three elements: they can’t or won’t enforce their doctrines through church discipline and/or excommunication, they have foolishly adopted the “separation of church and state” mindset that prevents them from exerting any authority in their societies, and because they have essentially abdicated their stand for the fundamental basis of Christian tradition – the Bible – they no longer rest in any position of moral or spiritual legitimacy.  This comprises a non-existent system.

Sometimes, the lower elements exist, but miss the vital cap of legitimacy.For instance, take dictatorship, which is often confused with monarchy by democrats and other demotists.  The commonness of a mistake does not lend it greater credibility, however.  Monarchy has a long and venerable history in human society which gives it access to legitimacy as a substantiating function.  Dictatorship does not enjoy this prestige, and therefore should not be confused with legitimate monarchy.  The fact of strong executive authority and power is not enough.  A dictatorship lacks legitimacy, and in fact, most likely exists because of the overthrow of a long-established and traditional government.  This was the case with the tyrants of ancient Greece and is as true with modern nouveau pouvoir dictators, whether they call themselves socialists or fascists.  Their basis is founded upon some form of “enlightenment” philosophical system, while monarchy, aristocracy, right order are all founded on prescriptive social tradition and millennia of rightful tenure.  This would be an example of an incomplete system.

All three of these systems – inverted, non-existent, and incomplete – contribute in their own ways to the destruction of social cohesion and orderliness.

Hence, a return to right order and the rejection of social disorder must necessarily include the acceptance of these these three elements, and their application to whatever society will arise upon the ashes of the present (and fundamentally unsustainable) one.  Essentially, this means a return to hierarchy, to patriarchy, to a robust role for religion in civil society.  It also means that whatever form any post-Great Reset societies might take, if they wish to maintain order and avoid the mistakes of their fallen predecessors, they must invoke a return back to traditional and prescriptive forms, rather than further speculative experimentation with utopian or other novel governmental and social systems.  We have no eschatons to bring to fruition, no “end of history” to force upon the world.  If we want order, then the future must be the past.


12 thoughts on “On Power, Authority, and Legitimacy

  1. I think this is maybe a useful framework for understanding the world as we want it to be, but not really a useful framework for practically understanding power.

    I think you’ve split into three a thing that is really one.

    Power (legitimacy, sovereignty, authority, legality, whatever) is a game-theoretical concept, usually a Schelling point, even in the degenerate case. Let me restate.

    Power, properly defined, is the ability to cause people to act in ways you want them to act. Note the first assumption here is that people have agency; if you have ‘power’ over something without agency, you don’t have power, you possess a tool.

    This is best described and illustrated through the examples you gave.

    The man with the gun has power over you because he tells you to give him your wallet and you do. You do this because you have gone quickly (unconsciously, usually) through a chain of hypoetheticals and preferences that looks like this: “If I don’t give him my wallet, there is a high risk he will shoot me. I want to be not-shot more than I want my wallet. Therefore, I will give him my wallet.” Furthermore, the man with the gun has chosen to create this situation because he correctly understands that you will go through this chain of hypotheticals and preferences in this situation.

    We can see this more clearly by examining the limiting cases. The man will not pull a gun on you if there is a squad of policemen standing nearby, because he will correctly understand that the balance of hypothetical actions will change in such a way as not to get him what he wants. (E.g. the police will arrest and/or shoot him, you will remain with your wallet.) Similarly, sometimes when a man pulls a gun on another the other man will refuse or attack. This is because the other man has decided that a different balance of risk of wallet-loss vs. risk-of-being-shot is preferable. (Maybe he has a LOT of money in his wallet, or he doesn’t think the mugger actually has the guts to shoot him.) Finally, if you refuse the mugger’s demand he may very well shoot you. Shooting you is using a tool to remove your agency and turn you simply into a means for the acquiring of money.

    How does this scale up? I’m glad you asked. (No, I know you’re not asking. You’re smart enough to see where I’m going with this. It’s a rhetorical device; allow me my flourishes for my own amusement.)

    In your example on legitimacy (yes I’m going out of order here) the King decrees the death of a group of rebels and this decree is carried out. He could go out there in person with an axe, but that muddies the waters a bit (though it doesn’t change the essence) so we’ll leave it be. Instead, he orders a hangman to do it, and he does it. In either case, it takes more than a hangman. The King (unless he’s Superman) didn’t go out and personally subdue the rebels. He didn’t personally build the prison, and he didn’t personally guard it to make sure his erstwhile rebels wouldn’t escape. Possibly he did personally pass judgment on them, but possibly there was a man in a black gown with a huge horsehair wig to do it while the King was out hunting deer.

    Why did all these people do these things? Because in each case they decided that obeying the King would lead to their best outcomes. The soldiers who fought the rebels did so because they preferred the payoff vs risk of fighting to the payoff vs risk of desertion. Likewise with the prison architect, guards, judge, and headman. How did they all decide that ‘follow the King’s orders’ was the best way? After all, if they’d all made their own individual decisions, the King would have no power in this system.

    The answer is that the King (or, more generally, obeying-government-headed-by-Kings-of-whom-this-one-is-ours) is a Schelling point. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_point_(game_theory))

    As it says on the Wikipedia, a Schelling point is a solution to a game-theoretical problem on which people will tend to standardize in the absence of reliable communication. So, if you’re in New York and you need to meet someone, but you can’t contact that someone and you haven’t set up somewhere beforehand, you don’t just sit in your local deli. You’re liable to bum around Times Square, or Grand Central Station. That’s because Times Square or Grand Central Station are Schelling points: places you expect the other guy will choose in absence of you telling him you’re planning to be somewhere specific.

    (You probably know all about what a Schelling point is already. I’m an academic; I get paid to over-explain things.)

    So, in this view, what is authority? It’s the definition of things you can tell people to do that they will do. If your authority in this sphere is legitimate, they will further feel that it’s right that you should be able to do this, which is nothing other than saying that they agree with you in this coordination game and don’t have an interest in changing the rules.

    On to the last example: authority without legitimacy. I don’t like the word ‘legal’ in this context because all that means is you’re using the law as a coordination device. If a policeman confiscates your cash, and you feel that he has done so without just cause, this is much the same as the first example (the man taking your wallet). The main difference is, you believe in a coordination device (the law) that says that the policeman should be allowed to do so. However, if the inconvenience is bad enough, or happens often enough, you might start believing less in the coordination device. If this happens to enough people, folks start grumbling, and all of a sudden there’s a competing coordination device of “policemen shouldn’t do this because XYZ, let’s string them all up from trees until they stop.” Depending on the exact situation, if this other coordination device gets strong enough, you have a preference cascade, and suddenly policemen end up good friends with deciduous vegetables. When this happens against a government, we call it a rebellion or a revolution – depending on whether or not it succeeded.

    To round off, this brings us to religion. Religion is a coordination device, but it has a special place. Religion tells us about God, and God is powerful enough that even the King can’t make Him do what he wants, because the King has no power over God, viz. the King cannot craft a situation so as to make God decide that His best course of action is to do what the King wants. This is in large part the practical effect of religious morality on government: the religion tells us the rules by which God wants us to play, and we all have to under fear of punishment (and promise of reward). Even the King has to listen to God on the subjects where God has a say, and he can’t bribe, cajole, or threaten his way out of God’s power structure. Religion puts the ultimate power structure out of human hands, and thereby provides stability and legitimacy that are not easily challenged. (And thus, a way to evaluate the legitimacy of a King. Does he commit flagrant offenses against God? Then he’s not a rightful King.) It’s a powerful coordination device for precisely that reason. It can make even the most powerful of men (the King) coordinate in the same game.

    In this model, governments necessarily manipulate the legitimacy layer for their own survival. If a government loses legitimacy, sooner or later it will be overthrown by the people it attempts to govern. There are different ways to do this, though. You could be a government that people under you like because you’re beneficent. You could be a government that people don’t necessarily like per se, but they recognize that you have ‘the right’ to do what you’re doing, due to some claims of religion or education about the nature of rulership. You could be a government that nobody likes, but you constantly disrupt coordination between your subjects through various means (e.g. secret police, mass education, political correctness). In practice, most governments are a mix of the three.

    Notes and disclaimers:

    A lot of the verbiage above includes words like ‘decision’ and ‘risk’ and ‘logic’ and ‘understand’. This is unfortunate, an artifact of the English language. These ‘decisions’ are not necessarily rational. In fact, for a vast majority of the time and a vast majority of people, these ‘decisions’ are largely emotional and/or unconscious. You don’t think to yourself as you get in the car, “Which side of the road will I drive on today? Hmm, I’ll drive on the left, because I’m in the UK, and I think the risk of getting hit by oncoming traffic or being pulled over by a policman isn’t worth the benefit of getting a slightly different view on the way to work.” You just drive on the left without thinking about it. Same goes, most of the time, for obeying the government.

    I talk about religion above from a practical standpoint regarding its effect on governance. None of this is meant to imply that this is ALL religion is, or that there are no truths or falsities in religion, or that examining the truth or falsehood of religious tenets is unimportant. It’s just that none of these other questions has much bearing on the point at hand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, one further point I forgot to add to the disclaimers above.

      None of this should be taken to mean I believe in the myth of the ‘consent of the governed’. Not only does consent imply conscious decision, which none of what I described above does, but also you can manipulate Schelling points without people assenting to (or even knowing about) the manipulation. Indeed, governments do it all the time.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. LOL, true. Let’s me know that people are reading and thinking about the posts, which is my purpose.

      Seriously, though, this response should be it’s own blog post. Please don’t misunderstand, this isn’t meant to be snarky – you should start your own blog (if you haven’t already). Comments like yours shouldn’t be wasted by being buried in the comments section of a rinky-dink 50 hits a day blog.


      1. Thanks for the kind words.

        I’d start a blog, but I have other things going on in my life, like trying to figure out quantum mechanics. Besides, any blog I start would be a rinky-dink 50 hits a day blog, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Titus,

    This is not about your article but a few other ones. I have noticed that you propose that an aristocratic republic is the most natural form of government in America, and that an absolute monarchy is not compatible with America’s liberty tradition. However, you also said that America’s ethnic component (white only) have been changed with new European immigrants who did not share the Anglo Saxon’s tradition of liberty. So, my question is: how can the future America exists as an aristocratic republic when the majority of the (white) population does not respect it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi KoN,

      I’d point to the relatively good success that we had in assimilating the (nearly completely) European populations who came here prior to 1965. We were able to essentially “Anglicise” them by demanding, both on the social and the governmental levels, assimilation to our culture. As such, though their genetic ancestry may be from elsewhere, these populations eventually adopted Anglo-Saxon culture, though with some hiccups along the way.

      Ask yourself this – the people you know with Italian or Hungarian or Swedish or Greek last names (presuming they are not nationals or recently immigrated) – do they still hold to the cultures of those nations, or are they more or less like you and I, exhibiting an obviously Anglo-derived set of cultural biases and mores? I’d suspect that they are Anglo in culture, which points to our previous successes.

      The problem, post-1965, is basically two-fold: 1) A greater mass of immigration from non-Western cultures who have *no* affinity for Anglo culture, even if as a distant cousin, and 2) We positively discourage efforts to require assimilation.

      The white population of this country, even if genetically diverse, I believe is much less ethnically so (using my biblical “ethnos” definition of the term), and would be suited for that Anglo (and more generally Germanic) tendency toward aristocratic republicanism.

      The non-white populations, unfortunately, not so much so.

      Liked by 1 person

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