Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Sources of Bureaucratic Legitimacy, Part I

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One of the oft-repeated arguments between Democrats and Republicans in Washington is the size and scope of government. Obscure bureaucracies often find themselves in the crosshairs of such debates about relevance and scarcity of funds. However, even the view of limited government still accepts the existence of bureaucratic control and occasional regulation. In a sense, the world consists of interacting regimes of bureaucracies, both global and domestic. Like the legitimacy of liberal democracy itself, bureaucratic legitimacy appears in no danger of imminent collapse. Even the occasional illiberal tendencies of bureaucracies have been insufficient to generate a “legitimation crisis” like that discussed by Jürgen Habermas. Bureaucratic orders continue to (placidly?) structure the terms of both national and international organization, from economic to political policy, irrespective of the considerable problems it occasionally produces for individuals, social aggregates, or entire nations. What is the enduring source of bureaucratic consensus? What are the social mechanisms whereby people in many of the world’s most capable states give their consent to bureaucratic authority? Specifically, how do bureaucracies gain an intersubjectively or interdependently shared public belief in their legitimacy? Surprisingly, this is a neglected question in the ubiquitous arguments over the size and scope of American government.

Bureaucratic order draws its legitimacy from a synthesis of rational-instrumental logic, à la Weber, and ideational factors. Taking Weber’s understanding of “affective rationality” (discussed below), bureaucratic legitimacy contains stability in a cognitive source as well—the structure of intersubjective public beliefs that, once generated, circumscribe permissible and legitimate social and economic behavior. My goal is to inquire into the mechanisms that bring people to accept bureaucratic legitimacy—intersubjectively shared social meanings—and therefore, to accept bureaucratic outcomes as legitimate, despite the nettlesome affect these decisions may have on their individual lives. In other words, how does apolitical bureaucratic decision-making, as opposed to political decision-making in a legislature, gain authority in domestic and international life? This pursuit inevitably involves two distinct questions (which will constitute two separate posts): First, how is it generated? In turn, how does it become part of a public belief? To answer the former question I turn to the famous German sociologist, Max Weber; for the latter, to modern British sociologist, Anthony Giddens.

Many international political economists in today’s discourse about neoliberal “market authority,” (similar in its entrenched legitimacy to bureaucracy) advance a subtle, creeping view of power. That is, power unchallenged is tantamount to power legitimated, at least implicitly. Implicit power then becomes authority, so the argument goes. However, this assumption, although it may apply to some aspects of bureaucratic authority, ignores Weber’s assertion that authority always implies a normative belief: actors and institutions ought to be obeyed. How do bureaucracies reach the normative level of legitimacy? A simple empirical observation about citizen compliance by no means provides evidence of legitimate authority.

Moreover, legitimate authority is rarely seen in tandem with coercion. Occasionally, authority relationships may begin as relationships of coercion, but they rarely end that way, if they are to be lasting and stable. “Authority always demands obedience,” Hannah Arendt posits, “Yet, authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used authority itself has failed. If authority is to be defined at all…it must be in contradistinction to coercion.” What is striking about bureaucratic authority, then, is that its coercive, disciplinary capacity is often unnecessary to induce citizen compliance. Thus, Arendt and Weber point us in a better direction: authority is largely a social construction. It requires the consent of those under its purview, and furthermore, that that consent be conferred upon the institutional actors who comprise the authoritative body.

Max Weber’s sociology links authority to the legitimate exercise of power. People’s beliefs about legitimacy can determine the structure of political institutions, which in turn engender social orders built thereupon. Because legitimating principles underpin the normative social order, Weber sees the provenance of legitimacy in the norms upon which these legitimating principles base themselves. He defines norms as “rules of conduct towards which actors orient their behavior…the essence of authority is a relationship between two or more actors in which the commands of certain actors are treated as binding on others.” Thus, rules derived from norms have the ability to legitimate social order and voluntary compliance.

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber famously explicates three forms of legitimacy, namely, traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal or rational-bureaucratic legitimacy. Importantly, Weber classifies forms of authority by the corresponding claims of legitimacy made by authorities in the forms of traditional, charismatic, and legal authority. Weber’s forms of authority then follow the types of norms that legitimate these forms. The total institutional structure underlying ordered interaction is always some amalgam of norms and authority. Types of authority develop invariably in relation to norms that have a legitimating effect.

In other writings, Weber outlines four types of (ideal-typical) rational social action: instrumental or purposive rationality, value rationality, affect rationality (emotion), and traditional rationality, corresponding neatly to his different categories of legitimacy. Instrumental or purposive rationality occurs when an actor chooses ends and means rationally. Value rationality occurs when an actor uses rational orientation to achieve a goal that constitutes some absolute value. Affective or emotional rationality occurs when an actor makes decisions based on his or her emotional state of being instead of weighing means and ends. Finally, traditional action occurs when an actor allows customary habits of thought related to culture, religion, etc to guide his behavior.

Bureaucratic authority is legitimated therefore, by both affect, or emotion, and reason. The prevailing concept of legitimation depends on both ideas and circumstances. This manifests itself on the political Left, for example, in tumescent trust and awe in the state and the bureaucratic process as a means to solve societal problems. For others, however, bureaucratic authority may be rational in the name of prosperity, protection, and prudent regulation, inter alia.

Thus, Max Weber’s “sociology of legitimacy” and authority helps us understand how institutions claim the authority they do. However, Weber’s arguments do not go far enough to answer our second question: how do authority claims become public, or part of the public consciousness? I turn to this question in part II of this post.

N.B. The following books were cited: Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, Thomas McCarthy (trans.) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975); Hannah Arendt, “What was Authority,” in Carl J. Friedrich (ed.), Authority (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958); Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), see ch. 3; Max Weber, “Basic Sociological Concepts,” in Sam Whimster (ed.), The Essential Weber: A Reader (London: Routledge).


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  1. […] In part I, I argued that Max Weber’s “sociology of legitimacy” helps us understand the authority claims of modern bureaucracies.  Weber argues that authority generates itself by social construction founded upon universally accepted norms and beliefs.  This culminates in three main forms of legitimacy—traditional, charismatic, and legal authority—and corresponds best to affective and rational social action.  However, Weber’s theory is insufficient to explain how legitimacy pervades the public consciousness, becoming part of an intersubjectively or interdependently shared structure of public beliefs. […]

  2. […] how solidified bureaucratic society is—I have written about this in other posts, as well as the sources of this legitimacy—but how ubiquitous bureaucracy has altered society’s definition of leadership—and the […]

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