Skip to content

Political Analysis – Continued: Politics – Government – Authority and Legitimacy

June 23, 2011

What is politics? Politics can be understood as the process of resolving conflicts and deciding, as political scientist Harold Lasswell put it in his classic defi nition, “who gets what, when, and how.”1 More specifi cally, politics is the struggle over power or influence within organizations or informal groups that can grant benefi ts or privileges. We can identify many such groups and organizations. In families, all members may meet together to decide on values, priorities, and actions. Wherever there is a community that makes decisions through formal or informal rules, politics exists. For example, when a church decides to construct a new building or hire a new minister, the decision may be made politically. Politics can be found in schools, social groups, and any other organized collection of individuals. Of all the organizations that are controlled by political activity, however, the most important is the government.
What is the government? Certainly, it is an institution—that is, an ongoing organization that performs certain functions for society and that has a life separate from the lives of the individuals who are part of it at any given moment in time. The government can be defined as an institution within which decisions are made that resolve conflicts and allocate benefits and privileges. The government is also the
preeminent institution within society because it has the ultimate authority for making these decisions.
Perhaps the best way to assess the need for government is to examine circumstances in which government, as we normally understand it, does not exist. What happens when multiple groups compete with each other for power within a society? There are places around the world where such circumstances exist. A current example is the African nation of Somalia. Since 1991, Somalia has not had a central government. The regions of the country are divided among several warlords and factions, each controlling a block of territory. When Somali warlords compete for the control of a particular locality, the result is war, generalized devastation, and famine. Normally, multiple armed forces compete by fighting, and the absence of a unifi ed government is equivalent to civil war.
The Need for Security
As the example of Somalia shows, one of the original purposes of government is the maintenance of security, or order. By keeping the peace, the government protects the people from violence at the hands of private or foreign armies. It dispenses justice and protects the people from the violence of criminals. If order is not present, it is not possible for the government to provide any of the other benefi ts that people expect from it. Consider the situation in Iraq. In March and April 2003, U.S. and British coalition forces entered that nation, which was governed by the dictator Saddam Hussein. The relatively small number of coalition troops had little trouble in defeating their military
opponents, but they experienced serious difficulties in establishing order within Iraq when the war was over.
Once it became clear that Saddam Hussein was no longer in control of the country, widespread looting broke out.
Ordinary citizens entered government buildings and made off with the furniture. Looters stole crucial supplies from hospitals, making it difficult to treat Iraqis injured during the war. Thieves stripped the copper from electrical power lines, which made it impossible to restore electrical power quickly. A lack of security bedeviled Iraq for years following the initial occupation. Only as security and order were restored was it possible to begin reconstructing Iraqi society. Order is a political value to which we will return later in this chapter.
Limiting Government Power
A complete collapse of order and security, as seen in Somalia, is actually an uncommon event. Much more common is the reverse—too much government control. In 2009, the human rights organization Freedom House judged that forty-two of the world’s countries were “not free.” These nations contain 34 percent of the world’s population.
Such countries may be controlled by individual dictators. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was one obvious example. …
In all of these examples, the individual or group running the country cannot be removed by legal means. Freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial are typically absent. Dictatorial governments often torture or execute their opponents. Such regimes may also suppress freedom of religion.
Protection from the violence of domestic criminals or foreign armies is not enough. Citizens also need protection from abuses of power by their own government. To protect the liberties of the people, it is necessary to limit the powers of the government.
Liberty—the greatest freedom of the individual consistent with the freedom of other individuals—is a second major political value, along with order.
Authority and Legitimacy
Every government must have authority—that is, the right and power to enforce its decisions. Ultimately, the government’s authority rests on its control of the armed forces and the police. Almost no one in the United States, however, bases their day-to-day activities on fear of the government’s enforcement powers. Most people, most
of the time, obey the law because this is what they have always done. Also, if they did not obey the law, they would face the disapproval of friends and family. Consider an example: Do you avoid injuring your friends or stealing their possessions because you are afraid of the police—or because if you undertook these actions, you would no longer
have friends? Under normal circumstances, the government’s authority has broad popular support. People accept the government’s right to establish rules and laws. When authority is broadly accepted, we say that it has legitimacy. Authority without legitimacy is a recipe for trouble. Iraq can again serve as an example. After the end of Saddam
Hussein’s regime, many Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs (the former politically dominant group in Iraq), did not accept the legitimacy of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority or the elected Iraqi government that followed it. For many years, terrorists were able to organize attacks on coalition troops or even on innocent civilians, knowing
that their neighbors would not report their activities. Although the government of Iraq has since gained a greater degree of legitimacy, terrorism remains a problem.
Source: Steffen W. Schmidt, et al. American Government and Politics Today: 2010–2011 Brief Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011) at 1-3.


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: