The Legitimacy of the State. From where does the state derive its authority?

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The legitimacy of the state

From where does the state derive its authority? A widespread view exclaims:

It is the strongest who rule. Whatever anyone says, it is the ability to use force that compels obedience. Look at history: when power fails the state collapses.

This position can be supported by a simple argument. Any state must be able to ensure that the citizens respect its laws. Therefore, a state must be seen to have the power to require compliance. Power is therefore the essential requirement for authority. Without power there is no authority. It is not merely that authority needs to be able to pressure in order that its writ shall run, but that finally it is power that is the truth of authority, the reality that lies behind appearances. It is therefore worthwhile to investigate what we mean by power.  

We can relate the claim that ‘power is the truth of authority’ to an example. In a Wild West town people are living together for their mutual benefit. The peace is kept by a powerful agent, the sheriff. Without him to protect them they might fall prey to bandits so they pay him well and support him when the bad guys come to town. Then everything depends on the sheriff being better at gunplay than his opponents. If he is not then they will overwhelm him, the bandits will impose their will on the townsfolk. Force, not sentiment, is decisive. So the moral seems clear: it is the most powerful who rule.

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‘Power’ is the ability to make things happen. In political and social contexts, it means getting people to do one’s will. This could be achieved by sheer physical force, in which case the people being pressured have no choice because an external agent overrides their independent ability to act. But more often the mere knowledge of what power might do is enough to ensure compliance. This is true even in cases where very violent and unwelcome power establishes itself, for example Nazi style occupation, since most people choose to preserve their lives and property by doing what they are ...

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