Posted by: hobbesonafob | June 2, 2009

Too legit to quit – Political Legitimacy

The venerable M.C. Hammer once stated the following:

Too legit… Too legit to quit (hey…hey…) Too legit…too
legit… Too legit to quit…(hey…) Too legit… Too legit to quit
(too legit…) too legit… too legit to quit…

Feel free to listen to the whole song while you go over this post:

One can only assume that Mr. Hammer was rapping about the importance of political legitimacy. Unfortunately his lyrics were too metaphorical, so here is my attempt to elucidate the political aspects in Mr. Hammer’s music.

If we accept that the state is diaphanous (because other social organizations are able to gain control of the state, as if it were a masque or a phase that — under the right conditions — all organizations are eligible for under the right circumstances), then we must figure out what distinguishes a state from a CCNA (contentious and coercive non-state actor). I would like to set forth that political legitimacy is what sets a state apart from a CCNA. I am taking a relativist perspective on statehood, but I think that this stance is more accurate than believing that the U.N. should determine what states are and are not (by that definition there are only 15% of “strong” states in the U.N. — the rest are failing or fragile). That being said, I should explain what I mean by political legitimacy.

First Point: There are Multiple Social Contracts in a Given State

The first building block of political legitimacy is found in the idea of social contracts and it has been a thread throughout Western tradition. Contractarian theory is applicable to a population-centric view of political legitimacy and it will be used to develop an understanding of political legitimacy. 

Before we delve into contractarian theory, let’s take a look at a personal example: ourselves. This idea can be addressed if we ask ourselves the following question: under what circumstances would I annul my social contract with the state? In this sense annulling a social contract with the state would result in breaking the state’s laws. If I go out and protest, I’m not breaking my social contract with the state because it is my right to go out and protest — as long as I don’t get all illegal about it. But if somebody were to go out and damage critical infrastructures, then that person has annulled their social contract with the state (although he or she may believe that the state has broken the contract first). Because we can apply this to every individual, there are essentially multiple social contracts in any given polity. Multiple contracts are highlight by the contractarian philosophers.

The interrelated propositions made by contractarian philosophers, posit that the state is essentially an agreement between individuals. According to Thomas Hobbes, “A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree and covenant, and every one with every one…”(1). For John Locke, political society is created when:

Men being, as has been said, by Nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this Estate, and subjected to the Political Power of another, without his own Consent. The only way whereby any one devests himself of Natural Liberty, and puts on the bonds of Civil Society is by agreeing with other men to Joyn and united into a Community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure Enjoyment of their Properties, and a greater Security against any that are not of it (2).

The common premise throughout contractarian theory is that the state is essentially a form of agreement between individuals. It is generally accepted that the Lockean concept of the social contract, and Rousseau’s notion of the general will, ultimately derive from the population. It is the Hobbesian idea of the Sovereign that often gets misrepresented as a source of authority without population-centric legitimacy.

The Hobbesian contract is important for my characterization of legitimacy. Jean Hampton critiques Hobbes’ contract by highlighting the inconsistencies between Hobbesian psychology (individuals acting on their self-perseverance) and the concept of the Sovereign. Asking how the Sovereign is given the power to punish individuals, Hampton believes that if we follow Hobbesian psychology, it is impossible for one to punish his or her self due to the Sovereign’s request because that is acting contrarily to “our psychological propensity to preserve ourselves”(3). However, it does make sense if the Sovereign relies on other individuals to enforce his rule by punishing others: “As long as we are all prepared and able to obey the sovereign’s orders to punish someone…he has the power he needs to coerce us into doing whatever he likes” (4). The implication to Hampton’s conclusion, is that:

there is no one-time social contract either among the subjects or between every subject and the sovereign that is necessary to empower the sovereign. The only contracts necessary for his empowerment are the enforceable ones that he makes (only) with certain subjects (and not the whole population) as a way of enlarging or making permanent his enforcement cadre, and possible the nonenforceable ones he might need to make with certain individuals in order to create a mutually effective enforcement cadre. [italics by original author] (5).

Ultimately, there are multiple social contracts in a given society — even one where there is an absolute Sovereign or when there is one form of law.

I’ll deal with another characteristic of political legitimacy in the next post.

Until then, I recommend to read this write-up on the Taliban’s legal system by Patrick Devenney from Foreign Policy:

Works Cited

1. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan. ed Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Inc., 1994), 110.

2. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), 330-1.

3. Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition (New York, Cambridge Publishing Press, 1986), 174.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 185.





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